Lessons on School Improvement

General lessons to be learned about the school improvement process are described below.

1. Even a large staff can be involved in developing or revising a school improvement plan.

One day of in-service was set aside for staff to revise the campus improvement plan. The PSI coordinator divided the staff into two large groups of approximately 100 each that were further broken down into subgroups of about ten people. Each subgroup discussed one of the eleven objectives in the original school improvement plan being revised. By working alternately in small and large groups to review and revise different portions of the plan, the faculty as a whole had a chance to participate in updating the plan. Although the logistics were difficult, the school demonstrated that it is possible to involve even a very large group in the development and revision of a school improvement plan.

2. Professional development has a greater impact on organizational development if it is provided to the faculty as a whole.

Training and development were the cornerstone of the leaders' initiative to change attitudes. Since many staff did not know each other, the leaders began the year with a session on Life Management Skills and provided staff development on a monthly basis thereafter. Staff were generally enthusiastic about all the training they had received but especially liked the Life Management Skills and the session that involved them in revising the campus improvement plan. During interviews, several people indicated that staff were "more unified," working "more together," or working more "like a family." This organizational development could only be achieved by providing professional development to the staff as a whole. Individual staff development and group-oriented development serve very different purposes (Anderson, Milstein, and Greenberg, 1993). Individual professional development may enhance the skills and abilities of an individual, change his or her outlook or understanding, or rejuvenate that person's motivation, but it is not likely to have much impact on working relationships or shared vision. By comparison, staff development provided for a group as a whole, as was done at PSJA, establishes common ground for a group and a common understanding of goals and how to achieve them. It gets people working together more effectively to achieve the goals of an organization.

Interestingly enough, at the end of the 1992-93 school year, teachers suggested at a campus council meeting that they could provide staff development to each other in 1993-94. Although they appreciated the staff development provided by outside consultants, they valued the expertise of staff within the school and were ready to learn from each other. A related idea was "switching," whereby two teachers would agree to switch roles. The PSI coordinator originally suggested switching roles, and the staff development committee brainstormed ways to make it work. With help from each other in preparing the lessons, the teachers would maintain the quality of the lesson while modeling themselves as learners in front of students. Moreover, switching might facilitate interdisciplinary instruction. While these ideas partially reflected past experience with peer coaching, they also grew out of the in-service described above in which staff worked to revise the campus improvement plan. Staff participation in the plan revision process had the unifying effect of focusing their attention on goals they could accomplish together. A climate of innovation and continuous improvement was beginning to emerge.

The effectiveness of the staff development program appeared to hinge on the role of the PSI coordinator, who had a strong background in staff development. She honed the leaders' skills at planning and delivering training. The leaders learned to appreciate the importance of preparing and planning for everything from the goals and agenda to the name tags and grouping arrangements.

3. Communicating a vision for the school to staff development providers can aid in developing a shared vision in a large school.

In addition to assisting with the planning and delivery of staff development sessions, the PSI coordinator urged school leaders to articulate their vision to the staff development providers. By investing time up front with the trainers to explain what they hoped would be achieved in the sessions, the leaders made the staff development program more successful than it might have been otherwise. Sharing the vision with the trainers helped the leaders to see that they needed also to communicate their vision more generally throughout the school.

School-wide projects may also help to shape a vision by drawing teachers together around a common focus. "Community Day," described earlier, is a good example of such a school-wide project.

In reality, a change in attitudes can be viewed as a change in vision. Vision, attitudes, and expectations are inextricably linked. In view of how large the faculty was, the principal favored the formal process of staff development to communicate his vision over more informal communication channels such as meetings or one-on-one interactions. Staff development is a means for developing and communicating vision.

