School Improvement: An Opportunity to Examine Processes, Practices and Conditions

Steve Seward's picture

As you may know, the Michigan Department of Education has called together a group of individuals to examine the current school and district improvement processes and documentation requirements. The team is thinking abstractly about the revision of the DIP/SIP requirements and how to use the process to truly impact achievement. I have been asked to represent MASSP and am thrilled to be part of the thinking. As a result of being on the team, I have spent some time reflecting on what it takes to be thoughtful, deliberate, and purposeful about the work of improving one's school. As we all know, systems alignment and a systematic approach is imperative to all improvement efforts. Regardless of the proposed revisions to the SIP/DIP process there are key components of authentic school improvement that need to be considered.

GATHER, STUDY, PLAN, DO. This is the process many of us are familiar with when thinking about the school improvement planning flow. It seems simple enough that a novice might be able to jump-in and support a group through the improvement commitments. As we all know improvement practices go beyond filling out paperwork or racing through protocols. It takes intentional planning focused on shared processes, practices, and conditions focused on a problem statement. It takes analyzing a problem and determining the casual factors and root causes. It takes a systematic and systemic approach to ensure tier 1 fidelity with implementation. It takes prioritizing and acting with intentionality as a collective team. To move beyond compliance it takes protocols, norms, time, intention, and true reflection, as well as the belief that all learners in the system can work toward a shared outcome for success.

To GATHER means to get ready and be willing to create a problem statement, to make predictions, explore various possibilities, and surface underlying assumptions. A team must determine the problems they wish to solve throughout the analysis of current and desired outcomes. This process requires intentional planning focused on shared processes, practices and conditions. In many cases, teams are focused on measuring outcomes, however they are often ignoring the actual processes for systemic improvement. An implication many face is clarity over the shared practices and conditions that all stakeholders commit to in order to ensure implementation fidelity. This means that stakeholders hold one another accountable for measuring the outcomes related to the problem and are focused on the data and collaborative protocols. This is the first stage, Phase #1: Activate and Engage, explained by Bruce Wellman and Lara Lipton (page 3) in the article Data Conversations.

To STUDY takes analyzing a problem and determining the casual factors (page 11) and root causes; resisting the temptation to draw conclusions or determine action. A team must analyze the data through multiple lenses and perspectives; challenging the status quo through collaborative inquiry (adding ideas, asking questions, paraphrasing, seeking clarity, and saying focused on the data). Teams must have trust in the process as well as trust that the environment is safe to ask questions and analyze the statements made by others to ensure colleagues are naming descriptive data as well as the narrative story that the data is showing. The process requires balanced talk, intentional inquiry, vulnerability and a focus on the data. An implication many face is rushing through this process. Moving quickly to the root causes and into action before creating the problem statement(s) and identifying one or more of the possible pitfalls. Teams must act with intention and intensity during the phase of the process to refine statements about the data. This means that stakeholders hold one another accountable for staying focused on data based statements before moving to causation while remembering the importance of balanced talk. This is the second stage, Phase #2: Explore and Discover, explained by Bruce Wellman and Lara Lipton (page 4) in the article Data Conversations.

To PLAN a team moves from the root causation (page 11) into possible actions. These actions must be contented to evidence-based practices and also connected to the Michigan District Improvement Framework. All stakeholders must create environments grounded in shared ownership for the implementation, monitoring and support; it takes systematic and systemic training approaches in the chosen research-based, strategies to ensure fidelity of implementation within tier 1 instructional practices. The process requires prioritizing, analysis of organization capacity, and articulated plan for implementation, monitoring (instructional rounds, learning labs, walk-throughs), and supporting all adult learners. 


An implication many face is lack of clarity and communication in regard to the shared expectations and process. This might be complex change for some members on the team, moving quickly or not paying attention to the noticed patterns might lead to confusion, anxiety, gradual change, frustration, and false starts (Ambrose, 1987). Teams must embrace the idea of improvement, look for patterns in adult behavior, and determine which support functions to use: coaching, consulting, collaborating, or evaluating. This means that stakeholders hold one another accountable for staying focused on the improvement strategies and activities. This is the third stage, Phase #3: Organize and Integrate, explained by Bruce Wellman and Lara Lipton (page 5) in the article Data Conversations.

To DO it takes prioritizing and acting with intentionality as a collective team. To move beyond compliance and “the land of nice” It takes time, intention, and true reflection as well as the belief that all learners in the system can and will be successful. Teams continuously focus on: 1) the implementation of the articulated plan, 2) the shared monitoring of the plan and adjusting as needed based on pre-identified monitoring data checkpoints, 3) the evaluating of the plan for impact on targeted gaps and identified causal factors, 4) and adjusting the budget necessary to fund the priority strategies (Michigan Department of Education).

As we all know, authentic school improvement is determined by the mindset of all stakeholders within the community. The mindset that improvement is an on-going precess where all learners are intentionally and intensely focused on the processes, practices, and conditions for shared success. As you continue the process of GATHERING, STUDYING, PLANNING, and DOING determine which of these stages might need an intentional focus or perhaps adaptations to your current ways of operating in an effort to impact achievement through adult implementation.