Home > School Improvement Planning and the Development

School Improvement Planning and the Development


School Improvement Planning and the Development 

Of Professional Community 

Carl Bruner 

Executive Summary 


      Rigorous, standards-based accountability systems have strengthened the call for educators to pay more attention to the nature of change in schools and to invest in developing a culture of continuous improvement.  Since 2002, the State of Washington has required all schools to implement a planning process that promotes ongoing improvement of student achievement (Wash. Admin. Code ch. 180-16-220 �� 2bii and 2di, 2002).  The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and regional Educational Service Districts have responded by developing school improvement planning curricula to guide districts through the process of self assessment, goal setting, and research-based action planning.  These curricula are designed to assist schools in learning and adopting the habits of professional learning communities, including peer collaboration, reflective dialogue, collective responsibility, orientation towards innovation, and a focus on student learning.  In contrast to packaged reform models, they are founded on the belief that, when trained in a structured process of inquiry, school communities can learn to identify their own challenges in addressing student achievement and create, implement, monitor, and adjust powerful solutions over time. 

      This study was designed to investigate the effects of a regional school improvement technical assistance project on the professional learning culture of a sample of participating elementary schools.

Context of the Study

      In the fall of 2001, Northwest Educational Service District #189 (NWESD 189), one of nine intermediate service districts in the state of Washington which provides support for 35 local districts, launched the School Improvement Planning Technical Assistance Project (SIPTAP), designed to train and support schools in a comprehensive school improvement planning process.  Although board approved plans for each school were not required at the time SIPTAP was first implemented, it was well known such a requirement was imminent.  The project was, then, a proactive effort on the part of NWESD to assist schools in preparing to meet this mandate.  To date, 12 high schools, 17 middle schools, 36 elementary schools, and three K-8 schools from 24 different districts across the NWESD region have participated or are currently participating in the project.

      The SIPTAP process is essentially a professional development curriculum aimed at teaching administrators and staff how to engage in and sustain an inquiry-based approach to identifying and addressing problems of practice in schools, leading to improved student achievement.  Similar to those in other self-reflective models of school improvement, the curriculum is comprised of several specific planning steps:

  1. Establishing a shared purpose or aim
  2. Collecting and analyzing data
  3. Setting goals focused on improving student achievement outcomes
  4. Researching solutions to barriers
  5. Developing an action plan
  6. Monitoring plan implementation
  7. Evaluating results based on student performance

The curriculum includes an emphasis on assessing and developing staff readiness to move from one step in the process to another and on learning specific processes for gathering staff input and arriving at consensus.  

      While the content of NWESD��s curriculum is similar to other school improvement planning initiatives, the model for delivering or teaching the curriculum to school staff using a highly structured and tightly scaffolded process is unique.  NWESD project staff work with school leadership teams comprised of administrators, teachers, classified support staff, and parents in a cohort model for a total of five days over several months.  Trainings are scheduled to allow teams to implement specific steps of the process with their school faculties between sessions.   Coaches, who are most often retired school administrators with reputations for facilitating change in their own schools and districts, are trained by NWESD staff to provide on-site support for leadership teams as they implement the planning process at their schools.  Feedback from coaches and teams as they work together to implement what teams have learned informs curriculum planning for subsequent trainings.

Rationale for the Study

      Beyond my academic interest in the SIPTAP project, this study was motivated by my practical interest in understanding more about how, if at all, the model affects a culture of collaborative inquiry in schools.  As superintendent of a high poverty, diverse district struggling to meet state and federal accountability standards, I am facing growing impatience from a community and school board anxious for results while, at the same time, concerned about costs of process-oriented initiatives.

