If you’re like most people, you’ve been down the fitness craze path.
- 5am running routine… too little sleep.
- Rollerblading… too many ER trips.
- 8-Minute Abs… kept forgetting.
- Yoga… favorite bit was that little nap at the end.
It takes time and effort to find what fits your schedule, lifestyle, and preferences.
- Aerobics… too much dance music.
- Boxing class… skipping rope was harder than you remembered.
- Spinning class… see Aerobics.
But if you stick with it, you can find the right program for you.
- Weekend biking group… PERFECT!
As silly as this may sound, school leaders often go through the same trial-and-error when trying to find the right strategies to grow and improve their schools. We hear about a cool new program, see that there’s a PD grant, and we’re off to the races.
Of course, the truth is that what works for one school may not be right for another. When school leaders are pressured to adopt the latest and greatest “best practice” model that are not right for them, the results aren’t just disappointing. They can erode our ability to take advantage of the best opportunities we have to make real, transformative change.
Each school is its own ecosystem, with its own students, community, staff, culture and history. As a teacher, administrator and consultant, I’ve worked in dozens of schools, and I’ve seen the exact same program work beautifully in one school and fail in another.
The simple truth is this: there are no universal “best practices,” but there are context-specific, high-impact practices.
Exploring a variety of exercise options can be great for a person, but school transformation requires a different approach. When it comes to schools, we don’t have the luxury of wasting any time, money, or precious staff enthusiasm on programs that aren’t going to work for us.
What if we could shortcut the trial-and-error process, skipping past the exciting, not-quite-right solutions to find the programs and strategies with the greatest potential to meet our needs?
When searching for opportunities to improve, how do you figure out what will work for you? These 4 questions will help you find the highest value solutions for you.
1. Who Are We?
Take the time to think about who you are, as a school. It’s tempting to look at the best performing school you know and say “we’ll do that!” But if that school relies heavily on parental involvement, or has a strong tradition of community investment, you need to think about how realistic their programs will be for your school. Building a culture of parental involvement is great, but when most of your students’ parents are working 60 hours a week, relying on parental involvement may be unrealistic. Be honest about the school you are, not the one you wish you were.
What are your assets and constraints? What makes your school unique? What is your culture and how do you share it? Where does your funding come from and what does that say about your opportunity set?
If your first thought was “math” or “teacher quality,” it’s time to do some homework. Treat your planning process as a research project. Bring your team together to ask questions like “what do we believe our strengths and weaknesses are and why?” and “how can we confirm our hypothesis?”
Instead of “math” ask “which student subgroups have specific gaps on their practice end-of-grade assessments?” and “do our benchmark assessments show any universal subject matter areas, such as numeracy, that need work across grades & subgroups?” When considering PD, study your walk-throughs. Are there common needs across grade levels or subject areas?
Following the Data Team Protocol will give your team a process for delving into their data to build a more fine-tuned understanding of their biggest opportunities for growth.
(If you don’t have time and just want someone to analyze your data to find your biggest growth opportunities, we can help.)
3. What does Success Look Like for Us?
One of the biggest mistakes we make is to look at the highest fliers in our district or state and say “that’s what we’re going to do.” If you’re a typical 45 year old, are you going to look at Hugh Jackman, with his privately coached Wolverine Workout, and say “yes, that’s the plan for me”? If you’re proud of the one time you ran a 7-minute mile in high school, are you going to adopt FloJo’s training program with hopes of competing in the Olympics?
If we all compare ourselves to the most unforgiving definitions of success, almost every one of us will be a failure. Instead, apply a new lens to your school. Consider:
- Interim Progress – Don’t focus only on the end-state. Think in milestones.
What will success look like in 3 months? In 6 months? What will we be doing differently? What will we be seeing in the classroom?
- Meaningful Benchmarks – Create your own “division” of True Peer schools
Find the schools with similar populations and in similar circumstances. Which of these schools are really knocking it out of the park? Are there any doing really well in ways you want to improve? If you take a little time to research, all of this information is available through the DPI. Or for the cost of a few hours of principal time, use Polarys.
4. What Are the Most Valuable Program Elements for Us?
School improvement programs should always be tailored to fit you. If you find yourself tied in knots trying to change your school to fit the program… STOP! Find what you value from the program and make it fit your school.
I was once working with a middle school facing a big state test score gap between the students on IEPs and the students who weren’t on IEPs. I was asked to find examples of schools doing well with similar student populations, so the staff could learn from them.
Analysis turned up a near-perfect match about 80 miles away. This school had almost no achievement gap between the IEP students and the non-IEP students, and we wanted to know what the “magic” was.
On our site visit, we discovered that the town was home to lots of recently retired teachers. Many chose to take jobs as low-wage paraprofessionals because they enjoyed being with kids without the stress of classroom teaching. The strategy worked really well for them, but wasn’t exactly replicable. But we could (and did) use their RTI strategy with the unique resource we had: local college students with work-study jobs who needed to do community service.
Planning for Success
As you finalize your budget and beginning to plan for new improvement initiatives and support of existing ones, now is the time to ensure you’ve done your homework. This includes considering why you’ve chosen specific programs and what you can learn from others in similar contexts. Context-rich questions will ensure you’re not just choosing the most popular or exciting (or foundation-sponsored) solutions, but the solutions that match your unique school.
- Does the program match our schedule?
- Does this program match our particular students’ specific needs?
- Do we understand what made this program successful with a peer school?
- Do we have the resources to support the program fully?
- Are our buildings laid out to run this program effectively?
- Can we ensure staff are trained appropriately?
- Have we worked with the staff to ensure they see value in the new program?
All schools, like all students, are capable of enormous growth and accomplishment. To achieve this, leaders need to make context an embedded part of the opportunity and solution exploration process. In particular, learning from context-alike exemplars can help you maximize opportunities and realize the potential of your schools, staffs and students. Don’t choose the latest school fitness craze, choose the one that’s right for you.