A Vision for School Improvement

by Pamela Porter
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XVII, Number 2, Leadership for Learning

Photo of Shirley Hord presenting to a room of educators.
Shirley Hord, SEDL scholar emerita, discusses the concept of shared vision with a group of workshop participants.

Any journey begins with just one step. But without a clear picture of the destination, that step is likely to be in the wrong direction. The journey to school improvement and student achievement is no different. Everyone involved— administrators, teachers, students, parents, and members of the community—need to develop a focused image of the goal and create a map that will lead them there together. This concept, known as shared vision, fosters success because everyone becomes part of the process, understanding and believing in his or her role in the day-to-day pursuits of helping students learn in productive ways. All have ownership in that ideal and are committed to change.

SEDL program associate Tara Leo Thompson defines shared vision as “clear direction and expectations of what the district leaders want in terms of student achievement, derived from a dialogue with all stakeholders.” She stresses that while parents and community members should be involved, it is up to the district to concentrate on the task at hand—making sure all students achieve. “The direction and expectations are operationalized. In other words, you know exactly what you are supposed to be doing on a daily basis and how you are progressing toward your goal,” Thompson says. The top administrator in a district or school guides the process and perhaps even introduces his or her own mental image of what students can achieve and what the school could become after its implementation.

The first question that Linda O’Neal, professor of Leadership and Education Studies at Appalachia State University, asks administrators who are being introduced to the concept of shared vision is, “What does success look like?” O’Neal says, “If they can answer that, then they have a mini-vision right there; they’re getting somewhere! They are no longer circling around and around like a dog trying to get settled on his bed.”

O’Neal is enthusiastic about shared vision—she believes it can lead a school to improved student achievement. Developing a shared vision is not an instant process, however. Superintendents and principals must dedicate the time and energy to become familiar with the idea. “One cannot articulate or develop a vision unless he or she has some knowledge on the topic and an understanding of what is possible,” O’Neal says.

Novices are often convinced they have the perfect solution for improving their learning communities and then expect their staff to embrace the plan and do whatever is necessary to make that personal objective come to fruition. “Savvy veterans know it is far better for you to plant the seeds and let the ‘us’ grow that vision—to go into it like a gardener,” O’Neal explains. This requires administrators to develop skills in communication and leadership and instill those qualities in their staff, remembering that individuals affected by decisions need to be a part of making them.

In her experience of working with lowperforming schools, SEDL scholar emerita Shirley Hord has found that a school’s shared vision of change or improvement enables teachers to be more effective and students to be more successful. But before developing a shared vision, Hord believes it is mandatory to involve the entire school staff in looking at data “very, very early on” so that teachers and principals know where they are in relation to student learning and together can decide where they want to be.

The Devil Is in the Details

Hord encourages teachers and administrators to understand how to achieve their vision by helping them generate a detailed word picture called an Innovation Configuration (IC) Map. “Frequently schools will select a program, and then they develop a very sharp and specific vision of what the classroom will look like when it is implemented,” she says. Hord says an IC Map can be developed for “everything under the sun.” For example,” an IC Map can be created for math or reading curriculum or a whole-school reform program. The map portrays major components of a program and the highest ideal of implementation of those components, illustrating exactly what the approach should be. It also identifies levels of implementation of a program or innovation to describe what implementation may look like at different stages (see page 23) for different people involved. It may show what the teacher, principal, and/or students should be doing, for example.

Lynette Thompson, principal of Western Oaks Middle School in Bethany, Oklahoma, utilized a mapping process and reports the results were “awesome.” First, she and her staff conducted data analysis on students’ criterion-referenced tests. “We wanted to find out what was wrong and how our kids could improve,” Thompson says. “After looking at blueprints from the state, we came up with mapping guides that helped us figure out what we needed to be covering [in the classroom] and how to go about it.” As a result, Western Oaks, which was previously ranked near the bottom of the district, now shares the top spot with another middle school. Thompson has seen another unexpected benefit: discipline problems in the classroom have declined markedly as instructional strategies changed.

