Expert Q&A – School improvement

The pioneering National School Improvement Tool was developed by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) and Queensland Department of Education just over a decade ago. Since then, it has underpinned school improvement in Australia and helped to improve teaching and learning in thousands more schools around the world. It has just been updated to reflect the latest evidence about what leads to every student learning successfully. In today’s expert Q&A we talk to Professor Pauline Taylor-Guy – Director of School and System Improvement at ACER – about the new tool, its evidence base, and the role of leaders, wellbeing and student voice in school improvement.

Each school will be on a slightly different school improvement journey, depending on its own context and needs, but is there a common goal?

Firstly, I think it is helpful to explain our approach which is grounded in the belief that the purpose of schooling is to ensure that every learner makes excellent progress and is well prepared for work and life. We believe a school can always improve, regardless of its starting point. The common goal, then, is to continually improve practice using broad range of evidence to identify a narrow, sharp improvement agenda and plan, and monitor growth and impact over time. Fundamentally, school improvement is about day-to-day practice in the classroom. In order to determine levels of current practice, there needs to be a research-based framework (the School Improvement Tool) against which to collect a broad range of evidence.

Your team has just updated the School Improvement Tool, which brings together 9 inter-related domains. Can you explain a little about each?

The 9 interrelated domains of the School Improvement Tool describe the different areas of practice that research shows make an impact on student learning and wellbeing.

The domains are summarised as follows:

Domain 1: Driving an explicit improvement agenda.
This domain describes the nature and intent of the school’s improvement agenda. It reflects the extent to which the agenda has been informed by research and analysis of school data in terms of improvements in measurable student outcomes. This domain emphasises the importance of building and sharing this improvement journey with the whole school community.

Domain 2: Analysing and discussing data.
This domain can be seen as underpinning all other domains in that it describes the extent to which a school uses a broad range of student learning, engagement and wellbeing data to evaluate the impact of teaching and learning and plan for improvement. This domain references staff capability in data analysis as part of their identification of starting points for learning for every student.

Domain 3: Promoting a culture of learning.
Domain 3 describes a school culture characterised by high expectations, continuous improvement and respectful relationships. In such a culture, students, staff and the school community are building safe and supportive learning environments.

Domain 4: Targeting school resources.
This domain describes the extent to which a school uses a range of quality data to direct its available resources – be they financial, human or physical – to the pedagogical core. It makes the case for schools to have flexible structures and processes in place to effectively respond to the needs of students.

Domain 5: Building an expert teaching team.
This domain highlights the need for leaders to deliberately and thoughtfully grow the professional and disciplinary knowledge of teachers. It encapsulates the provision of quality professional learning, aligned to improvement priorities, and tapping into wider professional networks and experts.

Domain 6: Leading systematic curriculum implementation.
Domain 6 describes the school’s approach to curriculum implementation, as well as the nature of the curriculum being enacted. It speaks of the need for local relevance, for the involvement of a wide range of stakeholders, for clear alignment between curriculum and assessment, and the reporting of student achievement and progress over time.

Domain 7: Differentiating teaching and learning.
This domain describes the extent to which teaching practices reflect the belief that all students can make excellent progress regardless of their starting points. It presumes reflective practices on the part of teachers, involvement in learning opportunities on the part of students and families, and an ongoing commitment to the provision of appropriate interventions for students identified as requiring additional support.

Domain 8: Implementing effective pedagogical practices.
Domain 8 describes the importance of school leaders setting clear expectations about the use of evidence-informed teaching practices in all classrooms. Effective pedagogical practices include the setting of high expectations for every student’s progress, co-designing quality learning goals, promoting deep learning, and providing quality feedback on learning. All of this presupposes that leaders and classroom teachers keep abreast of research in this field.

Domain 9: Building school-community partnerships.
The final domain of the Tool emphasises the need for schools to reach beyond their walls to partner with a range of community-based sources of expertise. With a focus on clarity of purpose and expectation in relation to improving student learning, wellbeing and/or engagement outcomes, Domain 9 promotes a school that is highly connected to its community.

The original National School Improvement Tool (NSIT) was developed a decade ago. What has changed over the years in terms of the research and our understanding?

The extensive evidence review underpinning the School Improvement Tool strongly endorses the practices described in the NSIT. Our review of the evidence shows that the nine-domain framework is robust and has stood the test of time. In recent years, there have been additional studies conducted into numerous broad topics relevant to the Tool, such as school leadership, teacher professional learning, collaboration between school staff, differentiated teaching and learning, and school-community partnerships. This research has enhanced our understanding of effective practices across domains. Further, more recent studies showed greater geographical diversity, which provides important insights into the nature of effective school improvement across different contexts.

