Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Creating a Successful School Improvement Plan

School Improvement Plans (SIP) are the first step in turning around
failing and low performing schools. They must target improving student outcomes, parent engagement, and teacher training. Without highly motivated, trained and engaged teachers and supportive parents, your School Improvement Plans (SIP) are useless. For 100 years, schools and education-in-general has been the introduction to academic life that all children need in order to gain the qualifications needed to succeed as adults. As well as teaching specific academic subjects, education also looks to provide children with enrichment opportunities and life lessons to set them up for a successful productive life. Moreover, times are changing which means that schools need to be even more flexible, a school improvement plan that offers students the best academic service possible is an ongoing erudite process that takes a comprehensive team effort. Sadly, many schools turn the (SIP) process into window dressing that never impacts students academic or social enmotional outcomes. 

Currently, there are some key areas that provide concern for all stakeholders of schools and these are the barriers to school learning and teaching. For the most part, the success or failure of a school nowadays can be attributed to whether there has been a specific plan in place that looks to address barriers to learning and teaching. If these issues are not addressed, improvements cannot be made and the whole system collapses in on itself.

Barriers to Learning and Teaching - If a school improvement plan is to be successful, common educational and even psychosocial issues need to be addressed and this includes first and foremost learning problems due to poor language skills (word poverty), attention issues, language delays, reading difficulties, attendance problems, life transition issues, anxiety, abuse, health, family problems, and more. For the education industry, these are the biggest areas of concern because they have a huge impact on not only the learning of individuals but the learning of whole groups and classes.

In addition to this, there also needs to be a way of countering external stressors. For example, some children may not have sufficient clothing, food, or security at home whilst others face inadequate support systems and have to experience hostile environments at home. Of course, this has a huge impact on their experience at school so what are the best ways to handle this in a world where any sort of interference into personal lives is deemed immediately negative?

Finally, schools find it difficult to meet the needs of students with cognitive, developmental, intellectual, mental, physical, sensory, or some combination of these, and that substantially affects a student's school life and academic success. Students with learning disabilities, as well as mental or physical disabilities, are everyone's responsibility in a successful school. Not only is it a case of devising a special curriculum for such students, there is also the case for caring, serving, and accommodating students with disabilities. In recent years, we have seen an increase in students stress, poor student conduct, eating disorders, oppositional defiance, and school phobia. What’s more, there are significantly more young people experiencing severe depression, suicidal thoughts or self harming behavior, and post-traumatic stress disorder which presents new challenges for all involved.

All things considered, these are the major issues that schools face right now and they happen to be the biggest areas for concern for governing bodies and those in charge of educating the next generation. Later, we will be providing a five-step guide to creating a successful school improvement plan but it is first perhaps necessary to address the main questions that need to be asked in order to improve schools.

What is Missing? - For most people, the most fundamental question is ‘why aren't schools doing a better job in addressing emotional, learning, and behavior issues? However, it isn't as easy as this because, if something could be done, you would suggest that it would have been done a long time ago. Instead, we need to draw attention to what is perhaps the root cause of such problems - the fact that school policy and daily practice marginalize any attempts to fix said issues.

With this in mind, all programs and special projects that have been designed as a learning support service find themselves as ‘supplementary’. For example, the simple fact that all planning and implementation is done on an ad hoc basis, including when attempting to address these key barriers, is a cause for concern. Furthermore, the support staff required are normally operating independently of the main stakeholders which leads to an over-reliance, for small groups and individuals, on specialized services. Finally, fragmentation occurs when students are assigned to different programs who all work independently from one another. When this is allowed to happen, it drives up the cost of the whole process and the maximum results cannot be achieved.

Five-Step Plan - As mentioned previously, we have five key steps that need to be taken if a successful school improvement plan is to be constructed;

1) Vision - Before anything else can happen, you need to put an end goal on your improvement. If you could have your way, what would the school look like when finished, what practices would be in place, how would it differ to right now? Of course, this will be different for every school in every location so it needs to be unique with your goals in mind.

