Shooting for the Stars with School and District Improvement

Shooting for the Stars with School and District Improvement

Even if you are the leader of a high-performing school or district, you are still going to be creating a strategic plan at the district level or a school improvement plan at the building level that is aligned with achieving the district strategic plan.

Creating an improvement plan does not mean that your district or school is broken. It is intended to take your students, school or district from where it is now, to a future vision of what you want to achieve for your students, school or district.

The problem with improvement planning is that it often falls short. Too much time is spent on the “what” meaning what the strategy or initiative is, and not enough time on “how” to put the strategy or initiative into action.

Implementation is defined as “the process of putting a decision or plan into effect; execution.” How you are going to implement the “what” is the key to successful and deep implementation of a strategy or initiative such as implementing performance tasks. Then you have to monitor and adjust the “how.”

The “what” is an important aspect of implementation, but the “how” is the key to the successful implementation. Put the two together and watch your students, teachers, schools and district thrive.

There are four key components to implementation. You start with a planning phase, then you move into implementing, followed by monitoring and adjusting. Let’s explore these phase a bit closer.


The planning phase is probably the most successful aspect of the school and district improvement planning process. Stakeholders are gathered, data is analyzed to reveal successes and challenges to student learning, SMART goals are established, and strategies are selected to meet the goals.

There are still pitfalls to the planning aspect of school and district improvement plans including not identifying the root causes that are in the school or district control, creating goals that are not challenging enough or too challenging, and selecting ineffective strategies or too many strategies.

I coached two principals in a school district in which the district required multiple strategies for each of the district strategic goals, such as student achievement, parent involvement, and safe and orderly environments.

This resulted in their school improvement plans to have approximately 20-25 strategies to be implemented in any given school year which is overwhelming and impossible to achieve. Implementation of strategies is the nemesis to school and district improvement, even if a school limits strategies to 3-5 strategies which is reasonable.


If you think about the successful implementation of an initiative in your school or district that you have experienced, what made it a successful implementation? There are three areas that need to be considered during implementation and they are closely intertwined. They include leadership, professional development and communication and organization. Below you will get a taste of a few key aspects of each of these areas that are critical for successful and deep implementation.

What would you expect administrators, school or district, to do during the implementation of an initiative that is aimed at improving a certain aspect of the school or district ?

The Beacon

A key action for leadership, whether it is district-wide or school-wide implementation, is to have a guiding coalition in place. I like how John Kotter calls this the “dream team.” These are the stakeholders who act as the beacon on a lighthouse for the initiative throughout the district or the school. The guiding coalition are the people who will ensure there is deep implementation of the selected strategy or initiative resulting in increased student learning and progress.

Never Stop Learning

Profession development is the second aspect to consider when it comes to implementation of an initiative. When it comes to professional development, there is one action that has the significant impact on student learning and that is when administrators attend the same professional development as the staff members.

If you have read my Blog post on instructional leadership you would recollect that this particular action has an effect size of .82 on student learning.  The administrators are the individuals who have to supervise the implementation of an initiative and provide feedback and support to their teachers during implementation and thus it is critical that they have the same information as staff.

Additionally, for the professional development to become second nature to teachers it needs to be ongoing (3-5 years) and it is best if you engage the services of an external consultant to provide the professional development and ongoing support, which could be webinars, site visits, or phone conferences. What will your professional development look like for your next initiative implementation?


The last area to consider during implementation is communication and organization. Thinking back on a successful implementation of an initiative how was the initiative communicated to you?  What stakeholders was it communicated to? What communication actions were the most successful?

Communication is present through all aspects of the improvement planning process: planning, implementing, monitoring, and adjusting. Leaders need to communicate a vision for the implementation of an initiative to all stakeholders that are impacted by it or the initiative directly or indirectly- teachers, support personnel, students (depending on age), parents, and community members.

Communication needs to take place often, with a purpose, through a variety of formats and most importantly it needs to be two-way communication. Consider having town meetings to involve the community or afternoon teas with stay at home mothers. Keep all stakeholders informed and involved throughout all phases of the improvement planning process.

