School improvement is not unlike peeling an onion – the jouney is layered and may produce tears .


At most weekly leadership meetings we agenda a discussion on a published research paper distributed and read prior to meeting and this week it was the 90/90/90 Schools: A Case Study article. The article written by two journalists was based on research of some schools in lower socio-economic communities in America that are achieving above state benchmark academic results and thereby defying all trends.

Before discussing the article we quickly reaffirm our discussion norms of taking turns, not interrupting one another, making one point and moving on and having the option of passing. We conclude by looking for parallel lessons we might learn and any actions we might suggest that will improve our school.

This article had members of our leadership team see some alignment with the schools and our current actions however we noted differences, which include:

  • public display of our focus on academic achievement [beyond the trophy cabinet full of sporting achievements].
  • emphasis on non fiction writing across all areas of the curriculum
  • collaborative scoring of student work. 

These schools focused their energies on some strategies and in doing so learnt to use time more effectively. They didn’t try and do it all.

They spent time at the beginning of a unit of work defining a proficient standard, common assessment tasks and rubrics and then time each week looking at student work. There were announcement free zones in meeting [transmission of information in writing] instead worked on what feedback students needed to improve [no excuses]. Teachers observed each other teach so that focused instruction improved.

Robert Marzano is clear on this point that challenge and feedback are the two most critical factors in raising achievement. 

In reflecting on the article for us I would probably say its true significance is that we must organise teacher time so that can achieve this focus and results in 2009. Teachers need to meet frequently in teams with a focus on student work and planning and we need to publish our targets and progress publicly so that the community understands the focus and accepts that in the pursuit we may let some things go.

Later on that afternoon when teachers at the staff meeting were looking at some survey data we came to a conclusion that in order to move forward more on a learning focus leadership needed to be more directive in some aspects of planning and provide greater levels of instructional feedback to teachers if we were to achieve our focus on responding to student work.  

Why a picture of an onion you may ask? Well the journey of school improvement in many ways is like peeling an onion – you continue to peel away layers [planning, time management, greater clarity of focus, feedback on instruction etc…] in the improvement process and some layers bring tears as we learn to let go of the things that may have worked in the past and take up new practices.  

PS: I recommend the article to all school leaders and people interested in school improvement.

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