      Aside from the cost associated with professional development and on-site coaching, the resources required to support comprehensive school improvement planning are significant.  The release time required for leadership teams to attend SIPTAP training and meet together to plan for early release day activities impacts students in the short term.  School leadership teams typically include some of a school��s most capable teachers.  There is little question that removing them from their classrooms for up to 11 days compromises their instruction.  More visible to the public are the district-wide early release days necessary to create time for school-wide involvement in the planning process.  In districts with schools struggling to meet accountability benchmarks, encroaching on available teaching time can be a hard sell to the community and their elected representatives, the school board.

      Are the financial, political, and other costs related to a district��s involvement in an inquiry-based school improvement planning process outweighed by the benefits to the learning culture of participating schools?  Are there schools that, due to limitations in their own capacity, are not able to benefit from a process-oriented approach?  Although long term effects and impacts on student learning will not be known for some time, I need to have insight into these questions before I can help frame a direction for my own district.  

Research Questions

      This study was designed to investigate the effects of the SIPTAP model for continuous school improvement on the professional learning culture in schools. 

Specifically, the following questions were addressed:

  1. How, if at all, is a school��s participation in the SIPTAP project associated with participants�� perceived changes in their professional learning culture?
  2. In cases where the SIPTAP process appears to be associated with participants�� perceived changes in a school��s professional learning culture, to what extent does this culture continue after involvement in the project has ended?
  3. What evidence is there, if any, that perceived changes in professional learning culture associated with a school��s involvement in the SIPTAP process have lead to changes in teachers�� perceptions of their own classroom practice?
  4. What contextual readiness factors, if any, are associated with perceived changes in an enhanced professional learning culture in participating schools?

Summary of Research Methodology

      In this study, I employed a mixed-methods approach, including both quantitative and qualitative measures.  Specific methods used included surveys, interviews, and examination of schools�� improvement planning and professional learning artifacts as a means of discovering how participation in the SIPTAP project has impacted their experiences. 

       General impressions from teachers and principals from four elementary schools that had participated in the NWESD SIPTAP project during the 2002-03 school year were collected using a structured survey.  To probe more deeply into context and gain a deeper understanding of participants�� attitudes, practices, and perceptions, I conducted follow-up interviews on site with teachers, principals, and NWESD coaches from two of the four schools in the survey sample.

      Descriptive statistics and tests of statistical significance were used to analyze survey data.  Interview data were analyzed for themes using the ��constant comparative method of data analysis, developed by Glaser and Strauss (1967)�� (Merriam, 1998, p. 159).  Documents collected from the two schools in the interview sample were analyzed using rubrics from the Washington State School System Improvement Resource Guide (Bergeson, Heuschel, & MacGregor, 2004) and were coded for recurrent themes.  Survey, interview, and document data were corroborated through the process of ��data triangulation�� (Yin, 2003, pp. 97-99).

Summary and Discussion of Results

      Findings suggest that the four elementary schools studied did, in fact, show evidence of significant improvements in their professional learning culture following their participation in the SIPTAP project.  These improvements were most noticeable in the areas of (1) peer collaboration focused on instructional improvement; (2) reflective dialogue pertaining to teaching and learning; (3) focus on student learning in school decisions; and (4) overall focus on improvement.  Clear evidence of growth in schoolwide collaboration, focus on student achievement, and databased decision-making was apparent in those two schools in the interview sample.  These changes were continuing in both schools despite the fact that their involvement in the SIPTAP project had ended approximately 18 months before. 

      Schools�� levels of readiness as measured by the Teacher and Principal Surveys did not predict gains in characteristics of their professional learning culture post-SIPTAP.  Two key factors often hypothesized as necessary for schools to successfully engage in improvement planning – i.e., administrator-staff trust and a perceived urgency to change – were not related to outcomes.  However, some factors related to organizational capacity were clearly key to schools�� progress, most notably time for staff collaboration and principal support for the improvement process.  Where time was lacking, staff attitudes towards the process were negatively affected.  Interestingly, findings suggest a structured, school wide improvement planning process like SIPTAP can build capacity, or readiness for improvement, even in those schools that lack capacity initially by (1) requiring principals to entrust leadership across a number of staff in their school and (2) creating transparency in the decision-making process through the involvement of all staff in structured, consensus building processes. 

