The challenge of continuous school improvement

William Woods EDU

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which took full effect in the 2017-2018 school year, largely lessened the federal government’s role in education policy allowing states more control over everything from testing to how to deal with low-performing schools.

One of the key elements of the law includes a mandate for states to identify lowest-performing schools and work with them to develop and implement an evidence-based plan for improvement. This mandate is in part what’s fueling the rising popularity of “continuous school improvement.”

In her Education Week article, Sarah Sparks defines continuous school improvement as “a cyclical process intended to help groups of people in a system — from a class to a school district or even a network of many districts — set goals, identify ways to improve, and evaluate change.” However, despite the term’s rising popularity, implementing continuous school improvement successfully has proved challenging for a number of schools and systems.

Mark Elgart, CEO and founder of AdvancED, a school accreditation group committed to school improvement efforts, explains some of the reasons why continuous school improvement may not live up to its promise:

  • Emphasis on compliance resulting in extensive and lengthy improvement plans that prioritize the rhetoric of objectives, goals, strategies, and activities, yet are not realistically implementable
  • Failure of school improvement plans to offer holistic approaches that truly engage the wider school community including teachers, staff and students
  • Pressure faced by schools to show evidence of improvement in a short span — one school year — resulting in rapid directional shifts that undercut the slower incremental gains that are characteristic of continuous improvement methods
  • Overall school culture and failure to address the underlying issues related to a healthy and supportive school environment

What makes schools and districts succeed in their continuous school improvement efforts?

Based on the data compiled from more than 34,000 schools and school systems, Elgart points to several key factors that correlate to successful outcomes. Among them are factors such as clear direction informed by input and engagement of all stakeholders including teachers, students and staff. Other factors include setting high expectations stemming from an inherent belief that all students can achieve their potential.

At William Woods University, students pursuing Master of Education in Administration take courses such as EDU 597 Field Experience II, Portfolio, School Improvement. This course is designed to provide students with the opportunity to practice attitudes, skills, and behaviors necessary to provide positive leadership in an elementary, middle, or secondary level. Utilizing the practical experiences performed and related literature, students will address one school improvement issue through the completion of a formal paper.

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