Recently, I’ve had some enlightening discussions with colleagues about the concept of an inside out approach to school improvement. Many of the meaningful exchanges in these conversations have centered on opportunities to learn from bright spots within our schools and districts. Often in school improvement planning, we limit ourselves to discussing challenges, ignoring the bright spots. By doing this, we’re missing a great opportunity to expand and replicate the greatest aspects of our schools, our existing strengths.
While I was serving as a high school administrator in Michigan, our school improvement team was charged with turning around student outcomes within some of our identified gap areas, in this case, 9th-grade math and 9th-grade English. At the time, our school was still structured much like it had been since the 1950s, with each department operating independently in its own silo. Attempting to shift this paradigm was like turning around a freighter ship in a canal. However, during one of our routine school improvement work sessions, this anti-change trend actually changed.
Here’s what happened.
While following a typical template for a Department of Education-designed comprehensive needs assessment for school improvement planning, we worked through a dialogue guided by data protocols. The “challenges” side of our T-chart became our focus and grew far more elaborate than our “strengths” side. Much of the prior training that our school, along with others across the district, had received on school improvement planning was focused on problem identification, a flavor-of-the-month program remedy, monitoring implementation, and evaluating its effectiveness. This trend seemed to be going viral in school improvement teams across the district and the state.
However, in the midst of our gap-focused meeting, a hidden bright spot was exposed by a bold member of the team who asked: “What is our school really good at right now?” An awkward silence followed. The squeak from the markers on chart paper suddenly ceased as our focus shifted from gaps to bright spots. Soon though, we started talking about the positives: When people think of our school, what is it that people would say we are good at right now… ten years from now… ten years ago?
This new series of questions required some higher-order reflection—reflection that expanded beyond our T-chart template and beyond our initial gap-focused mindset. The responses rolled out rapidly: Band! Girls’ basketball! Football! It was fascinating to hear the collective agreement in these three responses. The attention of each member of the group shifted to a bright spot, and the responses steered everyone to a path of shared vision. All eyes focused on a space within schoolwide efforts. We derived encouragement from our ability to consistently attain our desired outcomes in these strength areas.
Eventually, the follow-up question surfaced: Why? Why were these programs so good at getting desired outcomes, year in and year out? Why were we able to have consistent success with our students in these programs, year in and year out? This discovery process led to meaningful professional learning for every member of our team and helped reveal and replicate the “DNA” of these bright spots. In particular, we found our most powerful assets resided in:
- High-leverage instructional strategies. Effective demonstration of high-quality instruction was consistent in our bright-spot programs. Reciprocal teaching, cooperative learning, peer tutoring, and time-on-task were just some of the many routine practices revealed by dissecting the programs. In addition, each program—whether it was band, basketball, or football—was highly effective with the use of formative assessment during practice to drive both instruction and instructional design and planning; this led to success at game or performance time.
- Effective use of video to analyze and drive strategy. The most successful sports programs in our school used video to enhance the instructional program, providing students and players with an excellent example of how to fail forward, not just as individuals but also collectively.
- High-quality transition programs from middle to high school. One common thread we discovered in each of the bright-spot programs was an excellent transitional program for middle school students entering into the high school program. These summer programs and camps helped to engage students and families with the core principles and expectations of the program. In addition, the middle and high school coaches and teachers collaborated and co-designed the program of study for the students and players, ensuring the transition was relatively seamless.
Our analysis of the “DNA” of these school programs revealed many of the same findings commonly gleaned through extensive workshops on high-quality classroom and school practices. However, this powerful practice of self-reflection created an additional sense of ownership among our team members. Encouragement came from our own school’s success—something that couldn’t be replicated from external findings or external teachings—dispelling any myths that team members might have believed regarding potential outcomes with “our kinds of students.”
Encouragement transformed into motivation, which created engagement. The rippling effects on our school culture and climate included:
- Schoolwide collaboration. The department silos began to break down and faculty began to observe promising practices across departments.
- Focus on the positive. A tighter, more engaging focus on closing gaps allowed us to fill the gaps with strengths.
- Ownership and shared-vision. We weren’t asking faculty to buy in to a new program for the remedy. Rather, we already collectively owned the promising practices of our successful programs and could use them as a model for wider success.
What might you find if your school improvement team focused on your school’s bright spots and began replicating them? How much further down the road toward school improvement might you go?
A former principal and federal programs manager/academic officer for the Hawaii State Charter School Commission, McREL consultant Ben Cronkright works with Departments of Education in Guam, the Marshall Islands, and Federated States of Micronesia on increasing capacities related to teacher effectiveness and college- and career-readiness for students.
Such great points about approaching school improvement in a different manner by taking advantage of the strengths of a school.
Thank you for your comment. I think you are right it is a different approach, which is interesting. Especially since some of the best classrooms (or learning spaces) are those that are led by individuals that expect to find strengths in all students and then leverage those strengths to bridge gaps. This approach to school improvement looks to grow schools in the same way…which certainly helps teams in “failing forward” and therefore learning fast to get better. Thank you again for the comment.