      Findings provide particular support for the manner in which the SIPTAP curriculum was delivered to schools.  Specifically, the training provided for each school��s SIPTAP Leadership Team, followed by opportunities for those teams to implement what they had learned at their school with the support of a NWESD SIPTAP coach, was seen by teachers and principals as very effective.  Coaches were key in keeping Leadership Teams on track with the process.

      Importantly, results suggest some teachers in the interview schools had begun to change their practice in response to their school��s SIPTAP action plans.  Most of these changes involved what teachers taught as opposed to how they taught.  Some teachers, though, were beginning to experiment with different instructional strategies.  Notably, teachers�� increased awareness and knowledge of student achievement data appeared to have made them more aware of the needs of all students and, in some cases, had lead to changes in how they grouped for instruction.  However, the link to instructional practice was largely tentative.  In the absence of structured content support and coaching after schools had identified the barriers to their goals, teachers had difficulty gaining the deeper understandings of content and pedagogy necessary to make powerful changes in their instructional practice. 


         There are several important factors that limit the validity, or credibility, of this study��s findings.  Perhaps the most obvious limitation stems from my reliance on participants�� perceptions in trying to understand how, if at all, their involvement in SIPTAP had changed their school��s professional learning culture over the last two and one-half years.  This is, of course, a problem with all studies that rely on surveys and interviews.  It is particularly problematic when trying to measure changes in teacher practice.   In his well-known case study of ��Mrs. Oublier��, Cohen (1991) highlights the disconnect between teachers�� perceptions of changes in their own practice and conclusions based on objective observations.  Relying on teacher perceptions to gain insight into changes in their practice associated with their school��s involvement in SIPTAP is then tenuous, at best.  Obviously, a longitudinal design, incorporating reaped observations and interviews of staff as they went through their improvement planning process, would be preferable. 

         I took steps to enhance my neutrality by working with schools outside my own district.  However, I have been involved in supporting multiple schools involved in the project in my previous district and, as a result, have some preconceived notions about those factors, which are important to schools�� success in improvement planning.  Lacking the time and resources to involve research partners in data collection and analysis, these notions could very well have influenced my own interpretations. 

         My familiarity as a district office administrator within the region could have possibly influenced the information staff members choose to share.  Regardless of the climate of the school, political dynamics are always at play in any major planning process.  It is quite possible that, despite my best efforts at ensuring confidentiality, some staff may have mistrusted how I will use the information.  It is also possible that one or both principals could have over or underemphasized aspects of their school��s involvement in SIPTAP in an effort to leverage additional support from either their staff or district office.

         Survey and interview sampling issues also limit the reliability of my findings.  Even though the overall response rate for my Teacher Survey was 74%, the range extended from a low of 50% to a high of 100%.   A larger sample size would have contributed to both the reliability and the validity of my results.  Additionally, the size of my interview sample (n = 18) limits both the stability and the credibility of the findings.

   Conclusions and Directions for Future Research

      Portin et al. (2003) suggest that structured process strategies, designed to help schools reflect on their strengths and weaknesses, can fuel ��action, providing a source of important issues to attend to, and offering an organizing rubric for a variety of activities that schools might pursue�� (p. 180).  Unlike externally developed, packaged reforms, inquiry-based school improvement models can enhance a school��s awareness and understanding, increasing their capacity to continually self assess and design, evaluate, and modify strategies, which target student needs, within their unique context.

