As Many Ways To Improve Schools as There Are Students


February 5, 2015


A parent once asked me where I had gone when I was no longer a principal at his neighborhood school. I replied that I was working in school improvement. He said, “That’s great! Our playground needs more stuff to play on.”

That would have been an easy fix. Instead, I chose the simple task of school improvement—a term that at its core means increasing student learning. What I do is manage a network of coaches who work closely with Title I principals across Oregon on whatever elements of the school that the principals need help to improve.

What this means ultimately is helping the most challenged students learn more quickly, because the results show the negative consequences of falling behind. It also means convincing teachers—many of whom were “A” students who loved school when they were kids—that, with the right supports, every last kid in their classroom is capable of learning. Even though learning might not come as easily to some kids as it did to their teachers, all students can and will learn when the right supports are in place, and all teachers can make this happen in 175 days a year.

School improvement—increasing student learning—requires teachers to be as sharp as a scalpel, quick as a wink, smart as a whip, and responsive to every student, including those who are homeless, those who have learning challenges, those who already know the material, and those who fit into as many categories as there are students in the classroom. This is what needs to happen all day, every day, all year long.

A child only has one year as a fourth grader (hopefully). There is no time for teachers to waste, no time to learn new skills, no time to talk about practice and how hard it is to change routines and schedules. Yet, this is what is required for school improvement and increased student learning, and, yes, teachers are doing it. Is it fast? No. Is it easy? No. Is it doable? Yes.

How can you tell? Go into a school where kids are learning at high levels and ask the principal and teachers these questions: What’s the percentage of your kids who are on grade level in reading and math? What percentage of your English learners showed considerable growth last year? What percentage of your special education students met their goals? They will immediately know the answers, showing they have systems in place to teach, monitor, and reteach—the kinds of support a school needs to give every kid the opportunity to learn. If they don’t know the answer, they generally don’t have the systems in place to know who’s doing what.

And, ask the kids: What are you doing? Why are you doing it? What happens if you don’t understand it? They’ll tell you, and their answers will show you whether the school is on the right track.

If students are not learning, it’s not teaching, and if there’s no learning, there’s no school improvement, no matter how many resources are funneled into it. It's important always to remember that student learning is our top priority.

When I was a kid, I used to line up my Raggedy Ann dolls in the garage and try to teach them. They never learned a thing. When we work together, make our best effort, and remember students are people with different abilities and needs, kids can look toward their future with more possibilities than they can imagine.

What other ways can you tell a school is on the right track? What are your personal experiences in reaching every kid in your classroom or school?

Join us throughout February as we post blog entries and news articles that relate to school improvement. To follow our series, sign up to receive Northwest Matters blog notifications, and follow along on Facebook and Twitter.