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Overcoming barriers to school improvement
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Overcoming barriers to school improvement

Research 5 minute read

Sustained school improvement requires an explicit improvement agenda, clear goals and accountability, and skill in using data effectively, as Robert Marshall explains.

Overcoming barriers to school improvement

In 2012, in partnership with Queensland Department of Education, the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) developed the National School Improvement Tool (NSIT). The NSIT, subsequently, endorsed by Ministers of Education in all states and territories is freely available online to all Australian schools for use in their school improvement planning, but ACER provides further support for schools through a school review service.

Related to the NSIT, ACER school review service consultants observe school practices and provide an evaluation of an individual school’s teaching and learning practices against each of the nine domains of the NSIT:

  • an explicit improvement agenda
  • analysis and discussion of data
  • a culture that promotes learning
  • targeted use of school resources
  • an expert teaching team
  • systematic curriculum delivery
  • differentiated teaching and learning
  • effective pedagogical practices; and
  • school-community partnerships.

ACER school review service consultants then work with the school leadership team to develop a school improvement plan based on their findings. While each domain is important for effective and sustained school improvement, we have observed two domains in particular where schools routinely need further development: an explicit improvement agenda; and analysis and discussion of data.

Also emerging from our observations have been clear indicators of specific actions school leaders can take to lead improvement in these domains.

An explicit improvement agenda

Virtually all schools have a strategic plan or other documents that articulate the learning and teaching agenda for the school. However, school review service consultants often find the improvement agenda of a school is not grounded in evidence from research and practice, and intentions are not expressed in terms of measureable student outcomes.

To drive improvement, schools need to develop narrow and sharp learning agenda focused on core learning priorities.

It is also the case that, while school leaders are almost always very clear about the school’s learning and teaching goals, teachers are often unable to articulate the learning agenda the leadership team is driving. In cases where teachers are able to explain the focus for a school, the specific detail of what this looks like in practice is frequently lacking. School review service consultants see this in schools that are achieving solid academic achievement results as well as those at a lower level of performance.

Teachers are also often so overwhelmed by the agenda a school is pursuing that there is no real possibility of embedding the behaviours required for sustained improvement. If there is a rapid implementation of initiatives in schools, teachers simply cannot keep up. The issue is usually about school leaders not being explicit in their communication and follow up. 

Clear goals and accountability

The implementation of initiatives without clear accountability measures is less likely to be effective and sustainable. Schools that operate effectively in this domain have clear goals, with specific targets accompanied by achievable timelines and high levels of accountability in regard to achieving the goals and targets. If school leaders expect staff to do something, then they need to inspect it.

It is essential that school leaders ensure there is follow up and follow through.

Analysis and discussion of data

A crucial issue for schools is not the lack of data, but how to use the data effectively to identify the needs of learners and assist teachers in their planning. Differentiation is a major focus for almost every school ACER school review service consultants visit. However, if a school cannot collect data efficiently and regularly, particularly at the classroom level, effective differentiation where teaching is targeted towards students on the basis of needs is unlikely.

Consultants’ observations reveal that schools often do not have effective systems and protocols around the collection, analysis, discussion and use of data. Most schools have detailed records in the form of school reports or mark books kept by teachers and departments, but lack student performance records which show regularly collected evidence of improvement or regression over time.

Simple strategies such as using common assessment templates, storing data centrally and making the information that is collected available to all staff will greatly enhance the likelihood of using data effectively.

Effective schools ensure data are used throughout the school to identify gaps in student learning, to monitor improvement over time and to monitor growth across the years of school.

Professor Geoff Masters AO, Chief Executive Officer of ACER, has identified two key characteristics of rapidly improving schools, and schools that produce unusually good outcomes given their student intakes and circumstances: they know what they want to see improve and they know how they will monitor success. The observations undertaken by ACER school review service consultants in schools confirm that a school’s explicit improvement agenda is essential for ongoing and sustained improvement.

Further information:

Find more about ACER’s School Improvement Services or download the National School Improvement Tool.

This is an edited version of an article first published as ‘Barriers to school improvement and how to overcome them’ in Independence, the magazine of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia

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