Twelve Critical Components for (Continuous) School, Staff, and Student Improvement: Motivation Cannot Compensate for a System with Systemic Deficits

Twelve Critical Components for (Continuous) School, Staff, and Student Improvement:

Motivation Cannot Compensate for a System with Systemic Deficits

Dear Colleagues,


   While I love to celebrate the successes attained by the students, staff, and schools that I work with as a consultant, part of my job is to focus on the “half-empty” glasses, facilitating the processes needed to “fill them to the top.”

   And while it is important for districts and schools to celebrate successful strategic planning and professional development sessions (something that seems to be recently rampant on my LinkedIn feed), these celebrations seem somewhat hollow when many of our schools still:

  • Have large percentages of students not attaining academic proficiency, and not demonstrating (at least) grade-level skill mastery in reading, mathematics, science, and writing/language arts;
  • Have large percentages of students not learning and mastering, and not demonstrating effective grade-level interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional awareness, control, communication, and healthy coping skills;
  • “Qualify” large numbers of non-disabled students as “students with disabilities” because (a) they have not provided sound academic and social-emotional skills instruction or remediation at the general education (Tier I) level, and (b) special education classrooms are the only places where strategic interventions are available;
  • Are not providing effective, equitable, and high quality educational services to students from poverty, whose first language is not English, who are homeless or have mental health issues, or who have significant out-of-school stresses or lived traumas; and
  • Are not aware of, or are unresponsive to, explicit or implicit biases that result in disproportionate educational opportunities and negative attention and discipline for students of color and with disabilities.

   I distinctly remember a consultation a few years ago with a district in Wisconsin. I had been virtually coaching a number of their district and school leaders on a monthly basis for over three years, and was asked to come on-site to conduct a special education/multi-tiered services needs assessment.

   Based on my knowledge (from the coaching) of some of the dysfunctional relationships and processes within the district, and having analyzed multiple years of district and school student and staff outcomes, the need assessment’s first on-site meeting was with the two Assistant Superintendents.

   Early in the session, it became apparent that they wanted only to discuss the “successes” within the district. When I identified “success gaps” and critical areas of needed improvement (one of the goals of a needs assessment), they reacted defensively and defiantly.

   After our meeting, they immediately went to the Superintendent who then met with me and, in essence, cancelled the remaining needs assessment activities as well as the contract.

   Clearly, the Superintendent was concerned more about the hurt feelings of her two colleagues than her (and their) accountability to all of the students in the district. . . especially those who were not being served effectively and equitably, and those who were disaffected, underachieving, or failing.

   [Parenthetically, based on the data and information collected, I still wrote and sent a Needs Assessment Report to the Superintendent and her staff, attempting to refocus their attention to all of their students and their accountability to them.]  

   I reminded them: If 67% of your students are academically achieving at the Proficiency level or better, then 33% of your students are not.

   It is fine to celebrate the glass being two-thirds full, but what is being done to fill up the entire glass?

   And what about the schools that need to fill up 85% or more of their glasses?

A Tale of Two More School Improvement Districts

   Over the years, I have partnered with many districts and schools, helping them with comprehensive school improvement. I have worked with some of the highest functioning districts in the country—those that want to “keep their edge” in the face of an every-changing educational landscape—and with some of the lowest functioning districts.

   Indeed, when working at the Arkansas Department of Education for 13 years (during the No Child Left Behind years), my Project ACHIEVE school improvement model was the U.S. Department of Education-approved approach for every Focus School in the state.

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   When working with one school district for over five years, there was a “revolving door” of superintendents (and interims) brought in by a well-meaning but uninformed Board that did not understand what skills and experiences predicted the best candidate hire. In fact, at one point, they hired a superintendent with virtually no educational, administrative, or supervisory experience.

   It was not until they hired a superintendent who (a) understood curriculum, instruction, social-emotional learning, and multi-tiered services, and who (b) was not afraid of supervising, coaching, and holding district leaders, school principals, general and special education teachers, and related service professionals accountable to explicit, outcome-generating interactions that there appeared to be true “school improvement hope” for the district.