When we use the word ‘success’, we use it quite loosely because it is a subjective word. For some schools, they will have higher ambitions than others depending on the resources available to make the plans happen. Therefore, you need to spend some time defining success and then a vision can be created from this.

2) Comprehensive needs Assessment - In order to get to the end point, you need to know exactly where you are starting from. If you phone a friend and ask for exact directions, they will need to know where you are right now otherwise they cannot help. Therefore, you will need to conduct an honest assessment of your current position and practices.

Within this assessment, you should consider your strengths, weaknesses, and areas that need overall improvement. If you need a starting point, try looking through classroom walkthrough information, student achievement data, and, if you want the most honest of opinions, complete surveys of children, administrators, teachers, and even students. Ultimately, all of these stakeholders will want to see improvement in the school so will be willing to offer honest evaluations.

At this stage of the process, you need to be as honest as possible because no improvement can be made otherwise. If a chef believes that their food is the best of the best even though the customers and experts say otherwise, there is no way that the chef can improve if they aren't honest with themselves because they will think that everyone else is wrong. If you are going to make good decisions for the future of the school, you need to obtain a full picture of the school’s current state.

In a recent book, published after an extensive study, a research team attempted to discover what all high-growth companies had in common and why they were seeing more success than their competitors. Within every single company that they assessed, it was found that they would ensure every planning process started with ‘brutal facts’ and ‘reality checks’. Why? Because the path to the end goal will become glaringly obvious once you are honest and determine the absolute truth of what is occurring.

3) Goals - Using your vision that was created in step one, you can take your needs assessment and find some objectives. As well as having one huge goal that defines ‘success’, you should then break this down into numerous smaller, achievable goals. As well as long-term goals, make sure that you have some short-term goals too as this will allow you to see whether you are on the right path or not.

For example, your needs assessment may point out some key discoveries regarding your students. As well as an overall ‘what is the point in this’ mindset, you could find that students aren't finding lessons engaging enough to stay interested and keep paying attention. If you wanted to address these, you would set a number of goals;

Change lessons so that topics relate to real-life scenarios

Keep learning personalized so students understand the need

Ensure all understanding before switching topics via formative assessment

If you have limited time and resources, limit your goals to things that can be achieved in a short period of time. If possible, order goals in terms of importance and then get started because these are the ones that will have the largest impact. Once you start achieving goals, no matter how small, you know that progress is being made and you will be on your way towards the ultimate objective.

Sadly, some schools follow this five-step plan but they fail at this step because they try and solve everything at once. When this is attempted, only minimal effort is going into each change instead of focusing on one and then making progress this way. With just one aim to believe in, this can be reached before then turning to the next important objective on the list.

4) Action Steps - So far, we have a vision, an honest assessment, and some goals but this isn't enough alone. After finding out what you want to achieve, you need to lay out exactly how you plan to get there. Without actionable steps, there is no way to make progress. When you go on a road trip, you know your starting point and you know your end goal. However, you also lay out a plan so you can get there in time and the same can be said for a successful school improvement plan.

Unfortunately, this is another vital cog in the machine that schools tend to miss out and this leads to frustration and a distinct lack of improvement. For the most successful school districts, they map out how they are going to reach their end goals in the shape of strategies for all employees and ensuring that everyone is pulling in the same direction. If you imagine the school as a train with all the staff at the front, it isn't going to go anywhere is everyone is pulling in all different directions. Therefore, everyone needs to be reading from the same book at all times and the management has to keep them in line.

5) Include Stakeholders - Finally, we have something that is frequently forgotten and that is to keep all stakeholders included. When strategies are collectively established, they are proven to be more successful so leaders need to listen and keep an open mind. Going back to the study discussed previously, businesses that see the most success make sure that all stakeholders have a voice that can be heard. With this in mind, you should be including teachers, students, parents, administrators, and community leaders.

Summary - If you take the advice provided here and take actionable steps towards your goals, you will be well on the way to success. Of course, you will need to avoid the common mistakes we have discussed but, with this five-step plan, success is viable and achievable!

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