       But making the leap to meaningful change in instructional practice requires more than databased self-reflection. Put simply, it is one thing to identify the problems and needs, but it is quite another to truly know what to do and how to do it.  Without support for deepening their knowledge and understanding of content and pedagogy, schools will be limited by what they already know.  And while school study teams can help increase this knowledge and understanding through readings and discussions, getting beyond a superficial level requires sustained and in-depth professional development, focused on specific content and supported by external coaching (Elmore & Burney, 1998).  Reform models, which include external coaching, support for both the inquiry process and content-based instructional improvement for teachers and administrators would seemingly be more powerful than those which focus on inquiry or instructional improvement alone.  The Bay Area Schools Reform Collaborative (Coggins, Stoddard, & Cutler, 2003) is an example of one such model.

      In a recent study, Reeves (2005, April) examined the relationship between school improvement planning, implementations and monitoring of improvement plans, and student achievement.   He found that, while the written quality of schools�� improvement plans had little relationship to student achievement, student learning was significantly related to how well the schools implemented their plans and how frequently and carefully they monitored student progress.  He also found that schools�� inquiry into the causes of their students�� achievement patterns and their identification and adoption of research-based strategies were strong predictors of school success. 

      So, while a school��s written plan may provide some insight into the depth and focus of staff��s inquiry, it does not predict the degree to which staffs change the nature of their collaboration and classroom practices.  And while my study offered some glimpses into how collaborative school improvement planning can begin to shape classroom practice, it left many questions unanswered.  These questions include:

  • How, if at all, do changes in a school��s professional learning culture mediate teachers�� ability to continually monitor and adjust their teaching practices in response to formative evidence of student achievement?
  • What, if any, evidence exists that changes in teacher practice, resulting from a school��s enhanced professional culture, result in higher levels of student learning?
  • How, over time, do schools successfully achieve a balance between teacher collaboration and individual teacher planning?
  • What factors, if any, mediate the developing nature of teacher collaboration, from a focus on content and structure to a focus on lesson design and instructional strategies?
  • What ongoing support, if any, is needed to sustain a school��s cycle of continuous self-reflection and improvement?
  • What differences, if any, exist between elementary schools�� experience with continuous improvement planning and the experiences of middle and high schools and what are the leadership implications of these differences?

Meaningful insight into these questions will require longitudinal research designs, which include direct observations of teacher collaboration and classroom practice along with measures of changing teacher, principal, and, perhaps student and parent perceptions.  

Applications to Practice

      In addition to informing my thinking, I take away from this study, and my related research, several important learnings that will inform my practice as a district leader. These include:

  • The value of a structured planning curriculum – Ideally, schools would be places where teachers and administrators meet regularly and spontaneously to discuss issues of student learning and professional practice.  Professional reading and meaningful discussions both within and outside of school would inform their knowledge.   They would push each other to clarify their thinking and challenge themselves and one another to continually evaluate and fine-tune their lessons.  Peer observation and coaching would be readily accepted and commonplace. 

        While this may describe some schools, it does not, in my experience, describe most.  Not that most teachers and principals would not like to work in this kind of professional environment.  But the crush of daily demands and competing priorities makes it extremely difficult to develop and sustain this type of professional environment without structured support.  In that they provide a systematic, scaffolded curriculum for teaching staffs the processes of self-reflection, inquiry, and collaboration focused on student learning, they seem quite valuable in providing a common focus.  As school staffs become accustomed to the process of self-reflective improvement, the need for a structured curriculum should be replaced by routines that support ongoing professional learning in the local context.

        I would offer one note of caution here.  School administrators, like teachers, are susceptible to processes that seem to simplify complex challenges.  In that many school improvement planning curricula, including SIPTAP, teach participants specific strategies or activities for building consensus among school staffs, they are highly appealing.  However, these strategies may lull principals and leadership teams into a false sense of agreement, if they are used as a proxy for meaningful discussion in an effort to gain efficiency.  While leaders must avoid getting mired in endless arguments over non-negotiables, there is no short cut to deep, difficult discussion about issues at the heart of teaching and learning.

