How to Successfully Gain Traction on School Improvement

A guide to school improvement for school and district leaders

Most school improvement efforts don't have enough traction.

Introduction: The Greatest Impediment to School Improvement

If you’re like most district and school leaders, you’re consistently being asked to do more with less. And the frequent changes in federal and state policies often times make your job even harder.

Through all of the changes and shrinking budgets, you’ve conducted many school improvement planning processes, provided professional development, and maybe even implemented new curricula and assessment systems that promised to deliver greater student achievement results.

Despite all of this, you see that student achievement results didn’t improve nearly as much as your goals predicted—in fact, some even went down. It’s defeating and discouraging.

The strategies and techniques that used to work, even just a couple years ago, just aren’t working anymore.

We all acknowledge that change takes time, but it is important to put systems in place that allow for the examination of signals along the change horizon that help ensure your decisions along that horizon lead to improvement, result in some early wins, and ultimately ensure a good use of human and fiscal resources.

There are three primary questions to consider that will help clarify decisions among the ever-changing education policy landscape and lead to consistent improvement with fewer dollars spent:

  1. How do I know (or predict more confidently) when a change will lead to improvement?
  2. How do I maintain focus in the face of so many competing priorities?
  3. How can I retool existing structures to create a learning organization that gets better at getting better every day?

In our work with districts and states across the U.S. (and now in the Middle East), the root cause of school improvement failure has become increasingly apparent: the lack of systems approaches.

Despite best efforts, most school-improvement initiatives—especially in high-needs, disadvantaged schools—fail or show little improvement, as evidenced by the recent findings from the USDOE School Improvement Grants. Some estimates show failure as high as 70% for strategic initiatives in for-profit companies, and the challenge is even greater with school-improvement efforts.

Given the pressing challenges educators face each day, it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day fires and priorities and lose sight of where you’re trying to get. Unfortunately, good intentions are not enough when it comes to driving and sustaining growth. So where do school leaders begin?

Research is clear about the primary factors influencing student achievement results. The single largest school-based determinant is the effectiveness of the teacher. Next, and just as important, is the effectiveness of building principalswho influence teacher retention and school climate.

If we assume a 30% success rate of “bad-to-great” turnaround efforts regardless of industry, the cards are stacked heavily against even the most adept and inspired leadership teams. Therefore, our theory of action asserts that schools improve when leaders implement well.

In the following eBook, we’ll learn about the keys to successfully creating school improvement, including how an investment in your teachers and school leaders leads to student achievement.

Implementation Drivers for School Improvement Initiatives

Section 1: Implementation Drivers for School Improvement Initiatives

With implementation science research in mind, there are three drivers that need to be in place for school improvement efforts to succeed, including ensuring fidelity of implementation and sustainable long-term results.

Driver 1. Human Capital (or Competency)

Principals with site-based hiring responsibility make no decision of greater consequence than the educators selected to join the school’s faculty. This driver focuses on selecting, developing, improving, and sustaining the school and its staff's ability to implement an intervention as intended in order to benefit students.

Tools include:

  • instructional and executive coaching;
  • professional learning; and 
  • selecting the "right people" to be a part of the school.

Driver 2. Organization

This driver helps schools build a conducive environment for launching the improvement effort in the short term, and sustaining improved schools in the long term. These drivers are differentiated by what the school has direct control over and those things that are controlled centrally.

Tools include:

  • developing core processes (i.e. the school’s own "playbook") for the key functional areas;
  • collecting, analyzing, and using data effectively; and
  • identifying and mitigating barriers that exist outside of the school as much as possible.

Driver 3. Leadership 

This driver emphasizes the technical and adaptive aspects of leadership, since they are believed to impact student achievement the most. There are two types of leadership.

  • Technical leadership involves managing the effective use of agreed-upon and proven procedures or programs (such as a reading program).
  • Adaptive leadership, on the other hand, requires leaders to engage in understanding the complexity of a challenge, convening others to devise solutions to the challenge, and gaining buy-in for the change.
Three Key Levers for School Improvement - Infographic

Section 2: The Key Three Levers for Improvement

While there are many factors that go into successful school improvement, we’ve identified three levers that research and on-the-ground experience tell us create systems for investing in teachers and school leaders—and get results for increasing student achievement.

