Let’s Get Better: How to make an improvement plan for your school

Summertime is all about sunshine, vacations, relaxing, and barbecues…right? Ideally, yes, but in practice, this is not always the case for school and district leaders. Although we hope everyone takes some time to relax after the end of the school year, we know that educators often spend summer reflecting and planning for the upcoming school year. 

At Ensemble Learning, we work directly with schools, districts, and charter organizations to help analyze data and plan for improvements that will increase equity for English learners, including providing professional development on research-based strategies for improving school culture and instruction. During the spring, we support schools as they plan for the following year, and during the summer, we help them make plans for how to implement what we’ve learned, so the summer stays pretty busy for us too!  I’m excited to share our improvement planning approach with you, including a few steps that will help you through the process: Step 1: Examine your data so you truly understand the current situation and can accurately pinpoint areas that need improvement

My colleague, Dr. Leigh Mingle, wrote an excellent blog last week about how leaders can make the best use of their data in order to understand how things are going at their schools. Instead of rehashing her recommendations, follow the link above to read her post. Leigh helps you think about how to develop hypotheses and evaluate those hypotheses with multiple forms of data in order to understand teaching, learning, and culture at your school.Step 2: Create a theory of action about what you want to improve based on your current situation

Educators work hard every day to make learning better for students. However, we’re not always great at articulating or documenting what changes we have made to improve learning, which makes it challenging to scale improvement across multiple classrooms, schools, or districts. When we don’t clearly record the improvement efforts we are doing or the expected outcomes, it is challenging for us to know if what we are doing is working or not. If learning improves at your school, you want to know exactly why so you can replicate those results elsewhere. On the flip side, if you are working hard to improve learning, but don’t see the expected results, you want to know what you’ve tried so you can revise your plans or develop new theories and plans.

A strong theory of action is first and foremost grounded in the needs the data has elucidated (see Step 1 for more information). In addition, the theory of action must link the proposed new efforts to the expected results with a seemingly simple “If…then…” statement. The “If” portion must be specific and target the right level of implementation (district-wide, school-wide, classroom), and the “then” portion must include how the success will be measured. 

When writing your theory of action, you may encounter a “Goldilocks-type” question: how much do I write vs. how concise do I make my theory? Ask yourself, “Is it clear what the major change effort is? Is it clear how we’re measuring success? Can I say the statement without running out of breath?” If your statement is too vague, add some specificity about the new idea to implement. If it feels like you’ve run a marathon after you’ve finished saying your statement, consider how you can generalize the statement (and save some of your details for step 3 below).

 Here are a few examples of strong theories of action:

Example 1: If every classroom at Improvement Elementary School implements a morning meeting that provides the opportunity for students to share about themselves in a safe and scaffolded environment, then students will report higher levels of “belonging” on the quarterly student survey.

Example 1 is a theory of action about  a school-wide implementation, and provides enough detail about the expectations for implementation by teachers and staff. However, it does not go into too many details about what the morning meeting looks like in order to keep the statement focused and concise.

Example 2: If mathematics teachers at Improvement Middle School identify, teach, and assess language objectives (in addition to content objectives) during mathematics instruction, then English learners will improve in their ability to articulate their mathematical reasoning (as measured by a pre-test and ongoing progress-monitoring), and by the end of the year, 75% of English learners will be able to articulate mathematical reasoning at a proficient level (measured by rubric).

Example 2 addresses a subset of teachers at a school, and provides information about what teachers will do, how they will measure results, and the expected school-wide outcomes. It has more about the measurability than example 1, but is not too long or convoluted.


Step 3: Consider aligned actions and activities that will help you make progress

Once you have an overarching theory of action, you can begin to get into the nitty-gritty! Most leaders love this part, and you’ll find that it’s much easier to plan your actions once you know the direction in which you are heading. You’ll also more easily be able to identify superfluous actions that will distract from your main goal. Educators get excited about improvement, and sometimes we try to do too much. Make sure your actions are aligned to your theory! Consider these categories:

  • Professional learning: What skills and capacity do your staff need to be successful? What differentiated training and development opportunities do various staff members require: teachers, classroom aides, yard supervisors, instructional coaches, specialist teachers, and administrators? For example 2 above, there will likely need to be some intensive professional development for math teachers about developing language objectives. However, it will also be important for instructional coaches and administrators to have a strong understanding so they can coach the implementation. Make sure your professional learning is ongoing, don’t just plan for one training at the beginning of the year. This article provides some great insights about how to plan effective professional learning.


  • Tools and resources: What needs to be developed to support the work? For example 1 above, a clear document that outlines what makes a successful morning meeting and associated resources will ensure teachers are on the same page about implementing the structure. Also, a one-pager on structures to scaffold a morning meeting and a pre-printed classroom poster with sentence frames for morning meeting might be helpful to all teachers. For example 2, the pre-tests, common assessments, and rubric for mathematical reasoning are all tools that will need to be developed.


  • Measurement: When and how will progress be measured, and how can you measure both the implementation and the outcome? For example 1, you would want to consider measuring implementation of morning meetings through a self-reported teacher survey or classroom walkthroughs by an administrator. This helps ensure the plan is followed with fidelity and will help a leader provide differentiated support if a specific teacher or team is struggling. In addition, you would want to ensure you have a plan for administering and reviewing the data from the student surveys on an ongoing basis.


Step 4: Make it clear who is responsible, what the timeline is, and how you will measure interim progress

Once you have brainstormed all of the aligned actions and activities, we encourage teams to create a table of implementation actions that delineates who is responsible and a timeline for completion. In addition, make sure you have the necessary infrastructure for success, such as bi-weekly meetings to check-in on the plan, a shared document of the planned actions, and a visible place where you can share interim data. 

At a school Ensemble worked with, the assistant principal posted a bar graph each week that showed what percentage of teachers were implementing language objectives (the shared strategy) in the classroom. They did not “shame” teachers who were not implementing by reporting data as an aggregate, but the public nature of the data helped jump-start conversations in the staff lounge and at professional development. Over time, more and more teachers implemented the targeted actions, and the staff could celebrate each week as the bar graph showed the greater implementation. 

Make sure the principal or a designated administrator or teacher leader takes ownership of the improvement plan and checks-in with individuals if action steps are not completed by the deadline. Help keep people on track with reminders and make sure all participants have the support and resources necessary to complete.

By ensuring that you check-in on interim progress and examine implementation and outcome data, you can also be agile in adjusting the plans when your data is not as expected. For the theory of action example 1, if students are not reporting and increase in belonging after a few months of morning meeting implementation, the school leader could bring together teachers to examine the data and dig a bit deeper into why the desired results were not achieved. If you gather data, make it transparent, and invite staff to be a part of the improvement planning conversation, you are certain to get on the right track with your efforts!

If you would like to learn more about the improvement planning process, let’s keep the conversation going via email. You can reach me at khamilton@ensemblelearning.org. If you’re interested in partnering with us to create an improvement plan, reach out to our CEO, Elise Darwish, at edarwish@ensemblelearning.org

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