Three Truths About School Improvement

Anytime schools feel pressure to dramatically improve student outcomes (which is nearly every day), one of the most common solutions is to purchase additional resources or adopt more programs. While this strategy may have some positive effects, the results never seem to match the investment. And if this was a viable solution, then why do so many schools continue to add on additional programs each year, even when there is a multitude of initiatives currently in place? If this scenario sounds familiar, you are not alone. When evidence of effectiveness is lacking regarding student achievement, then program adoption may not be the best solution.

Truth 1: A program will never have as much impact as your practice. We have to get away from scripted curriculum and start creating culturally relevant pedagogy to inspire our youth. The trend to incorporate programs that eliminate teacher input and judgment mean teachers can no longer decide what to teach, or when and how to teach it. Program based initiatives are being incorporated at an alarming rate. Many schools expect all teachers, in any given subject, to end on the same word each day. The hope is that this helps accountability scores, and provides equity for all students who receive the same skills. I'm not against a structure or curricular resources. I believe that teachers and students can benefit from not having to build programs from the ground up every year. But when programs do not provide flexibility and decision making by teachers to meet individual student needs, it becomes a standardized approach to teaching. Many students simply do not thrive via the use of scripted programs. And teachers do not find these programs particiularly helpful. When teachers lose their enthusiasm, creativity and their love of teaching, they sometimes lose their desire to be teachers. 

The challenge for teachers and school leaders is like the one many of us face when we go grocery shopping. There are so many products to choose from and we don't have enough time to make the best decisions about which product is the best. So we fall into the habit of buying the same things over and over, mainly because everyone else seems to buying those same products. The packaging looks contemporary, it's a brand we recognize and we don't trust alternative products. This is exactly the way many schools and districts make curricular and program decisions.

We must remember that teachers are one of the most powerful influences on student learning. Collective efficacy is about teachers believing that by working together they can have a significant positive impact on student achievement. The research tells us that where teachers have this shared belief – great things happen. Where teachers don’t share this belief – things happen. When teachers and students use practices that emphasize the learning intentions and success criteria that are being evaluated or sought in the learning activities – students will be more likely to invest in their learning, and be able to achieve more highly and consistently. Everyone then knows where to focus their energy, time and thinking. Teachers who are explicit about the learning intentions for each lesson, who are well organized, who explain clearly and include guided practice for students, have a positive effect on learning. The capacity of the teacher to speak clearly and articulate learning intentions in language that the students understand is also critical. This links very well to Shirley Clarke’s work around having clear learning intentions and success criteria for each lesson, particularly where students help to develop the success criteria and therefore are able to understand what they mean.

Finally, a better and far more effective use of resources is instructional coaching. ​Recent meta-analysis of research on literacy instructional coaching of elementary school teachers by Kraft, Blazar, & Hogan indicates that the practice of instructional coaches has statistically promising outcomes for the improvement of practice, and academic gains for students. Without question, coaching can be challenging, but potential gains as measured by the literature suggests that it is a worthy investment of time and effort.

Five benefits of instructional coaching were identified:
​1. individualized,
2. intensive,
3. sustained,
4. context-specific, and
​5. focused.

Beyond program implementation - "Expert teachers move learning into greater depth – they focus on deep rather than surface learning, and generally provide greater challenge for their students." (Hattie, J. (2011) Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximising impact on learning. Routledge, London).

Truth 2: An instructional leader does not merely “sponsor” learning for others. They participate in learning with others.

When leaders possess the knowledge, skills, and principles associated with high yield leadership behaviors - they can have an unmistakably positive impact on students and teachers. The best leaders are great teachers, it is that simple. An effective leader maintains a learning environment based on quality teaching, student engagement, evaluation of instructional impact, and is able to create positive home-school relationships. Effective leaders don’t pick and choose fads and programs. Effective schools have leaders that commit to deep implementation of those practices that have the most significant impact on student achievement.  Implementation of change initiatives that are moderate and inconsistent is no better than an implementation that was completely absent. 

“If a change is introduced that is not aligned with the current culture, you must alter the existing culture to support the new initiative or accept that the change may not be sustainable in the long term” (Blanchard, 2007).

Instructional leaders pay close attention to teacher impact and its effect on student learning while maintaining an environment that diminishes disruption to learning. Strong leaders have high expectations of teachers for their students, they visit classrooms, and they monitor the quality of learning in the school closely. Evidence suggests that instructional leaders have a more significant impact on student achievement.