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   When working with another school district for over five years, we never got past the “good ole boy” culture that prevented the leadership from comprehensively and transparently analyzing every important component (see the Section below) of school improvement and success. This culture resulted in the district being designated a “School in Need of Improvement” by the state department of education.

   Even after the designation, the district’s Leadership/School Improvement Team stayed stuck in the belief that they simply needed to motivate their students and staff to “work harder and be more committed to achievement.”

   This was evident during “planning” conversations focused more on selecting the incentives and consequences needed to change people’s motivation, as opposed to conversations confronting the fact that students were not academically achieving because (a) of poor or inconsistent curriculum, instruction, social-emotional learning, and multi-tiered services; and (b) leaders who were not changing the culture by beginning the hard work of supervising, coaching, and holding their colleagues accountable to effective practice and student services and outcomes.

   But an embedded problem here was that, with all due respect, many of the district’s leaders did not know that they needed to analyze and change the two areas above.

   Instead, they truly believed that their district’s low-functioning school improvement status was because of unmotivated students and staff.

   [Figuratively, they thought their Basketball Team had the players with the needed skills and talent; they were just not effectively motivating these players.]

   Hence, the district’s leaders had school improvement skill deficits on top of their staffs’ curriculum and instruction skill deficits. These leaders did not know what to do to effectively improve their system. And they did not know that they did not know.

   At both levels then—relative to the students and staff, and the district’s leaders, an important school improvement principle was evident:

You can’t motivate students, staff, or systems out of a Skill Deficit.

That is:

You can’t change student outcomes or staff behavior using motivational approaches when the root cause of their gaps involve Skill Deficits. . . and
You can’t change school improvement outcomes at the district leadership level using motivational approaches when the root cause of their gaps involve school improvement Skill Deficits.

Twelve Evidence-based Components of Effective Schools: A School Improvement Template

   Relative to continuous school (and district) improvement, the same research-to-practice components are used for both high-functioning districts that want to extend their progress and “keep their edge,” and low-functioning districts that need to renew their progress and “get off of the edge.”

   Below are brief descriptions of the twelve evidence-based components of effective schools and how they achieve successful, continuous, and consistent school improvement.

   In the hands of experienced, data-driven school improvement experts (whether inside or outside of a school district), the current status, strengths, weaknesses, gaps, and needs related to the specific policies, practices, and procedures within these components must be analyzed. This should result in the design and implementation of a well-resourced and realistic action plan that is evaluated (and modified as needed) on an ongoing basis.

Component 1: Strategic Planning

   Effective schools are dedicated to continuous improvement across the entire school and schooling process. This is accomplished by focusing on all twelve of the components outlined here and how they work interdependently to maximize students’ academic and social, emotional, and behavioral outcomes.

   Periodically, schools need to complete (a) comprehensive status and needs assessments, (b) SWOT and gap analyses (of their organizational strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats), and (c) asset and resource evaluations so they can effectively leverage resources, maximize and build capacity, close gaps, and minimize the impact of conditions that cannot be changed.

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Component 2: Shared Leadership

   Effective schools have effective formal and informal administrative and staff educational leaders who lead with competence and by example.

   Effective schools also have shared leadership committees and/or teams that support school professional development, curriculum and instruction, classroom management, multi-tiered services, and parent and community outreach goals and activities. Every staff member is on at least one school-level committee, and each committee has representatives from every grade level (for elementary and middle schools) or instructional department (for high schools).

   In their respective focus areas, all committees and/or teams are ultimately focused on the successful attainment of all students’ multi-tiered academic and social, emotional, and behavioral goals.

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Component 3: Professional Development

   Staff in effective schools receive ongoing training, mentoring, coaching, evaluation, feedback, and supervision (when needed) in the development and implementation of all school and schooling processes.

   In each area of training, educators’ skill and implementation mastery is tracked in their:

  • Understanding and Mastery of Information, Content, and Knowledge;
  • Ability to Implement and Adapt—with integrity—relevant Skills and Applications; and
  • Implementation Confidence and Competence on an ongoing basis leading to independence, autonomy, and expert status.

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Component 4: Data Management Systems

   Effective schools have a computer-assisted Student Information/Data Management System and ongoing data collection, analysis, and reporting processes to formatively and summatively evaluate progress toward explicit short- and long-term school, staff, parent, and student goals.

