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What Does, and Does Not, Work in School Improvement

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Before you click away, thinking, “Oh, this article is about school improvement, and I'm just a classroom teacher,” allow me to argue for the relevance of this post.

  • First, and most simply, many of the things below that don't work in school improvement also don't work in classroom improvement. There are quick, potentially powerful parallels.
  • Second, if we want to be the wisest classroom teachers we can be, it behooves us to read widely, as wide reading provides mental models not available in books strictly written for classroom teachers. My own reading diet lately includes a college world history textbook, Warren Buffett's essays to shareholders, a finance blogger who espouses stoicism, the book of Revelation, and Daniels and Zemelman's Subjects Matter. Part of this is simply because I read toward my curiosities; another is because my mentors have impressed upon me the value not just of reading, but of wide reading.

With that said, my heart rate increased the other day while reading John Hattie's Visible Learning for Teachers. I was particularly struck by his chapter “Mind Frames for Teachers, School Leaders, and Systems,” in which he lays out Ben Levin's work in How to Change 5,000 Schools: A Practical and Positive Approach for Leading Change at Every Level.

What doesn't work in school improvement

According to Levin, there are several assumptions that fail at creating “lasting, sustained improvement in student outcomes.” This matters to you and I because it sounds a lot like long-term student flourishing, and that's what we do. This, far more than some temporary achievement spike wrought by intense test-teaching efforts, is what we're after.

So what doesn't work? From Hattie's Visible Learning for Teachers, citing Levin's How to Change 5,000 Schools:

It does not work to assume that:

  • a single change can create improvements in a short time frame;
  • a few strong leaders can force a school to improve itself;
  • simplistic application of incentives will be a successful strategy;
  • the starting place is governance and policy;
  • new curriculum and standards can, by themselves, foster betterment; and
  • an accountability system with oodles of data will create improvement.

Let's treat each, briefly.

How such assumptions look in practice

Here's what Hattie and Levin are describing; here's what we need to watch for in ourselves.

  • Hyping up a single change and its projected impact. (“When we get 1:1 iPads, our kids will be ready for the twenty-first century in no time!”)
  • Leading through their strength alone. (“We are going to do this. I am going to make sure we do this.”)
    • I remember how I used to tell my students, early on in my career, “I'm not going to let you fail.”
  • Creating simple incentives for great teaching. (“If our kids get this many passing test scores, brownies!”)
    • The best incentives for teachers, I think, would be district-based grant programs modeled off of Character Lab's Teacher Innovation Grant. Teachers or teams of teachers apply for X number of $Y,000 grants on next year's topic of Z. And enough of this “the grant money needs to be used for project materials, etc.”
    • I wouldn't say it's horrible to reward your class with incentives — after all, real-life motivation is both extrinsic and intrinsic —  but my eye is always toward keeping these things simple and stressing to my students that getting good at things is a great reward.
  • Describing upcoming policy changes as a way forward (“With our new employee handbook, a lot is going to be better around here.”)
    • “Class, with these changes to our classroom management policy, all shall be well” — this isn't a great thing to say because that classroom management policy will only work if it's married to solid student-teacher relationships and robotic consistency.
  • Essentially chucking new standards at teachers and moving on. (“We are now implementing the Common Core.”)
    • I shudder when I hear of schools where teachers are required to submit lesson plans that, over the course of the year, include every last minutiae point of the standards. As you've read elsewhere on my blog, I heavily lean on focused, boiled down approaches to standards.
  • Getting giggly over data. (“This new ShinyObject system includes a special ShinyScanner and special ShinyScantron sheets that will allow us to keep track of exactly which student misses which question in every class throughout their entire K-12 career.”)

What does work in school improvement

So what does work? A balanced approach to both motivation and skill, for all stakeholders. Schools aren't struggling simply because teachers don't know enough or simply because teachers are unmotivated. It's more nuanced than that.

Hattie (Visible Learning for Teachers) cites Levin (How to Change 5,000 Schools):

Nine essential practices for improved outcomes:

  • high expectations for all students;
  • strong personal connections between students and adults;
  • greater student engagement and motivation;
  • a rich and engaging formal and informal curriculum;
  • effective teaching practices in all classrooms on a daily basis;
  • effective use of data and feedback by students and staff to improve learning;
  • early support with minimum disruption for students in need;
  • strong positive relationships with parents; and
  • effective engagement with the broader community.

Post Image- School Improvement, HattieHere's a picture of a school in which teachers can be excited to work — and that means a place where students are going to get a better education. These are the things a culture can be built on (elsewhere in the book, Hattie says “that the culture of the school is the essence of sustained success”). Imagine a school where:

  • students and teachers habitually and intentionally engage in hard work;
  • relationships are rich and professional — amongst and between teachers, administrators, parents, and students;
  • student motivation is understood, studied, and improved;
  • curricula is one part essential knowledge and one part a short, powerful list of critical skills that span content areas — my five “non-freaked out” things is an example of how conceptually simple but practically rich such lists could be;
  • simple, effective teaching practices are lauded;
  • teams develop key metrics for determining whether students are learning, resulting in common sensical use of data versus high-minded, complex, time-leeching data warehouses;
  • systems are in place to intervene when students need help, not after they've already failed;
  • parents and the community see the school as part of their team, not some detached entity.

There's a lot of hard work in Levin's nine essential practices — I would not try tackling all of these things simultaneously if I were a school leader.

But: I would try them. And I'd throw things out based on the aforementioned flawed assumptions.

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6 Responses to What Does, and Does Not, Work in School Improvement

  1. Gerard Dawson November 3, 2015 at 9:01 am #


    I appreciate you balancing this article with what does AND does not work for school improvement.

    These lists might be summarized by saying, “quick, superficial fixes don’t work, and long-term, work-intensive fixes might work.” But I think most people are afraid to come to that realization.

    Thanks for sharing this great article.


    • davestuartjr November 3, 2015 at 1:06 pm #

      Yeah, Gerard, that about sums it up 🙂 Plus: creating school cultures that are life-giving versus life-draining.

  2. Angela November 3, 2015 at 11:31 am #

    Dave, I love that this post mirrors the messages our District has been receiving from an organization called Solution Tree that is supporting us as we implement the culture and model of Professional Learning Communities. I will be forwarding this one on for sure because it is helpful and important to be able to hear the same message from multiple platforms and the work of Hattie is a powerful and well known platform. Thank you my friend! Blessings from Cali. 🙂

    • davestuartjr November 3, 2015 at 1:07 pm #

      Blessings to you and those sweet men of yours, Angela! 🙂

  3. Jim W November 3, 2015 at 10:04 pm #

    I have to admit that I sometimes sense a “flavor of the month” approach to school improvement, wherein we go gangbusters for a certain initiative (PLCs, DI, Marzano, etc.) only to forget about it in a very short time. Thanks for enumerating the simple things that truly work. I am especially intrigued by the idea that students and teachers should be habitually engaged in hard work. It’s not supposed to be easy, but sometimes the challenging tasks are the only ones worth doing

  4. Justin November 7, 2015 at 9:36 pm #

    Love the simplicity in teaching the “non-freaked-out” skills and making the goals transparent and attainable! How is Daniels’s “Subjects Matter?”

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