The three levers include:

  1. Create and develop instructional leadership teams at the school level across the district.
  2. Build an effective instructional coaching program for all educators.
  3. Launch professional learning communities that work.

Continue reading below for details on the levers. 

Instructional Leadership Teams (ILTs)

Lever 1. Create and Develop Instructional Leadership Teams at the School Level Across the District

We know that a healthy leadership team is the key to gaining traction and sustaining a thriving organization. The instructional leadership team (ILT) is the key driver of the school-improvement process. They cultivate the “Implementer’s mindset"—focus, discipline, and accountability—within every staff member, and see that concrete actions are taken toward goals every day.

In practice, strong leadership teams always get two things right:

  1. They are cohesive.
  2. They use meeting time to proactively and efficiently work through issues that impede progress. 

ILTs not only set the vision and goals, but as a cohesive group of leaders, they proactively, efficiently, and regularly work through issues that impede progress so that real student achievement and learning can happen.

Each team is composed of school leadership (principal and vice principal), instructional coaches, and select teachers. A key component of a successful ILT is making sure that each team has both "visionaries" and "integrators."

  • Visionaries, as the name suggests, have a big-picture, far-reaching idea of what the school needs to look like and feel like when it is no longer in turnaround status and well beyond the initial years of stability.
  • Integrators, on the other hand, are great at getting things done by tackling issues daily, keeping people disciplined and accountable. They are able to translate the big ideas into action.

We recommend using survey tools, interviews, and common sense to construct the leadership team capable of driving rapid school improvement. Each leadership team member should have the sensitivity, grit, and knowledge to lead the school to a greatly improved state. 

Team members will agree to the following:

  • Be open-minded, solution-oriented, and vulnerable.
  • Live the implementer’s mindset and consistently model it for others.
  • View and own all problems in the school, not just those in his/her direct control.
  • Use researched-based tools and processes for conducting leadership team meetings.

Reflection Questions Reflection Questions for ILTs

As you consider establishing and/or developing your ILT, here are a few questions to reflect upon:

  1. Are we meeting regularly (weekly)?
  2. Have we established a clear vision, goals, and action steps?
  3. Are the right people on our ILT? Do we need to add people?
  4. How is the team cultivating a mindset of focus, discipline, and accountability?
  5. What processes do we have in place to ensure that our ILT is supporting improvement in our school?
  6. Are we regularly reflecting up on what’s working and what’s not in terms of achieving our goals?
  7. What is the coaching mechanism for our ILT?
Instructional Coaching - Three Levers for School Improvement

Lever 2. Build an Effective Instructional Coaching Program for ALL Educators

At the end of the day, everyone is looking for feedback—no matter what role they play in an organization.

Coaching provides the differentiation, support, and accountability that can help teachers and leaders get to that next level and create a larger impact on their organization.

Dr. Atul Gawande, an acclaimed surgeon and research scientist, wrote in a 2011 New Yorker article, “Coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance.” In contemplating his own professional development, Gawande researched instructional coaches—providers of job-embedded support—and found compelling evidence of the positive impact that coaching can have on growth in any industry.

Coaching for Teachers

Recently, a group of researchers—Matthew Kraft and Dylan Hogan of Brown University and David Blazar of Harvard University—released a compelling study examining the impact of coaching on instruction and student achievement. Not surprisingly, they learned that there is, indeed, a positive effect of one-on-one coaching on a teacher's instructional practice.

According to their paper, effective coaching must be:

  1. individualized;
  2. intensive;
  3. sustained; and
  4. focused on a specific context.

Reflection questions Reflection Questions for Coaching Teachers

  1. Are we connecting coaching to existing priorities, curricular programs, and instructional expectations to ensure alignment?
  2. How many coaches are in our building, and who is coaching them?
  3. Are we getting results from our coaching initiatives (oftentimes a large budget item in schools and districts) commensurate with the dollars we are spending?
  4. Are all our coaches—including instructional coaches and administrators—calibrated on what effective instruction looks like?
  5. Are our teachers being coached to be masters of their content and pedagogy?
  6. How can we use video to improve our teachers’ practice—as well as our own as leaders?
  7. How will we measure and reflect upon the success of our coaching initiative throughout the year?

