5 Things the Nation’s Most Rapidly Improving Schools Have in Common

Photo: Students at Sugarland Elementary in Virginia. The school went from being one of the bottom 300 performing schools in the state of Florida to being named a 2019 Model School. Read the school's story here. (Courtesy of Bay District Schools)

I have spent my career analyzing the practices of schools nationwide. The most rapidly improving schools—the ones that are successfully tackling the toughest challenges and effecting significant and documented change—tell a consistent and powerful story. Here are five central and foundational characteristics. 

1. They are future focused, rather than forward focused. 

In forward-focused school districts, decisions for a new school year are made around the staffing, budget, and curriculum already in place, which leaves no room in plans or budget for the innovation our schools need. The nation’s most rapidly improving schools, however, are “future focused,” meaning that they look to the future world in which their students will live and work and start planning there. They put stakes in the ground three, five, and even eight years out, and ask, “What will our students need to know, need to do, need to be like, to succeed in that future world?”

Once they answer that question, they work diligently to identify what must happen in their schools and classrooms now, soon, and as they approach each of those staked out future points to prepare their students for success. Lastly, they plan in detail the near-term changes that will put them on the path to their students’ future success. These schools plan backward from the school’s desired future instead of inching forward from the past.

2. They focus on students first. 

In the most successful schools, content takes a back seat to students. Their educators understand that students themselves are changing far more rapidly than the content. Students today have technology in hand from birth. They learn differently from how we did, and their expectations for learning are different from what ours were. They are children in a world different from the one we were children in, one characterized by broad diversity and, in many cases, severe socioeconomic challenges.

Meeting students’ needs as their environment changes is priority number one at these rapidly improving schools. Their leaders understand that the traditional ways that schools and teachers are currently regulated, certified, tenured, and contracted around content-acquisition is fast losing relevance. They see that focusing on content first means focusing on students last—which leads schools down a failing path. The most highly successful schools find ways to reverse priority and put students first.

3. They use a growth model rather than a proficiency model.

In a proficiency model, 30 third graders show up on day one of school, each at dramatically different levels of achievement. Some are at grade level and others are below or above. They vary in how they learn and in their interests. They will each have different, unpredictable circumstances arise during the school year. However, by the last day of third grade, we expect them all to arrive at the exact same place of proficiency, as measured by one test, so that they can start fourth grade from the right place. Rapidly improving schools see the lunacy of the proficiency model and reject it. They understand that measuring learning by the passage of time does not work now, if it ever did. Rather, these schools embrace the growth model. They start by analyzing where each student is on day one. Then, using their available time and resources effectively, they continually adjust their plan based on individual development, bringing each student as far up a learning arc as possible. Many of these schools have studied their special education teachers’ expertise in supporting student success using individualized instruction and a growth model, to generalize those practices among all teachers for the benefit of every student.

4. They use rigorous and relevant instructional practices.

Educators at these rapidly improving schools understand this: to be future-focused, to always keep students at the center, and to achieve growth for all students, instructional practice must be rigorous and relevant. They get students to think deeply. They assign learning tasks that are tied to the real world and student interests so that students gain skills and insights valuable to future careers. If you are familiar with the Rigor/Relevance Framework®, rapidly improving schools ensure much of their instruction falls within Quadrant D—high rigor, high relevance.

5. Executive coaching anchors their professional learning.

These schools realize that it is not enough to bring together teachers and administrators for just two professional development days a year. To successfully implement and sustain improvement in the four preceding points, they learned how other professions manage organizational change. The most rapidly improving schools have incorporated an executive coaching model into their professional development. They have adopted a mix of formal and informal professional-learning programs that engage them throughout the year, with executive coaching as the anchor. From classroom to boardroom, they supplement scheduled professional development opportunities with executive coaches to provide “just-in-time,” individually tailored support to staff at every level and members of their board of education.

The nation’s most rapidly improving schools have thrown aside fear and opened themselves up to having difficult conversations. They dare to ask even the most painful questions. They have developed the shared vision and team trust to work their way through understanding to solutions. They continually work together to improve—with openness, honesty, and respect—and as a result, have been able to drive incredible change and innovation. These schools have each created a unique culture with a shared vision. Every member of their team is empowered to make decisions, deliver deeply individualized instruction, and support every student. Keeping their eyes sharply focused on the future, these schools continually plan, innovate, and adapt instruction to meet all needs of all students. 

These schools are achieving the ultimate goal: preparing students to be independent and successful adults in the face of an ever-changing career landscape. Discover how this year’s Model Schools and Innovative Districts are making small changes that have made significant impact. I hope you and your team will commit now to join us at the 2019 Model Schools Conference in Washington, D.C., an opportunity to surround yourselves with like-minded educators. Dare to dream big, discuss the impractical, innovate solutions, and begin to craft workable plans for the success of all students. 

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You can book a keynote with blog contributor and ICLE Founder Dr. Bill Daggett to bring his expertise on systemwide improvement to your school district.

This blog post originated from a white paper by Dr. Bill Daggett.