Continuous improvement is essential to educational transformation. Applying the growth mindset framework to our own work may be the key to achieving real and meaningful improvement. I worked almost my entire career in schools that served high-poverty populations and often were labeled underperforming schools. At these schools, we had an annual ritual. Sometime between August and October, we’d get an email or envelope from the State, with “preliminary results” of our state exams.
The Annual Blues
Continuous improvement is essential to educational transformation. Applying the growth mindset framework to our own work may be the key to achieving real and meaningful improvement.
I worked almost my entire career in schools that served high-poverty populations and often were labeled underperforming schools. At these schools, we had an annual ritual. Sometime between August and October, we’d get an email or envelope from the State, with “preliminary results” of our state exams.
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Invariably, no matter how big the gains we’d made were, the message always focused on deficits
that were identified as the high priorities for us to “fix.” In one particularly frustrating year, my school had made gains on the exam that had not been equaled anywhere in the state before, but we failed to make AYP for one subgroup in one grade level. The letter failed to congratulate us for our progress and focused exclusively on the perceived deficit area.
Our annual ritual included time to process our grief and the dawning realization that our successes were never going to matter as much as our deficits. After all, great things were happening in our school. We were improving, and faster than anyone had improved before us. We certainly needed to keep evolving to better meet the needs of our students. But because the sole message was “here’s where you’re doing badly” we never celebrated our wins or learned from our successes. We just felt pressure to scrap it all and start again.
From Deficit to Growth
As I moved into school transformation work, I discovered that the secret to real and sustained school improvement is as much about identifying and amplifying what works as it is shifting strategies when they’re not working. After all, you can make more progress on your real improvement areas when you’re not wasting time, money, and staff energy on replacing programs that were actually working well.
Between my years in the classroom, then as an administrator, and now as an educational consultant, I’ve seen the inner workings of dozens of schools. In all of those schools, I have never failed to find some program or system that is on the right track. Just as every single one has areas where they could improve, every single one has areas of great strength to build upon. This is why it’s so important to approach school improvement from a growth mindset. School improvement should center around finding ways to support successful programs AND change less successful ones.
When schools hear a consistent message that highlights that things are broken without any guidance about what is and isn’t working, they often feel a pressure to change things quickly. In these environments, it can be very difficult to choose the right things to change, and the right things to support. Conversations about school improvement often turn into arguments where staff try to preserve programs that they are invested in or ones that are deeply tied to the culture of the school. Improvement choices become a balancing act of respecting feelings about the work we’ve done while taking advantage of opportunities to improve service to kids.
In my work, I encourage school leaders to think about school improvement in the same way they think about student progress. Most teachers have had the experience of trying to teach some students who start the year many years behind in their knowledge and skill sets. Constantly assessing these students to the grade-level standard and pointing out their shortcomings only is counterproductive. This strategy has been shown to discourage them and hamper their growth. What works best for these students is tracking their performance on situationally-appropriate standards, celebrating their gains, playing to their strengths and giving them meaningful, actionable feedback on what is working and on high-impact areas for improvement.
The same dynamic holds true for low-performing schools. Constant critique, relative to standards that are far above current levels, and refusal to recognize gains hinders real growth. In my experience, schools labeled chronically under-performing often adopt a negative mindset, convinced they’ll never succeed. Just as we do with low-performing students, we must look at these schools through the lens of improvement and growth. Focusing on understanding the links between school programming and student outcomes, including growth, gives us a better sense of what’s working for students. This allows for frank conversations about programming, investments and student success.
Beyond the Binary
As a nation, we’ve become stuck in an unhelpful rut: schools are good or bad. With labels like “good” and “bad” it’s just too easy to get lazy or disheartened. It’s time to shelf that dichotomy and embrace a new way of thinking about our work.
As educators, we know the story is far more complicated. Schools are demanding environments. Everyone wants kids to succeed. Everyone wants to increase equity and access to opportunity for all students. With goals that high, continuous improvement is more than a catch phrase, it’s a mandate. And to create schools engaged in continuous improvement, we have to pay as much attention to success as we do to the work still to be done.
Acknowledging success both ensures we’re focused on the right next steps and builds the internal support and energy to continue the never-ending work of improving service to kids. Staff that knows their leaders don’t just change for change’s sake are more open to new initiatives. Strategy sessions that focus on what works are more likely to save precious resources for the areas that really need more help. Building on success just works.
No matter what school accountability model is used by the State, school leaders can apply these lenses to their own work and their own communication with their staff. Talking about school progress from a growth mindset allows school leaders to celebrate victories while also searching for opportunities to improve. This is how meaningful, lasting transformations happen in schools. The first step to transforming schools is to transform our perspective, so we all have a growth mindset.