Sally Mendez, principal of Rio Grande Elementary School in Hatch, New Mexico, also has been working with SEDL staff on improvement issues. Her school’s vision is “for teachers to value education for every child at school.” Mendez and her faculty found a great disparity between students who are English Language Learners (ELL) and students who speak English. They discovered ELL students were not really literate in either language. Rio Grande Elementary teachers are working toward their vision by changing instruction to make sure all students learn to communicate effectively and by setting high expectations for all students.

For example, Mendez says, “after a lot of dialogue, we changed curriculum, getting away from worksheet teaching and toward problem solving in math. Students need to understand the concepts and be able to apply those concepts.” The goal of building vocabulary for improved reading comprehension, which supports learning in all subjects, is within reach as well. “Seeing children start to believe in their abilities is what makes this work rewarding,” Mendez says with a smile.

Continuously Communicate and Articulate

Hord agrees that a shared vision of improvement for schools that establishes expectations is an essential step for creating meaningful change. “The sharing part is what makes it difficult,” she says, maintaining it is up to the leader to continuously communicate, articulate, and remind others of what that vision is and then assess how well they are reaching that ideal.

Hord contends failure occurs in implementing any type of vision when there is no clear focus of what the school wants to improve, when schools are “woefully lacking in leadership,” or when educators, vulnerable to marketers and “do gooders,” fail to concentrate on the vision and start going off in a different direction. In Tara Leo Thompson’s experience, pitfalls in the process can happen when the school’s path is envisioned in isolation with little input from all involved and no effort to bring all staff onboard. “Also, it is easy to write it down and put the vision away. It must be something you believe in and practice everyday,” she says.

Hord, O’Neal, and Tara Leo Thompson all agree that it is necessary for school leaders to continuously remind staff, students, parents, and the community of the shared vision. It may be necessary for principals and superintendents to encourage, push, persuade, and support all involved to move toward the shared vision.

Some faculty and staff refuse to take on the challenge of the change that is required for a school or district to achieve its vision. It is rare when 100 percent of those involved will be working in concert at any given time. However, it is important for administrators to listen to the naysayers because they may express some valid concerns. After that, “you can’t always let the squeaky wheel get the grease; it’s not a good investment of your energy,” O’Neal says. Effective administrators realize they cannot take on everyone’s problem and still be able to focus on what is most important. O’Neal notes that a helpful communication tool is knowing how to intervene and sever the damaging “drama triangle” of persecutor, rescuer, and victim before even more valuable time is wasted. She also says that recognizing and celebrating success is always beneficial in building morale and positive energy.

Sharing the vision can also mean sharing leadership roles. Western Oaks principal Lynette Thompson advises that teachers who are excited about learning new ideas and methods of instruction to achieve the school’s vision can be a tremendous resource. “They can role model what the instruction looks like,” she says. They can also generate the positive energy that O’Neal values.

While the concept of the original shared vision may remain the same, its implementation will most certainly evolve over time. Instruction should be refined as activities are evaluated, determining which work well and which need to be tweaked or replaced. “We should always be in the change process,” says Shirley Hord.

Linda O’Neal agrees. “It’s a law of nature,” she says. “Entropy, which means regression or decline, has already started the moment you develop any plan.” That demonstrates how essential it is for the school and district to become a community of learners, always open to new ideas and willing to take risks to realize the best possible outcome for their students. Patience is mandatory in this process, however. There is no magical transformation overnight, with noticeable results often taking 3 years to achieve in this trial-and-evaluate cycle.

“Take baby steps,” advises Lynette Thompson. “And don’t give up on people. Change is hard on everyone, and some people you’ll never get on your ship. But you have to keep sailing!”

Mapping the Vision

Suggested Reading

Alquist, A. & Hendrickson, M. (1999). Mapping the configurations of mathematics teaching. Journal of Classroom Interaction, 34(1), 18–26.

Hall, G. E. & George, A. A. (2000, April). The use of Innovation Configuration Maps in assessing implementation. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 445099)

Hall, G. E.. & Hord, S. M. (2006). Implementing change: Patterns, principles, and potholes (2nd Ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Hord, S. M., Stiegelbauer, S. M., Hall, G. E., & George, A. A. (2005). Measuring implementation in schools: Innovation Configurations. Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.