Organization focuses on resources to support the implementation, such as math manipulatives to accompany a new math textbook adoption. Implementation is more challenging if the needed resources to implement the initiative are not available.

Monitoring & Adjusting

These two phases of the improvement planning process go hand in hand. If you do not monitor you cannot adjust and if you only monitor do not expect the improvement  as you will be doing the same thing you were doing. Monitoring allows you to make adjustments when necessary.

There are two aspects to monitoring. First, you are monitoring the implementation. If you created an implementation plan, are you following through with the implementation action steps? Second, the intent of the majority of initiatives is to enhance student learning and progress but there could also be initiatives which targets student behaviors, parent involvement, or the school climate.

In each of these cases, you are trying to improve student behavior, increase parent involvement, or improve the school climate.

There are two types of data that should be collected to monitor the initiative and its impact on student learning, student behavior, parent involvement, or school climate and they are effect data and cause data. Effect data is the data produced either by the group that is the target of the initiative such as students (proficient or higher scores on a non-fiction writing prompt or student suspensions), parents (attendance at parent events), or teachers (teacher perception survey responses). Cause data is the data produced by the group who is implementing the initiative.

So for the student situations, maybe the cause data collected by teachers for the writing prompt is the number of times each week the teachers have students engage with a writing to learning strategy and which strategy, or for behavior the frequency of morning class meetings conducted by teachers each week.

Maybe the strategy selected to increase parent involvement was to provide communications to parents in English and Spanish and to have a translator available at school events. The cause data would be the number of communications to parents in dual languages and the number of events a translator was available. For the improvement of the school climate the cause data could be the number of teacher recognitions in the weekly update written by administrators.

You need both kinds of data in order to determine if the initiative you selected to have an impact on the students, parents, or teachers is being successful. As each month passes the effect data should be increasing or improving, as long as the implementation is occurring and the cause data is evidence of implementation.

On another note, the data, effect and cause, should be monitored 6-10 times in a given school year. Only if this occurs can adjustments be made to the implementation of an initiative. It does not make sense to wait to the middle or end of the year to monitor. If you do not monitor, you cannot make adjustments. The data, especially when you peel back the layers of it, can reveal nuances to the implementation.

Monitoring and adjusting are important aspects to the school improvement process as it keeps the plan alive and not just on a shelf collecting dust. The improvement plan is a living document throughout the school year. As you are monitoring and adjusting you can have recognition for students and staff to celebrate successes.

Create displays of data for transparency of data to stakeholders. Teachers need to feel comfortable that their data is being analyzed and shared. It is not intended as a “gotcha” but as a means to improve implementation based on data so student learning and progress is improved. Ultimately, all initiatives tend to be directly or indirectly linked to student learning and progress.

Next Steps – The Three Components of the Achieve Model

Since implementation seems to be the Achilles heal for schools and districts, I have developed the Achieve Model for targeting implementation including monitoring and adjusting through the creation of an Implementation Success Action Plan using the Achieve Model.

Once the initiative or strategy is selected, such as implementing performance tasks into classroom instruction, the Achieve Model has three main components.

  1. Establish a vision for the initiative – Once it is deeply implemented what are you expecting it to look like in classrooms, sound like in classrooms, and feel like in classrooms for teachers and for students as well as other stakeholders. Think of the three aspects of implementation: leadership, professional development, and communication and organization.
  2. Share the present reality on the initiative – Is it something that maybe some teachers are doing or is it something new to everyone, what are available resources you might have to support the initiative, what are staff presently doing instead of the initiative?
  3. Create the Implementation Success Action Plan – This plan identifies the action steps that need to be taken to close the gap between the vision and the reality as well as establishes a monitoring and adjusting plan.

If you are interested in more information click and download my ebook for a look at the Implementation Success Action Plan template as well as guiding questions for establishing the vision and reality.

Is it time for you to try a new approach to the implementation of an initiative?

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Tracey Shiel

Tracey Shiel is an author and consultant with over 20 years in the field of education. Through Thought Partners, she provides research-based educational services including balanced leadership coaching, professional development, implementation planning, and execution support, and special educational projects of the highest quality. Her passion is with coaching educational leaders to achieve school and district improvement goals while enhancing leadership capabilities.