   This data management system should help staff monitor the academic and behavioral progress of all students. For students receiving strategic or intensive multi-tiered or special education services, it should be able to track the implementation and efficacy of all existing student intervention and intervention plans.

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Component 5: School Climate/Behavior Management

   Effective schools have a plan and implement a school-wide Social-Emotional Learning/Positive Behavioral Support System (SEL/PBSS) that facilitates school safety and positive classroom climates through students’ (and staff’s) use of interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional awareness, control, communication, and coping skills. Embedded in this are the cultural competence skills that address racism and implicit or unconscious bias.

   This SEL/PBSS system is embedded in a multi-tiered system of services, supports, strategies, and interventions that range from prevention to strategic intervention to crisis management and intensive approaches. The latter approaches are especially important for students with persistent and/or significant social, emotional, and behavioral challenges.

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Component 6: Academic/SEL Curriculum & Assessment

   Effective schools have publicly accessible documents that outline the scope-and-sequence of all academic and social-emotional goals and objectives—from preschool through high school—that guide lesson development, instruction, evaluation, and outcomes at every grade level in the school.

   These scope and sequence documents are cross-walked and are consistent with state standards and benchmarks, and they are used as formative and summative evaluation guides to track, as above, student learning, progress, and mastery.

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Component 7: Academic Instruction and Engagement

   Staff in effective schools receive ongoing training and supervision—and  have guided discussions with follow-up—in effective classroom organization, behavior management, academic student grouping, and other approaches that maximize students' time on task, academic and instructional engagement, and effective use of allocated academic/behavioral learning time.

   Staff use effective and flexible instructional group patterns and configurations with their students to differentiate instruction, maximize learning outcomes, and create and maintain positive, safe, and cooperative learning environments.

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Component 8: Multi-Tiered Systems of Support

   Effective  schools  have  a  written  document  that  outlines  the  process, components, and elements of their multi-tiered system of supports.

  This document guides professional development and implementation relative to how:

  • General education teachers monitor students’ academic and behavioral progress, determine the need for, and provide early intervention support for students not making academic or behavioral progress;
  • Data-based diagnostic or functional assessments are conducted by related services and other staff to determine the root causes of students’ persistent or significant academic struggles or social, emotional, or behavioral challenges; and
  • Assessment  results  are  linked  to  appropriate  multi-tiered services,  supports, strategies, or interventions, and how these are evaluated.

   Effective multi-tiered systems of support focus predominantly on the intensity, integrity, and efficacy of services and supports that students need and receive.

   Involved here are:

  • Grade, department, and building-level teams that provide prereferral and post-assessment interventions for students not making sufficient academic and/or social, emotional, or behavioral progress.
  • Related service professionals (e.g., school psychologists, counselors, social workers, and others) who work with or are on these teams, providing consultation and intervention support to general and special education teachers along the school’s multi-tiered continuum.

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Component 9: Data-based Problem-Solving

   When students demonstrate persistent or significant academic or social, emotional, or behavioral challenges, a data-based problem-solving process is used to:

  • Identify, clarify, and contextualize the problem;
  • Functionally analyze the problem to determine its root causes;
  • Link  the  root  cause  analysis  results  to  strategic  or  intensive services, supports, strategies, or interventions; and
  • Evaluate the integrity of the interventions, and the short- and long- term student-focused results.

   In effective schools, instructional, specialized support (school psychologists, counselors, social workers, special educators, intervention personnel, etc.), and administrative staff receive ongoing training, evaluation, feedback, and supervision (when needed) in data-based problem-solving processes.

   This training includes the collection and analysis of student information and data, profession-specific skills in different interventions areas, and the ability to integrate effective consultation processes into the data-based problem-solving process.

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Component 10: Academic & SEL/PBSS Interventions

   Staff in effective schools have the skills to provide (a) effective differentiated academic and social skills instruction for all students; and (b) the multi-tiered services, supports, strategies, or interventions for students who are academically struggling and/or exhibiting behavioral challenges.

   This occurs by teachers in the classroom, and (as needed) in small groups or with individual students by specialized staff or multi-disciplinary service providers. These processes are led by school administrators, and coordinated by the members of a school-level Multi-Tiered Services and Supports Team.