Coaching for School and District Leaders

To be an effective agent of change today in districts requires leaders to have unique expertise in a wide variety of areas, including strategic planning, research and analysis, fiscal management, board and community engagement, implementation planning, communication and training, professional learning design, curriculum, and coaching.

This is why leaders in the business community have relied on executive coaching for decades to increase productivity, refine organizational systems, reach goals, and provide clarity in their work. As one consultant from the Alliance for Strategic Leadership puts it, coaching provides “the opportunity for feedback and guidance in real time” and “develops leaders in the context of their current jobs, without removing them from their day-to-day responsibilities.”

Coaching for school and district leaders provides:

  1. A sounding board and thought partner;
  2. Support with prioritizing and aligning major priorities;
  3. Feedback on strategic planning and management;
  4. An outside perspective on employees’ perception of leaders; and
  5. Accountability and support that leads to great execution on key initiatives.

Reflection questions Reflection questions for coaching for school and district leaders

  1. What can we do differently to ensure that district initiatives are manageable for principals and teachers to implement? 
  2. What structures can I use to build the capacity of my team to make strategic decisions and “manage up” effectively?
  3. As school and district leaders, how are we getting the support we need from our own executive coaches or mentors, as well as other leaders within and outside the district?

Resources for CoachingResources for Coaching Teachers

Resources for CoachingResources for Coaching Leaders

Professional Learning Communities - Three Levers for School Improvement

Lever 3. Launch Professional Learning Communities That Work.

Teacher-driven professional development is key to driving improvement in instruction. This can only happen through a process of “ground-up” change management—and the top-down conditions that support it.

Effective school leaders must provide the time and resources to proactively address problems of practice and develop solutions that will ultimately change outcomes for students.

Improvement is both a technical and a social process. Superior technique alone is insufficient to bring about improvement. Teachers, like doctors and other practice-based professionals, are most willing to try something new when someone they trust recommends it.

Professional learning communities (PLCs) have tremendous potential to improve teaching. In PLCs, teachers can work with one another to discover and develop new practices to help their students succeed. Teachers in PLCs can develop trust among colleagues who support their efforts to improve.

However, it isn’t guaranteed that this will happen. Most school system administrators who have had experience with PLCs know that they differ widely in their ability to transform teaching practice. Often, they only help individual teachers improve, and very few help schools themselves improve. 

In recent years, districts have realized the importance of ensuring job-embedded professional development is in place, which means professional learning occurs during the workday, in the workplace, and is linked to the goals set for students.

According to the book The Learning Educator: A New Era for Professional Learning, this type of professional development results in increased collaboration among staff, makes common goals more tangible to staff, and reveals higher-quality solutions to instructional problems.

In all schools, there are some teachers whose students consistently outperform their peers. These teachers’ students succeed in the same schools, under the same conditions, and facing the same problems as struggling students.


While we know that these teachers exist, they seldom get the recognition they deserve, and, all too often, their expertise—what they know and are able to do better than most—remains an untapped resource.

In our own attempt to answer these challenges, we developed the Supporting Teacher Effectiveness Project (STEP) framework, a systemic, data-driven PLC structure now implemented in schools around the world.

STEP Framework

STEP guides educators in identifying the bright spots—assets—that can be leveraged and scaled toward greater improvement and replication.

Developed in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, American Institutes for Research, and other key organizations, the STEP framework helps teachers solve problems through discovering, testing, and sharing better practices.

Reflection Questions Reflection Questions for PLCs:

  1. How do we know when a change in teaching practice leads to improvement in student learning?
  2. How do our PLCs create a collective responsibility for teaching practice?
  3. What’s the framework or process our PLCs use to encourage teacher collaboration through inquiry and dialogue?
  4. In what ways can our PLCs focus on continuous teacher learning?
  5. How can we ensure shared values, norms, and vision among PLC participants?

ResourcesResources for PLCs:

Section 3: Essentials to Implementation Success

The three levers should not be merely a collection of disconnected events. They should be a part of coherent, focused program that drives toward particular outcomes for each staff member and serves the overall vision for the school or district.