  • The role of district support – It is hardly arguable that schools need district support in the form of planning time and funds to access outside resources to be successful in the work of ongoing improvement.  However, I would argue that they also need a district context and culture that (1) provides an overall direction for school improvement goals and action plans, focused on student learning and (2) develops, supports, and models ongoing inquiry and professional collaboration and learning.  District wide improvement is about all schools getting better, not about isolated pockets of excellence.  The superintendent must play a central leadership role in developing and nurturing this context and culture district wide and establishing systems that provide both accountability and support for principals and other administrators.

      The importance of external support – District leaders need to ensure that two levels of coaching are available to all schools.  First, skilled change or leadership coaches are essential for building principals who are scrambling to meet daily management demands while also learning to be instructional leaders.  Ongoing coaching support is essential to help them develop both their management and leadership knowledge and skills.   Sustained content coaching is also needed, both for teachers and principals, if meaningful changes in classroom practice are to be nurtured and supported.  Without access to expert content knowledge and ongoing assistance to translate that knowledge into practice, teachers and principals will be left to do the best with what they know.  Ideally, districts will be able to develop their own content coaches from their teacher leader ranks.  However, all too often, districts move this direction too quickly. The result is coaches who, though they may have been excellent classroom teachers, have little experience coaching adult learners.

Concluding Thoughts

      While educational reforms have often lacked sustainability, the current state and federal policy environments emphasizing accountability have heightened the search for the next best program, which will raise student achievement.  At the district and school levels, providing the leadership to stay the course with systematic, continuous improvement efforts is more important now than ever before.  Educators need time to, in the words of one of the teachers I interviewed, ��learn to do business in a whole different way.��  Without that time, adult learning is likely to remain shallow, inflexible, and unable to drive ongoing improvement. 

      I began this study wondering, among other things, about the cost effectiveness of providing district support for schools to participate in structured continuous planning processes.  I conclude with a heightened appreciation for how essential it is for a district to provide ways for schools to systematically learn how, as a professional community, to inquire into their successes and challenges and work together to create a future that provides for greater student success. 


    Bergeson, T., Heuschel, M. A., & MacGregor, R. (2004). Washington state school system improvement resource guide. Olympia, WA: Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

    Coggins, C. T., Stoddard, P., & Cutler, E. (2003). Improving instructional capacity through field-based reform coaches. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago, Ill.

    Cohen, D. K. (1991). Revolution in one classroom (or, then again, was it?). American Educator (Fall).

    Elmore, R. F., & Burney, D. (1998). Continuous improvement in community district #2, New York City. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh, HPLC Project, Learning Research and Development Center.

    Kennickell, A. B., & Starr-McCluer, M. (1997). Retrospective reporting of household wealth: Evidence from the 1983-89 survey of consumer finances. Journal of Business and Economic Statistics (15), 452-463.

    Merriam, S. B. (1998). Qualitative research and case study applications in education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Portin, B. S., Beck, L. G., Knapp, M. S., & Murphy, J. (2003). The school and self-renewal: Taking stock and moving on. In B. S. Portin, L. G. Beck, M. S. Knapp & J. Murphy (Eds.), Self-reflective renewal in schools: Local lessons from a national initiative. Greenwood, CT: Praeger Publishers.

    Reeves, D. B. (2005, April). Accountability for learning: How teachers and school leaders can take charge. Paper presented at the Regional meeting of Northwest Washington educators, Mount Vernon, WA.

    Sexton, R. F. (2001). Citizen and parent support for school reform. In R. S. Pankratz & J. M. Petrosko (Eds.), All children can learn: Lessons from the Kentucky reform experience. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Yin, R. K. (2003). Case study research design and methods (Third ed. Vol. 5). Thousand Oaks: Sage. 

Set Home | Add to Favorites

All Rights Reserved Powered by Free Document Search and Download

Copyright © 2011
This site does not host pdf,doc,ppt,xls,rtf,txt files all document are the property of their respective owners. complaint#nuokui.com