5 Steps to Student Success

Reap the benefits of aligning your school around capacity.

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By Ronald S. Thomas
July 2020, Volume 43, Issue 11

School improvement is often perceived as a difficult, finger-pointing process designed to find someone to blame for less-than-hoped-for student performance. Suppose that there was a way that teams could identify the most effective actions to increase student learning, without the blame or pain often associated with this process. There is.

To be successful in increasing achievement, substantial evidence suggests that a school must align all its efforts around its capacity to improve, in a high-leverage area, directly related to its current performance level.

But how can school teams identify the best component of capacity to address, the one with the most punch to make a significant difference in student learning?

Building on the seminal systems thinking work of Peter Senge and the school capacity model of Newmann, King, and Youngs, the Instructional Leadership and Professional Development Department at Towson University has worked with elementary and middle schools to increase their alignment using a question protocol revolving around five areas.

Step 1: Identify the strengths and gaps in student learning.

The protocol begins by asking school teams to ponder the current state of student achievement in the school. Dialogue always starts with the positive, as participants identify their students’ content and skill strengths. Team members then describe the knowledge and skills in which greater progress needs to be made. Dialogue should center on what the data say, not what they mean. Interpretation will come later.

Step 2: Describe the curriculum, instruction, and assessment of the school.

School team members then determine the characteristics of the curriculum, instruction, and assessment (CIA) in the school that significantly impact student results.

Starting with the positive, teams identify one or two instructional strategies or components of instruction (the “bright spots”) that might have contributed the most to student strengths. They also identify one or two instructional strategies or components of effective instruction not happening regularly at a high level of quality that might have contributed the most to the students’ weak areas. Focus is on describing current CIA conditions, not evaluating them or placing blame.

Step 3: Analyze the systems and processes that make up the school’s capacity to improve.

The wording of the third key analysis question again helps to focus team discourse: “In what ways do the components of capacity (such as routines, processes, and procedures) contribute to our school’s curriculum, instruction, and assessment?”

The components of capacity can be:

  • Instructional, such as the content and pedagogical knowledge of staff;
  • Structural, such as the scheduling of teachers for common planning time and supports for struggling students and educators; and
  • Cultural, such as the extent of trust, inquiry, collaboration, and commitment to equity in a school.

Even though dialogue should still be in a descriptive, rather than an explanatory or evaluative mode, this is where team dialogue often breaks down because the conversation can become very personal. In the 2015 Educational Leadership article “Eliminating the Blame Game,” Swanson and colleagues note that it takes careful planning and intention to avoid the human tendency to fault people, not systems.  So, as Swanson notes, it’s important to ensure this dialogue starts from an understanding that everyone is working as hard as they can, but systems can always be improved.

“Systems,” in the context of this protocol, refer to the many procedures and processes embedded in every school and district.  The goal is to identify the one or two, under the control of the local school to change, that would be most effective at leveraging the bright spots and reducing student-learning gaps.

Step 4: Dig deeper to determine why processes are the way they are.

Then, team members reflect on the reasons why the identified capacity components exist the way they do in the school.

Several “why” questions might be required, each increasingly detailed, enabling the team to dig deeper into capacity issues and arrive at the root cause, which is within the control of the school to address immediately. When the dialogue inevitably moves to an explanation beyond the ability of the individual school to change, the team needs to be redirected back to a previous factor under the school’s control.

Step 5: Leverage the bright spots to identify the most effective action that will work to increase student learning.

School teams are now ready to deal with the final key analysis question: “What high-leverage actions can the school take to address the school capacity processes, procedures, or systems identified as the root causes of current achievement levels?”

To be most effective, high-leverage actions should be relatively simple to explain and implement. Their power lies in using already-proven strategies to target the weak capacity components. Sometimes, high-leverage strategies mean tweaking the instructional planning process or the school’s schedule to provide additional common planning time. It can mean going back to the “tried and true” differentiated professional learning practices to provide an avenue to both recognize previous accomplishments and advance teacher and student learning.

Using a protocol such as this, schools can dig deeper into their data and align their efforts around the capacity component with the best likelihood to make a significant difference in student achievement. Team members become systems thinkers. Peter Senge would be pleased.

Ronald S. Thomas is the interim chair of the Department of Instructional Leadership and Professional Development at Towson University.


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