4. Reflection and critical inquiry are important components of effective staff development.

The PSI coordinator debriefed with the administrators and key teachers immediately after each staff development session and again a few days later to discuss how effective the day had been and any changes that needed to be made. Immediately after the session was a good time to debrief because one's memory of how the day went was fresh, making it easy to remember the details of what went well and what could be done differently. It was equally important to debrief a few days later, however, when staff had had a chance to contemplate how they might use what they had learned and the major points stood out more clearly. Members of a faculty need time to revisit goals, reward progress, and reflect on what is working and what is not. Time must be given to readjusting their organizational process, instructional strategies, and curriculum focus on a continuous basis.

5. Changing attitudes or mental models is a worthwhile goal.

School leaders provided staff development for the purpose of changing attitudes directly. Their approach might be summarized as follows:

  1. Staff development
  2. Change in the attitudes and beliefs of teachers, students, and parents
  3. Change in the classroom practices of teachers
  4. Change in the learning outcomes of students

This approach to changing attitudes directly would appear to contradict some theoretical models, in which a change in behavior precedes a change in attitudes. One of these models is the theory of cognitive dissonance in the field of psychology. In studies of cognitive dissonance, people were induced to behave in a certain way that purportedly generated an uncomfortable feeling of dissonance between the behavior and their moral or ethical beliefs. After behaving as they did, their beliefs appeared to change to align with their behavior, as though they resolved the dissonance by changing their beliefs. In the field of education, Guskey (1986) proposed a similar model. A change in attitudes is the last step in the sequence outlined by Guskey:

  1. Staff development
  2. Change in the classroom practices of teachers
  3. Change in the learning outcomes of students
  4. Change in the attitudes and beliefs of teachers

Guskey's model notwithstanding, the approach used at PSJA appears to be valid. While the indirect process outlined by Guskey may explain many attitude changes, it appears nevertheless worthwhile to attack attitudes directly in some situations. Although the goal of changing attitudes seemed vague to SEDL's researchers at first, the value of focusing on attitudes became apparent by May 1993. In interviews conducted at that time, most staff commented that communication had improved and teachers were working more collaboratively. While the school has only begun the process of improving classroom practices, it appears to have taken a giant step forward toward creating a climate conducive to change.

6. Assistance and flexibility help compensate for scarce resources.

The principal is known for dipping into his own pocket to assist a student or teacher as the need arises. He may pay for food at a faculty function, for example, or buy an item for a student. Examples of his generosity are cited by some staff as evidence that students are a high priority for him and he cares about his staff. Being generous with one's own personal resources is a matter of personal choice, of course, but for PSJA's principal, it both solves immediate problems and sets an example that favorably impresses many members of his large staff.

Despite the school's huge size and hierarchical management structure, the principal maintains an "open door," providing assistance to staff, students, and parents when they need it. Assistance and flexibility are key elements in the entire Partnership Schools Initiative. The state department of education acts as a partner whose role is to support the school and assist in eliminating barriers to student achievement.

The PSI coordinator regularly submits a report to the Texas Education Agency on the progress of the PSI schools in her region. According to instructions from the agency, she describes the progress of each school as (1) moving toward its PSI goals on schedule, (2) progressing slowly, or (3) making minimal progress. When the state department's PSI staff see a report of minimal progress, they call and ask "What can we do to help?" This approach is a refreshing departure from the typical relationship between a school and the state education agency, which usually puts emphasis on monitoring schools' compliance with its procedures.

The Partnership Schools Initiative is specifically designed to give more flexibility in rules and regulations through a waiver application process. By allowing a waiver to be approved by the regional education service center rather than the state education agency, the state agency has streamlined the approval process. PSJA hesitated to take full advantage of this waiver process, however. Until fall 1993, the only waiver the school sought was an increase in the number of staff development days normally allowed, from six to ten. Like the Chinese woman, whose tightly bound feet would hurt if the straps were loosened too quickly, the school wanted freedom to come gradually enough so that the district and community would accept it. But this, too, is changing. PSJA has since pushed its first waiver not related to staff development through the approval channels.

Next Page: Impediments to School Improvement

Published in Issues ...about Change Volume 3, Number 2, Changing Mental Frameworks: One High School's Success through a Triad Partnership (1994)