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Jump-start school improvement with fewer, not more, initiatives

By April 7, 2014June 13th, 20167 Comments

When developing and evaluating school improvement plans, a meaningful question to ponder is, “Why do some schools achieve their school improvement plan goals, while others fail to make gains?” The outcome depends greatly on how the school focuses on improvement initiatives: does the school attempt to tackle many initiatives or does it focus in on a few key issues?

Educators have noble intentions and high hopes when drafting their school improvement plans. They identify challenges and set goals and strategies to meet those challenges. They, in good faith, attempt to tackle numerous initiatives to increase student achievement with the hope that, by spending time on many improvement efforts, they will get the results they seek. However, schools that follow this path often become overwhelmed by competing priorities and end up with less-than-desired results. They are attempting too many things to do any one of them well.

On the other hand, when schools focus on select, manageable change initiatives, they increase the probability of achieving successful implementation of those initiatives.

For example, a school team takes stock of their situation by looking at student achievement data, and they determine that their students need vocabulary development. The staff decides to collectively focus on building students’ vocabulary and a plan is made. All staff members agree to take collective action by posting and explicitly teaching key vocabulary words in each content area. Throughout four to six weeks of focused implementation of this initiative, the degree and quality of the implementation and the effect on student achievement are monitored. This focused approach usually results in a quick win, increasing the staff’s collective efficacy and satisfaction, engendering the belief that “we can do together what we cannot do alone.” The feeling of “we have too much to do” dissipates.

As schools repeatedly apply this improvement process, concentrating on a few important initiatives at a time, they increase their capacity to change. Ultimately, they develop the collective beliefs, capacity, and experience to sustain improvement efforts that ultimately lead to long-term, positive student outcomes.

SiS Continuous Improvment CycleHere’s a diagram that illustrates this approach.

Concentrating the focus and effort of a school improvement plan on a few key initiatives is a manageable, effective approach for school improvement that, unfortunately, still too few schools use. Why do you think some schools and districts are hesitant to use this strategy? Share your ideas in the comments section, below.

Dr. Kay L. Frunzi is a systems transformation consultant at McREL, providing strategic improvement services to schools and districts across the country. Before joining McREL, she served as a school principal in four districts and taught graduate-level courses at various universities.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Cerissa Thomas says:

    I agree that more focus on few improvements will better serve schools for a successful outcome. When anyone tries to take on too many issues, something will not receive the attention it rightfully deserves. Many schools have so many challenges and want to eradicate all the problems at once, so they take on more improvement issues than they should. Unfortunately, the results are not successful because not everyone is involve in the process.

  • Deb Holmgren says:

    I agree that it is better to focus on a few initiatives in the school improvement plan. It is important to be able to monitor the progress towards the goal that has been identified in the school plan. With too many strategies, it will be difficult to focus and also difficult to monitor. By having a few strategies, all can be on board and be willing to try something new on the journey of continuous improvement. This year our school determined that we needed reading strategies for teachers to use within their content areas. We focused collaborative team meetings on finding those strategies to use in different situations. A reading coach came to a staff meeting to show a couple of strategies and then checked in with teachers after a few weeks to see how the strategies worked. We also started a word of the week that is used by all teachers in the building. Department leaders chose high frequency words that are put on the hallway walls for students to see; teachers help students identify how the words are used in their particular content area. This has helped for all to feel a part of the SIP plan. Our school improvement team made the decision to concentrate on a couple of things and do them really well.

  • Haley Martin says:

    I am quickly learning that my school tends to take on too much too quickly when it comes to school improvement plans. I know that they have the best intentions but it is often too much too quickly and we take on more than we can handle. This leads us to not be able to meet any of our goals because we are working towards too many. I agree with your blog post and think that when it comes to school improvement plans, less is more.

  • Lynn Custer says:

    Having less goals to focus on will give teachers and faculty more time to focus on meeting the goals. This is a very good point to be evaluated. The question comes in deciding which goals should be focused on first. There is so much information to take into consideration when deciding on school improvement goals.

  • Kacie says:

    I agree that it is better to take on fewer initiatives. This year, my district has taken on way too much which has left most teachers in my building feeling stressed and strung-out. It is so difficult to focus your efforts on multiple initiatives and be successful at all of them. Last year, my school had a building focus of improving writing instruction. Since it was really the only focus for the year, we were able to put all of our professional development and efforts toward writing. The results were fantastic! This year, we have too much on our plates to effectively implement all of the district’s goals.

  • It is a true that focusing on a few needs at a time is the best way to go with school improvement initiatives. But some schools and districts seem reluctant to use this strategy because it requires them to move away from the familiar to the unfamiliar.
    Most schools and districts have their curriculum set and all they do is try their best to implement that curriculum. Focusing on a few requires the school or district to look inwards, acknowledge areas that need change and come up with strategies to change and monitor progress.Reluctance to use these strategies by some schools and districts means they are not ready to put in the extra effort needed for reflective practice.

  • Dawn says:

    This year my district has implemented new science standards and curriculum, new integrated social studies and English language arts curriculum, new benchmark assessments, a 1:1 iPad initiative, and a few other miscellaneous changes. After reading this blog post, I have realized that it is normal for me to feel overwhelmed by all of these changes. It makes sense that “less is more.” I think that to benefit my students and help them achieve I have to focus on 2-3 key areas this year to help them grow. The rest will have to come in time.

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