School Improvement for All

Each summer, I take some time to read a number of brand-new professional development books pertaining to various aspects of education. As summer winds down, I’d like to share my favorite professional book from this summer — School Improvement for All: A How-To Guide for Doing the Right Work by Sharon Kramer and Sarah Schuhl.

School Improvement for All builds the case that a school is most likely to maximize student success when the school functions as a professional learning community (PLC). Each chapter of the book provides direction in how to achieve that, and the book also includes specific rubrics, action plans, and reproducible protocols to help get things started.

SI for all cover

After reading the book, I had the opportunity to interview the authors about their model of schools-as-PLCs. I thought our back-and-forth was worth sharing (the italicized questions are mine, and the plain-text responses are from the authors):

Your book focuses on schools operating as PLCs to get results. A few specifics on this: Do you see schools operating as one large PLC? Or do you also recommend that your framework be used on a smaller scale among grade level teams, departments/subject area teachers, and the like? Is there a certain number of people you think is optimal for a PLC? Can an entire district or a subset across a district (e.g. a math committee) also utilize your PLC framework? What might be the differences in these various applications of the PLC model?

It is the school that operates as a Professional Learning Community (PLC) and within that structure are collaborative teams (most often grade level or course alike teams).  The collaborative teams address the four critical questions related to student learning:

(1) What do we expect students to learn?

(2) How will we know if they learned it?

(3) What will be our response if they do not learn it?

(4) What will be our response when they do learn? (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, and Many 2010)

A collaborative team consists of at least two teachers focused on addressing the answers to the questions above.  It might be necessary to ask teachers whom it makes sense for them to work with when answering the four critical questions related to student learning if there are singleton teachers on staff.  These collaborative teams are the engine that drive the PLC.

Schools also have a learning team (or leadership team) designed to analyze structures and practices to strengthen student academic learning and behavior.  Together, with the principal, they too address the four critical questions and the three big ideas: (1) A focus on student learning, (2) collaboration, and (3) a focus on results.

District committees can certainly comprise collaborative teams that also address the four critical questions and three big ideas, now using the district as a Professional Learning Community itself.

Within the book are resources, examples, protocols, and tools to help principals and learning teams navigate the right work, plan for any shifts in culture that need to occur on site, recognize the needs of 21st century learners, create a common guaranteed and viable curriculum to include priority standards, pacing, and learning targets, create common assessments, design quality instruction, and write SMART goals and analyze data from common assessments to improve student learning.  Grade level or course alike teams as well as district teams can utilize this framework as they clarify and respond to student learning.

How does a PLC approach to school improvement stand in contrast to other common approaches? 

Too often schools purchase programs or resources (e.g., hardware or software learning tools, curriculum materials, manipulatives) as a way to “fix” gaps in student learning without first looking at the root causes of the gaps and working as collaborative teams to strengthen planning and responding to student learning. This school improvement framework looks at the entire system and limits inequities in student learning by having teachers learn from one another and collectively work to address the learning needs of each and every student served by the team.  It is not one teacher’s responsibility to address the needs of students by himself or herself, but rather a collaborative effort.  Together, teachers work to ensure high levels of learning for all students.  Both teachers and students learn in the process.

Do you see your chapters as basically laying out a recommended sequence for schools beginning their PLC journey, or do you think the journey will be individualized based on each school’s history, strengths and weaknesses, and what is found in their needs assessment?

The journey is definitely personalized.  The chapters do tend to be in the order schools need to address their practices when working to improve student learning, however, they do not need to be done linearly.  In fact, the learning team (or leadership team) will most likely address the tasks in chapters 1 – 3 to strengthen overall practices, master schedules, clarify mission, vision, values and goals, and establish the work of collaborative teams and shifts in culture WHILE collaborative teams begin addressing the four critical questions as shown in chapters 4 – 7.

The needs assessment provides insight into where each school needs to start on their path to school improvement because it helps a staff recognize their strengths and areas of practice to improve.  Each chapter begins with a vision versus reality section in which the vision for the work when done well is shared and questions related to a school’s reality are introduced.  Next, the “Start Now” section gives ideas for where the learning team or collaborative teams need to start and can be modified based on work already in process at a school.  Finally, each chapter ends with a rubric to show teams what the work looks like if they are beginning (level 1), attempting (level 2), practicing (level 3) or embracing (level 4) the work.  As schools do this work, the rubric is a learning tool for how to continuously improve to reach the learning needs of each and every student.