To provide cohesion to the three levers above, there are several essential things that will support and ensure success:

1. Adopt and act on the implementer’s mindset.

Foundational to any major initiative, the implementer’s mindset—focus, discipline, and accountability—is a key part of ensuring that whatever initiatives you implement are successfully implemented. The mindset is an attitude that strong implementers hold about what it takes to be successful. A precursor to action, this attitude is not a strategy or tactic but rather a heightened sense of awareness about implementation, and it is necessary for all ILT and PLC members.

2. Ensure alignment between your instructional initiatives (the levers) and your school or district’s strategic plan.

A strategic plan serves as an essential foundation and roadmap for all improvement efforts in your school or district. It ensures that all educators are on the same page and serves as a "living document" that is referenced throughout the year to check on progress and to ensure that all initiatives are in direct alignment with the plan.

Misalignment or lack of alignment between a strategic plan and additional initiatives (such as the three levers) not in the plan can lead to confusion among staff, extra burdens on teachers as priorities may conflict, questions from school boards about approving funding for initiatives that are not clearly aligned to strategic goals and initiatives, and ultimately lack of progress towards student achievement.

If you haven't developed a strategic plan yet or it has been a while since you updated yours, consider doing a planning process that includes:

  • A careful review of data and recommendations from the instructional needs analysis or quality school reviews;
  • Internal and external stakeholders working collaboratively to develop the plan;
  • An end product that includes a vision, theory of action, assets (what's working already), aspirational yet achievable goals and priorities;
  • Short-term, 45-day “rocks” or short-term projects for the ILT to begin implementing at the school and district levels;
  • A strategic abandonment process for “clearing the deck” of initiatives that are not working while guarding against ending initiatives prematurely.

The key to getting traction towards your vision and goals is ensuring that your ILTs are regularly referring back to the strategic plan and maintaining progress through short-term projects (or rocks) that will ultimately lead to the bigger win by the end of the year.

3. Conduct an instructional needs analysis or quality school reviews at the beginning and end of every school year.

To make progress, school and district leadership must have a full and accurate understanding of staff needs and areas of opportunity identified through:

  • Student achievement data;
  • School-improvement plans;
  • Teacher goals and evaluation data;
  • District/community/school initiatives (e.g., standards, innovation with technology, blended learning);
  • Research and best practices; and
  • Teacher/participant feedback and needs assessments (e.g., surveys).

To get an objective perspective and to identify how new initiatives are impacting student achievement goals, we recommend working with a third-party organization (such as Insight) who can provide some helpful observations and recommendations to inform your improvement plans and priorities.

4. Join or create a networked improvement community.

Teaching and leading can be isolating, whether you’re an educator in a large or small school or district. In today’s world, schools and districts should not accept geographic isolation but instead leverage technology to forge partnerships with districts, charter management organizations, and schools across states with a similar needs, goals, and philosophies. This is where the power of Networked Improvement Communities (NIC) lies.

Stemming originally from Douglas Engelbart of SRI International and then further developed by the Carnegie Foundation, a NIC is a distinct group that arranges human and technical resources so that the community is capable of getting better at getting better and can be that critical force needed to the key levers to grab hold within a school or district.

The NIC also provides principals, assistant principals, teacher leaders, and teachers with a broader network of peers for meaningful, job-specific collaboration and provides systemic pathways for effectiveness and successes to permeate across (not just within) schools.

Return on Investment on Three Levers for School Improvement

Section 4: Return on Investment

One of the big lessons we’ve learned in our own work as leaders is that it is easy to get caught up in so many priorities that when you get to the end of the year, you don’t see results. At this point, it’s important to take some time to reflect on what’s getting in the way of gaining traction.

As a leader, creating effective systems requires upfront investment of time; however, the return on that investment can be significant such as:

  • earlier and more frequent wins in the improvement process
  • better climate and culture
  • increased retention of your best educators
  • increased interest from educators who want to join your schools
  • confidence that the allocation of your resources are leading to impact on student learning and achievement

If you want to avoid getting caught up in doing too many things, build in regular time for reflection for you and your ILTs to unpack what’s really working and what should be taken off the table.

The three levers described above provide a helpful and focused framework for improving instruction across your schools and district. Why not give them a try? 

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