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The power of action planning

 

School leaders tasked with school improvement face a daunting challenge. As the bottom 5% of schools within the U.S are identified in need of school improvement based on, among other factors, proficiency on standardized tests, school leaders and their constituents face often unique and alarming sets of circumstances when confronting such problems. Oftentimes available improvement strategies can appear numerous, overwhelming, extravagant and time consuming. Time, in many cases, is not an unlimited resource gifted to school improvement leaders and personnel. The brilliance of quality action planning, when done strategically, offers school leaders a targeted cost-effective game plan to address the unique needs within a school building. This article will examine and discuss key factors leaders should consider in order to facilitate action planning that delivers authentic results.

 

The state of the nation 

The challenge of providing quality education to the nation’s neediest students is costly, both in human and financial capital. According to the research, in order to close the achievement gap in underserved communities, it would cost three to four times current expenditures in order to sufficiently support the nation’s highest poverty areas. Additionally, state budget cuts, as well as increasing teacher shortages in high needs areas, further exacerbate this issue. In short, never has the need for quality, targeted school reform been greater.

The complexities of the road ahead 

Educators and school leaders looking to improve their schools must stay abreast of a multitude of factors that contribute to an institution’s success. Such elements include, but are not limited to:

  • The culture of learning within the school building
  • Latest research and national educational trends
  • Specific factors that contribute to or hinder academic success as it applies to focus student groups
  • Leveraging the competencies and cultural expertise of human capital within a school community
  • Staying current on criteria of success as it applies to meeting the federal guidelines as established by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)

School leaders must adapt a relevant and coherent plan in order to successfully address these factors while simultaneously addressing the daily challenges that inevitably occur in day-to-day school operations. This task is further intensified by the already overloaded nature of the teaching profession and the multitude of readily available one-size-fits-all “solutions” within the private sector.

Due to the limited time and resources often confronted by educators, combined with the desire to get results quickly, schools may unwittingly adapt initiatives that may not suit the specific needs of their individual populations, thus limiting results. Even school leaders with an incredible array of experience and noblest of intentions may find themselves amidst inconsistently developed/applied initiatives that fizzle and fade quickly; resulting in teacher frustration and overload. These factors negate quality school improvement.

In some cases, district mandates assign prepackaged solutions and implement curriculum on a district level, despite evidence that a more personalized approach generates greater academic results. Oftentimes these prescribed curriculums and initiatives focus on generating a very specific type of growth; achievement as dictated by standardized testing. The downside of such an approach is two-fold. Firstly, a specific emphasis on standardized testing focuses on only type of demonstration of learning during one moment of a learner’s educational journey. Secondly, the results of summative assessments such as end of year high stakes exams come long after any meaningful change can occur on the students that supplied the results.

What is Quality Action Planning?

According to EdGlossary.com, action planning is defined as a strategic blueprint for school reform based on a thorough analysis of available data.

A quality action plan should detail specifically how a school will achieve its determined objectives through concrete and actionable steps that cohesively drive a school towards academic improvement. The plan is developed after a careful and comprehensive quality review is conducted, either by school leadership or an outside educational organization, in order to focus on initiatives that maximize a school’s potential for success. A quality action plan:

  • Establishes clear cut goals designed intentionally based on a school’s shared beliefs about student learning
  • Reflects the needs of all learners and practitioners
  • Is cohesively aligned to both a school’s vision and state/national standards
  • Consists of actionable next steps founded on researched based best practices

 

Comprehensive Quality Review

The school improvement journey begins with a focused quality review that examines cultural and academic challenges that hinder scholastic success. The process helps engage school leadership teams (SLT) and other stakeholders in the formation and prioritization of targeted goals for school improvement based on the establishment of shared values and beliefs. It may include:

  • Classroom observations focused on evidence of student learning
  • Interviews with all constituents (students, teachers, parents, leadership, administrative personnel etc.)
  • Close examination of the available quantitative data

Additional qualitative and quantitative factors help the SLT collaboratively set up a metric or success criteria that revolves around those created goals. Essentially the action plan is a roadmap toward academic success, utilizing researched based best practices, that is tailor fitted to meet the needs of school agencies and takes into consideration special challenges encountered by focus populations, such as students with disabilities and English language learners.

Benefits of Quality Action Planning

Generally speaking, properly executed quality action planning results in substantial growth in the following areas:

  • Access to an academically rigorous, relevant curriculum while simultaneously addressing issues in educational equity
  • Establishes success criteria which are carefully reflected upon and monitored in order to identify areas of success and guide further areas of development
  • Mobilizes and maximizes available resources while managing costs and limiting unnecessary expenditures
  • Articulates a shared vision of purpose and establishes a common goal thus ultimately creating a positive school culture

Additionally, quality action planning encourages reflection aligned directly to a shared vision allowing school leaders to appropriately plan and administer high impact professional development as the need arises.

A case for Quality Action Planning 

In our work with school leaders and districts, leaders invariably articulate a vision with great clarity, but often struggle to prioritize the goals that will deliver that vision. Here, Class Measures acts as thinking/planning partners, strategically and collaboratively working with leadership in order to create a plan that is both aligned to district recommendations while respecting the individualities that make a school unique. Quality action planning provided by Class Measures emphasizes thorough reflection of the quality of teaching and learning and then uses that data in the creation of alternative metrics to evaluate a school’s progress. In some cases, this can take the form of a generated survey that analyzes teachers’ perceptions of their role in driving the school’s mission. In others, it may mean developing professional developments with meaningful deliverables. The main objective is that all teachers leave empowered, ready to achieve the expectations that have been set for them. This allows school leaders to make necessary changes/adjustments in real time.

The Clover Park School District (CPSD) is one such area where quality action planning resulted in the development and use of alternative metrics in order to assist in the school transformation process. Located in the Lakewood Community in Washington State, CPSD identified three schools in need of further support. Class Measures was invited to work with three schools within the district: Tillicum, Park Lodge and Lakeview Elementary Schools. Although all three schools felt the burden of multiple complicating factors such as a high staff turnover and an increasing English Language Learners, educational specialists were able to help the school develop goals specifically tailored to each school’s needs. One area that was shared by all three schools was the desire to develop a collaborative community of learning partners focused on student learning. In order to help these schools realize this goal, Class Measures consultants used the Effective Learning Observation (ELO) Protocol in order to develop a school culture committed to professional growth and collaborative conversation. Using this highly effective methodology teachers and leaders within their respective schools developed a common language and shifted their focus from examine teacher actions to focusing only on evidence of student learning. ELO became the engine by which transformative conversations began taking place between peers leading to a school culture focused on collaborative learning and helped the entire school community to move towards realizing the mission and vision they set for their schools.

Conclusion

The road to school improvement is often laden with complex and multidimensional problems, that thwart a school’s ability to achieve academic success. The elements that make a school unique can oftentimes be the very factors that derail a comprehensive and robust plan for improvement. Even more frightening, such complexity can result in a tremendous amount of time and resources spent with no measurable impact. School leaders attempting to turn struggling schools around need not only a clear vision of desired outcomes, but a structured methodology of collaboratively constructed objectives in order to realize that vision. A quality action plan is not only a necessity for school improvement, but the obligation for leaders that hope to meaningfully impact all of their learners.

Class Measures operates as thought partners in this work in order to provide an action plan that speaks to the community in which it hopes to support. By pushing teachers and school leaders to reflectively analyze systems already currently in place, Class Measures consultants develop a plan that establishes metrics of evaluation outside of standardized testing and on the students they serve.