Finally, what would you say to educators who fear that too much emphasis is placed on seeing students as data points rather than people?  How can we use the PLC approach — even with its SMART goals that are data-based and an emphasis on accountability — in a way that doesn’t get reduced just to looking at standardized test scores and improving those scores as the key goal?

Students are definitely more than a number.  Though we need data to determine if instructional practices are effective and to identify those students being served well and those not being served well, we also need to look at trends in student work to identify the common strengths and misconceptions in learning.  Which students have gaps in learning and why? What needs to be targeted to ensure each and every student learns? How will each collaborative team work to re-engage students in learning?  This more meaningful data is centered on team-created student learning targets (from standards) and common assessments, not standardized tests.

Looking at data for the sake of looking at data will not change practice or improve student learning.  Teams must put names to targets students have learned and not learned yet.  They must differentiate, intervene, remediate, and extend learning as evidenced by common assessments with common scoring agreements for proficiency. These are team created actions in response to the data and they happen in real time.

Some change happens at a school when collaborative teams address critical questions #1 – 2 and real change happens with teams embrace answering questions #3 – 4 as a regular part of professional practice.  When teams set a SMART goal initially to a big idea topic or a state assessment, they can then look at whether or not they have that same percentage of student proficiency with every target on a common assessment after each common assessment.  This creates urgency for responding to student learning. More important than the SMART goal itself is the action plan that accompanies it.  What does the collaborative team promise to do to minimize gaps in student learning and ensure high levels of learning for all students?  How will their actions impact the learning of students?  It is a larger job than any one teacher – it requires a school that operates as a professional learning community with collaborative teams focused on the right work.

Any final thoughts about School Improvement for All that you’d like to pass along?

If collaborative teams intentionally focus on learning on a unit-by-unit basis by determining the priority standards, unpacking them into smaller learning targets, developing common formative and summative assessments, finally intervening when students do not learn, and extending learning for students who have learned, then the state assessments will take care of themselves.  The alignment of curriculum, instruction, and assessment is the key to improved results not just a focus on standardized test data.

Finally, this is a how-to book.  There are so many resources available that describe the desired state or what it should look like.  School Improvement for ALL is truly the how-to-get-there book.  It is written for practitioners by practitioners.

Regarding those final two sentences, I couldn’t agree more. If you are interested in helping your school move toward a Professional Learning Community model, or if you feel like your building is stuck and in need of a better climate and culture, I highly recommend reading School Improvement for All!



3 thoughts on “School Improvement for All

  1. I’m concerned that is not improvement “for all”. This still appears to be proficiency-based, not growth-based, and so is not improvement for students above grade level.

    Question #1 should be “What do we expect this student to learn?” If the answer to the original question is “the third grade curriculum”, what about students who already know most of it? The answer often is, but never should be, “the rest of the third grade curriculum.”

    Other phrases such as “as evidenced by common assessments with common scoring agreements for proficiency” and “same percentage of student proficiency with every target on a common assessment” also concern me that this is not aimed at growth for all, but a better structure for keeping all students on the same material.

    Our schools have PLCs. They haven’t shown the functionality to meet the needs of gifted students who often are not included in “for all”.

  2. Joshua — thanks for your very thoughtful comment! I agree wholeheartedly that our current focus on standardized testing (particularly on attaining grade level proficiency as opposed to measuring growth, which is current practice in my home state of Michigan) often underserves our gifted students. And I fully trust that your personal experiences of the needs of gifted students not being met despite a PLC format being used is very real. But I’m not convinced that it would HAVE to be that way, or that the PLC format itself is necessarily the reason why your school’s gifted population’s needs remain unmet. In general, though, your reminder to all of us to focus on meeting the needs of our gifted students (even though they are already “proficient”) is something we need to repeatedly shout from the rooftops.

  3. Mark, I agree that PLCs can be useful and, in a district that supports gifted learners, could be another way to help these students. It depends on whether the focus is on proficiency or growth, among other factors. As you mentioned, our state focuses on bringing each student to proficiency, even tagging schools that push for growth for all students instead of narrowing the achievement gap as “Focus Schools”. Hopefully with ESSA replacing NCLB, there will be a focus on growth too. I’m encouraged as the dashboards will be rating schools on student growth as well. Unfortunately, our M-STEP is only adaptive within a single grade, so we have no instrument to measure it. Some say Brian Whiston will push for a switch to the NWEA, a better standardized test.

    If there is a push towards growth in our state, PLCs could play a vital role in making sure that teachers can make the transition and better use techniques like cluster grouping and flexible ability grouping to meet the needs of all students.

    Thanks for your support in this!

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