In Order to Improve. . . Schools Need to Understand HOW to Improve

In Order to Improve. . . Schools Need to Understand How to Improve

School Improvement Begins with Principles before Principals: Paying It Forward

Dear Colleagues,


   In the midst of all the political, economic, medical, and social chaos around us, we still need to focus on what we can control, and what matters most to us.

   For some of us, at least on a professional level, this means using our experience and expertise to (continue to) serve our customers, clients, consumers, constituents, and colleagues with integrity and excellence. . . regardless of what we do.

   We also need to recognize. . . no matter how long we have been working, and (sometimes) how beaten and battered down we feel, that “the next level of excellence” comes from (a) planning and preparation, (b) training and consultation, (c) implementation and evaluation, and. . . most importantly, (d) commitment, collaboration, caring, optimism, and flexibility.

Life Goes On

   While I am not suggesting that we unsympathetically ignore the real and varied international, national, state, local, and familial events around us, my Introduction above suggests that “Life does go on”. . . whether we actively or passively engage in it.

   Moreover, there are many around us who are actively engaging in their futures. . . especially those in our “younger” generations who will become our next leaders.

   Periodically, I receive e-mails from unknown colleagues who have read one or more of my Blogs, and are inspired to reach out. They often have a request, reflection, or revelation that they want to share, and I view their invitations to respond as opportunities to “pay it forward.”

   This week, I received one such e-mail from a school psychology graduate student who is just finishing up her internship in a large (80,000+ students) county school district.

   She wrote:

I saw the thread about school shootings and started looking at your corresponding blogs. Many of your comments resonated with me and I was wondering what advice you can offer to me as an early career school psychologist who also provides consultative services. This summer I plan to work on homing in on my expertise and interests and what I can competently offer schools. I hope to hear from you.

   While my personal advice to her attempted to summarize what I’ve learned as a consultant over the past 40+ years, I realized that my response really identified many of the underlying principles of how schools engage in the continuous improvement processes that help them to systematically move to “the next level of excellence.”

   Given this, and knowing that the Principal in every school across this country is dedicated to this “next level,” I would like to share these principles, hoping that these principles will help contribute to our Principals’ (and their staff and students’) success.

Ten Principles of School Improvement and Success

   Below are the ten principles that I shared in the e-mail response to my school psychology colleague.

   While I could elaborate extensively on each principle, my fear is that the amplifications will detract from their interdependence, and from you considering whether and/or how they are meaningful to you.

   Thus, I will leave these principles to your individual self-reflections, and not “muddy the waters.”

   At the same time, please consider:

  • How are you acting on each of these principles?
  • Is it working?
  • What do you need to stop doing, start doing, or do more of?
  • How do you share these principles with your colleagues, encouraging them to embrace them, and guiding them collaboratively to the next level of excellence?

_ _ _ _ _

   The Principles are:

   Principle 1. Keep abreast of the research and practice. Do not fall into bandwagons. Focus on student outcomes in everything that you do.

   Principle 2. Use data-based or data-driven problem-solving as much as possible. Look at the data and collect your own data to demonstrate that what you do works.

   Principle 3. Develop evidence-based blueprints that integrate science and practice. Apply these blueprints to the individual needs of your clients, but—as adjustments are needed—maintain your adherence to and the integrity of these blueprints.

   Principle 4. Don't try to be everything to everyone. If your orientation and approaches do not match a potential client, walk away.

   It is not about the money. It is about bringing students, staff, schools, and systems to the next level of excellence—regardless of where they are starting. Trust your gut, and don't accept consultations that have the potential of leaving the system worse off than when you started.

   Principle 5. Think outside the box. Often what clients say or think is the problem is really a symptom of an actual, more deep-seated problem.

   Principle 6. Recognize that the primary outcome of consultation and professional development is changing people's attitudes, beliefs, expectations. . . but most important, the consistent and long-term behaviorand interactions of teachers, related services professionals, and administrators.

   Do not fall into the Time Trap of only telling colleagues “what to do" during consultation and professional development sessions. Help them to also understand why they are doing it. . . even when they may be impatient and just “want the answer.”

   If colleagues do not understand why they are doing what you are initially guiding them to do, they will be unable to analyze, adapt, and make needed mid-course corrections on their own when things are not going well and you are unavailable.

   Principle 7. Remember that, to be successful, systems change or school-wide initiatives need the unwavering commitment of at least 80% of those implementing the different activities of the initiative.

   Assess this commitment before accepting the consultation. Or, at least, begin the consultation with all of the stakeholders understanding the goals and desired outcomes of an initiative, and then assess their commitment. If you have the 80%-plus, continue to the next consultation level or activity.

   But if you have 60 to 79% commitment, decide if there is a commitment to “build” toward the 80+%. And if you have less than a 60% commitment, don’t take it personally. . . the system is just not ready to engage.

   Principle 8. Consistent with #7 above, begin with a Needs Assessment that strategically results in a one to three-year Action Plan that will guide the school improvement process. Then, if you are still the right person to guide the Plan's implementation, go—once again—to the next phase of the consultation.

   Principle 9. Practice within the scope of your expertise. Do not (consciously or subconsciously—but inaccurately) reframe the needs of your client to match your knowledge and skills. . . when your knowledge and skills actually are irrelevant to their needs.

   Principle 10. Know that your success is due to the sustained motivation, efforts, and implementation of those in the school with whom you are collaborating.

   If "it" is not working, evaluate and make mid-course corrections. If it is apparent still that it will “not work,” recommend someone else and walk away.

   And finally, never make a school and its staff dependent on you. Figuratively, as the saying goes: “Teach each of your consultees how to fish, so that they can eventually feed themselves.”


   While I have focused this Blog discussion on the school and schooling process, I know that the ten principles above can easily be adapted to virtually any work setting.

   Moreover, these principles are applicable both for consultants who are helping organizations to improve from the “outside in,” and professionals who are facilitating change from within their organizations.

   The “Bottom Line” is that leaders are successful not because of their titles, but because of their principles and actions.


The potential for any organization to improve to the next level of excellence is based on the principles of leadership and change, and not on the “Principal” who has been put into a “seat of power.”

   For those of you who, like me, work as “outside in” consultants, I hope that these principles will facilitate an introspective self-evaluation process. Truly, if we all practice with these principles in mind, we will not only be successful as consultants, but our clients will also more successfully reach their desired goals and outcomes.

   For schools that are hiring or contracting with outside consultants, use these principles as questions. . . so that you have the highest probability of success.

   For schools. . . this means more successful student, staff, school, and district outcomes. This is something that we all desperately need for everyone during these challenging times.