   In the classroom, assistive supports, remediation, accommodations, and modification strategies, respectively, are available to academically struggling or behaviorally challenging students.

   At the small group and individual student levels, research-based strategic or intensive academic, and social, emotional, or behavioral interventions are available in effective schools. These may or may not be connected to 504 or Individualized Education Plans.

   When interventions (or the expertise to implement them) are not available, effective schools utilize outside district, community-based, or other (e.g., virtual) off-site consultants.

   In the physical, occupational, speech and language, social, emotional, or behavioral areas, interventions may involve district professionals or private practitioners who become part of the school’s multi-tiered intervention team for specific student cases.

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Component 11: Year-to-Year Articulation

   Effective schools have an organized, formal, and ongoing process to articulate (or transition) students, academically and behaviorally, from grade to grade and teacher to teacher at the end of the year and during other school-year transitions.

   This articulation process includes effectively transitioning strategic and intensive supports and interventions that have been developed and implemented for students not making sufficient academic and/or social, emotional, or behavioral progress. It also includes transitioning the 504 and special education, vocational, and other services that selected students are receiving. Finally, it includes transitioning students to post-graduation (educational, training, workplace, or other) settings.

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Component 12: Parent/Community Outreach

   Effective schools have a written and systematically-implemented parent and community outreach and involvement program.

   The parent outreach program includes activities to encourage parent participation in school activities, parent involvement (at home) in their child or children’s education, and to help parents understand the school’s goals, objectives, programs, and desired student outcomes.

   The community outreach program includes collaboration with social service, mental health, law enforcement, and other relevant agencies, encouraging their direct and indirect support of and participation in relevant school and schooling goals, objectives, and activities.


   Whether you are in a high-functioning district, school, or educational agency or setting that wants to extend its progress and success, or in a less effectively-functioning setting that needs to embark on a conscious and concerted improvement effort, the research-to-practice components are essentially the same—albeit with some setting-specific modifications or adaptations.

   This Blog first briefly describes the school improvement experiences of three school districts at different points in the improvement process.

   It then describes the twelve evidence-based components of effective schools needed to guide any school improvement process.

  • Component 1: Strategic Planning
  • Component 2: Shared Leadership
  • Component 3: Professional Development
  • Component 4: Data Management Systems
  • Component 5: School Climate/Behavior Management
  • Component 6: Academic/SEL Curriculum & Assessment
  • Component 7: Academic Instruction and Engagement
  • Component 8: Multi-Tiered Systems of Support
  • Component 9: Data-based Problem-Solving
  • Component 10: Academic & SEL/PBSS Interventions
  • Component 11: Year-to-Year Articulation
  • Component 12: Parent/Community Outreach

   One pervasive theme is that school improvement involves a data-based, strategic planning approach that analyzes all of the components above. In most cases, improvement is not just about motivating school leaders and staff to do “more”—especially when they do not have the expertise and/or skills needed to complete the strategic planning process.

   In the end, data-driven school improvement experts (whether inside or outside of a district, school, or agency) analyze the current status, strengths, weaknesses, gaps, and needs related to the specific policies, practices, and procedures in the twelve component areas. This should result in the design and implementation of a well-resourced and realistic action plan that is evaluated (and modified as needed) on an ongoing basis.

   The “bottom line” is the academic and social, emotional, and behavioral learning, mastery, and proficiency of all students from preschool through high school. All improvement activities should be directly or indirectly connected to these outcomes. Anything different potentially diminishes or detracts from any and all school improvement efforts.

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   Thanks for reading this important Blog. I hope that our ideas encourage you to consider—especially at the beginning of this school year—one or more areas that you can target for improvement at the school, staff, school, and system levels. Schools only improve when we collectively make conscious, concerted, candid, consistent, and comprehensive efforts to extend our successes and address our weaknesses.

   As always, know that I am always available for a free one-hour consultation conference call to help you and your colleagues assess one or more of the twelve school improvement components above—translating the assessments into practical, day-to-day actions.

   Please feel free to reach out if you would like to take advantage—as many schools and districts have in the past—of this standing offer.