SEDL scholar emerita Shirley Hord suggests that schools use Innovation Configuration Maps (IC Maps) to make clear what everyone in the school should be doing in order to reach the shared vision. IC Maps are valuable in that they can be created for teachers, students, principals, and even parents, to help all stakeholders see what everyone’s role is in reaching the vision and what every stakeholder should be doing. However, creating an IC Map has quite a few steps. Readers interested in developing such a map should refer to the suggested reading list at the right.

The partial map shown here is an example of what an IC Map looks like. Let’s suppose that Jones Elementary School has as part of its vision that families will be involved in their children’s education. Before developing an IC Map, faculty and staff must come to agreement about what everyone needs to do to reach that vision. They would even have to agree on what they mean by the term “involved.” Once they have done these things, they could then create a map. In this example, the IC Map shows what teachers will be doing to reach the shared vision of having every family involved. The practices shown on the map, from left to right, range from the ideal to least desirable practice.

Innovation Configuration Map—Jones Elementary School Family Involvement

1. Teacher implements strategies to increase family or caregiver involvement.
a b c d
Provides parent education workshops about child development and home conditions that support learning. Offers suggestions about strategies that parents can use to support student learning at home. Communicates with families about school programs and student progress (e.g., information about report cards, grading practices, school events, student work). Encourages families to attend school functions, yearly conferences, and school performances. Offers suggestions about strategies that parents can use to support student learning at home. Communicates with families about school programs and student progress. Encourages families to attend school functions, yearly conferences, and school performances. Communicates with families about school programs and student progress. Encourages families to attend school functions, yearly conferences, and school performances. Encourages families to attend school functions, yearly conferences, and school performances.


2. Teacher uses technology to increase communication between school and home about student learning.
a b c d
Creates a classroom Web site where families can view school and classroom news, classroom assignments, and special notices. Uses e-mail and voicemail to communicate with families. Communicates with parent or caregiver by phone during and after school. Uses e-mail and voice mail to communicate with families. Communicates with parent or caregiver by phone during and after school. Communicates with parent or caregiver by phone during and after school. Does not use technology to communicate with families.

Tips on Developing a Shared Vision Statement

It is often helpful for those involved in the process of developing a shared vision to think about the type of school they would like their own children to attend. Providing unfinished statements for these individuals to consider compels them to focus on what they believe this ideal setting would look like. Some good examples include the following

  • “I believe a school should teach . . . ”
  • “I want my school to become a place where . . . ”
  • “A successful student is one who . . . ”
  • “The kind of school I would like to teach in . . . ”
  • “An effective classroom is one in which . . . ”
  • “A productive school faculty is one that . . . ”
  • “A quality instructional program includes . . . ”

Tara Leo Thompson, a program associate with SEDL’s Regional Educational Laboratory who works with several schools, maintains there are several ways to reach a shared vision and many activities that are helpful. “Mainly, you want to focus on student achievement and what it is going to take to make sure that all students achieve. In our current work, we push districts and schools to align their curriculum, instruction, and assessment to their state standards,” she says. “How are they going to ensure that all their students achieve on their state assessment, which is based on the state’s standards? They have to be clear about expectations around instructional coherence—how and what teachers teach and how the administration supports and monitors that.”

A past issue of SEDL’s Issues . . . About Change (which can be accessed online at http://www.sedl.org/change/issues/issues23.html) offers these steps in how schools can develop a shared vision statement:

  1. Know your organization and clarify the nature and purpose. This includes everything about a school or district as it exists in this moment in time, from its physical size and makeup to its attitudes, relationships, and value to its community.
  2. Involve critical individuals or those who will be affected. These are people interested in the school or those who have a stake in its success, such as educators, major businesses, community leaders, and parents—even those who find fault with the system.
  3. Explore the possibilities and consider various futures. Participants in the process examine imminent trends in students’ and parents’ needs, expectations of employers or universities, and shifts in social, economic, political, and technical areas likely to impact the organization.
  4. Put it in writing—vision is committed to paper. Using information gathered in the previous steps, a carefully worded statement is developed, with faculty agreeing on its final form.
Pamela Porter is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Las Cruces, NM. She is also journalism instructor at New Mexico State University.

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