Promoting and Participating in Teacher Learning and Development 

Professional development involves more than principals just arranging for staff to learn. The leader should always participate in the learning. As a result of this commitment, the principal is also more likely to be seen by staff as a source of instructional advice, which suggests that they are both more accessible and more knowledgeable about instructional matters than their counterparts in otherwise similar lower achieving schools. The principal must be the lead learner of the school and the teams. Robinson (2007) identified a number of characteristics that principals need to focus on that were associated with effective professional development, including:

• Providing extended time and using it effectively 

• Ensuring teachers were engaged in the learning 

• Challenging problematic discourses, especially around low expectations for students 

• Providing opportunities to participate in a professional community that was focused on the teaching-achievement relationship 

• Involving school leaders who supported the learning by setting and monitoring targets and developing the leadership of others (Robinson, 2007, p. 17). 

Based on these findings, it would seem that the best leaders have the ability to develop and support the teachers in their schools. Those principals who make time to observe teachers (other than formal evaluations), can identify strengths and areas for improvement, and provide support and feedback. Moreover, great principals build in time and create structures for teachers to learn from each other in ways that directly help kids learn. And strong principals realize that they do not have all of the answers. They make sure teachers are meeting with and observing one another while offering support and feedback to improve student learning.

Truth 3: Great schools move from islands of excellence to systematic impact with high levels of collective efficacy and commitment.

It would seem obvious - the more we focus on those things that matter most, the better we can improve.  High-quality implementation also has a qualitative component. Teachers are said to implement well when they are prepared, when they are clear, and when they teach with enthusiasm. But the most significant contribution to systematic impact is not more program implementation. It is giving teachers more time to implement. If you ask teachers if they would like more professional development, they will likely tell you the truth. What teachers want is time to apply what they have previously learned. This is not to suggest that teachers do not want to continue to learn. However, too many initiatives can detract from the improvement focus and result in initiative fatigue. It is the principal’s role to limit these distractions and to align resources behind the focused goals and strategies. 

For example, think of the following strategy as a way to gain more collective impact and consistency; teachers and leaders combine their knowledge to create a very limited set of learning objectives for each grade level and subject. Once this focus has been agreed upon, they can then move forward with a more intentional process of obtaining systematic impact. Although this may sound obvious, this type of practice is still the exception, not the rule. There is no body of research that recommends frantically covering everything will lead to better results. In fact, the research claims just the opposite: "schools with higher levels of focus not only have higher levels of student achievement but are also better able to implement other essential leadership and teaching strategies" (Reeves 2011). This is a recommendation that is rarely considered in school systems. As a result, we waste time, energy, and precious resources on silver bullet programs that cannot be sustained nor adequately monitored.


Schools attempting to implement change effectively should focus only on the deepest implementation of two or three changes and finish those changes before launching other initiatives. This approach is more effective than superficial implementation of a wide variety of strategies, and it cuts through a school’s setting and a student’s background. Deep, consistent implementation will predictably narrow the achievement gap. 

When educational organizations determine the most important practices and are committed to sustaining those practices, costs will actually decrease because of better-informed resource allocation and drastic reduction in student failures.

Schools and districts invest millions of dollars each year to purchase programs designed to increase achievement. Strong instructional leadership depends less on "programs" and more on professional practice. As educators, we must recognize the difference between the two; for every dollar we invest in the competence of teachers and leaders, we will net a greater gain in student achievement than if we were to spend that money on another program. While programs come and go, sound professional practice never goes out of style. 


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Blanchard, K, Barrett, C. (2013). Learn How to Lead and Succeed. Pearson Prentice Hall.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Rutledge.

Hattie, J. (2011) Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximising impact on learning. Routledge, London

Kraft MA, Blazar D, Hogan D. The Effect of Teacher Coaching on Instruction and Achievement: A Meta-Analysis of the Causal Evidence. Review of Educational Research [Internet]. 2018;88 (4) :547-588.

Reeves, D. (2011) Finding Your Leadership Focus: What Matter Most for Student Results. Teachers College Press.

Robinson, Viviane (2011). Student-centered leadership. San Francisco: Jossey Bass. 

Ventura, Steve (2014).  ACTIVATE: A Leader’s Guide to People, Practices, and Processes. HMH.