The School Improvement Tool is structured around the same 9 domains, but the domain names now include a continuous verb to emphasise the ongoing nature of school improvement. This is consistent with our other improvement tools such as the Principal Performance Improvement Tool. The revised domain names also speak deliberately and expressly to the critical role of school leaders in school improvement.

Various refinements have been made to the domain description and characteristics. These emerged from an extension of the evidence base, new developments in the fields, and changes to commonly used terminology. In addition, the language has been refined to ensure international application and currency, avoiding the use of time and context-based language.

Specific themes that have been strengthened across the School Improvement Tool based on contemporary research include:

  • student learning, wellbeing and engagement, including student agency
  • inclusion
  • alignment between curriculum, assessment and pedagogy
  • stakeholder input, particularly student voice
  • broader conceptualisations of data, student engagement, and promoting an orderly environment
  • school context
  • evaluation and impact
  • collective efficacy and collaboration.

Following refinement of the domain description and characteristics, performance levels for each domain were recalibrated. The recalibration drew upon the extensive literature review and over 10 years of experience in NSIT school reviews. Those familiar with the NSIT will notice that the new School Improvement Tool performance levels contain more detailed descriptions of the extent to which the domain characteristics are evident in a school. This should enable greater precision in use of the Tool and may also provide more specific indication of where schools might put their future improvement energies.

What does research tell us about the role of leaders in sustained school improvement?

School leaders play a critical role in facilitating and sustaining school improvement. Research shows school leaders influence a broad range of school practices which, in combination, have the potential to accumulate to substantially improve student outcomes. The role of school leaders in ensuring coherence of school-wide improvement efforts is particularly important. Our review of research consistently identified the importance of school leader practices relating to instructional leadership. These include setting of the school’s strategic direction based on examination of a range of data, promoting a productive learning culture characterised by high expectations for staff and students, and effective implementation of curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment, including differentiated teaching and learning.

In exercising effective leadership, school leaders need to take account of the interrelatedness of practices across each of the 9 School Improvement Tool domains. School improvement is most impactful when leaders develop a narrow and sharp improvement agenda to ensure a focus on a small set of targeted strategies, which are evidence-informed and have been tailored to the school’s context. In addition to setting strategic direction, school leaders play a critical role in monitoring progress towards improvement goals over time using a range of data and adjusting strategies as appropriate.

We have recently worked in partnership with the Tasmania Department of Education, Children and Young People to develop a Principal Capability Framework and growth continua (Taylor-Guy et al., 2022). This conceptually innovative work has been able to identify the specific capabilities effective school principals need to enact effective leadership practices. The framework supports the identification and development of aspiring and current school leaders.

We know that student engagement and wellbeing have an impact on achievement. ACER has also just released a linked resource focusing on the area of student wellbeing. Was this prompted in part by the COVID-19 pandemic?

The relationship between engagement and wellbeing and learning is well established in the international literature and has always been an element in the National School Improvement Tool. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, research was demonstrating this link (see for example Dix et al., 2020). As with many other aspects of schooling, the pandemic brought issues of wellbeing into sharp focus.

The student engagement and wellbeing elaborations (Australian Council for Educational Research & Queensland Department of Education, 2022) were developed in partnership with the Queensland Department of Education as a resource to complement the School Improvement Tool. They are a deeper dive into the international evidence about good engagement and wellbeing practice. The elaborations make explicit the characteristics of practices that support student engagement and wellbeing across the 9 domains of the School Improvement Tool.

The elaborations take a holistic and preventative, rather than remediation, orientation to supporting student engagement and wellbeing that is consistent with a positive psychology perspective and latest research evidence. The elaborations provide an evidence-based framework for schools to review their current practices, identify new approaches, and refine existing strategies to support the engagement and wellbeing needs of their students. By drawing explicit links between supporting student engagement and wellbeing and school improvement more broadly, schools can optimise their support for student engagement and wellbeing in a way that is targeted and forms part of a coherent school improvement agenda.

I mentioned earlier that each school will have slightly different needs and priorities, but is there a common first step for those just starting out on their school improvement journey?

A critical first step is to establish current levels of practice, and this is where the School Improvement Tool is helpful. We support education systems, schools and teachers in this process by facilitating tailored professional learning about our approach to school improvement. This provides a good understanding of the purpose and nature of the Tool itself, and a shared language in relation to the characteristics of good practice described within domains. Discussions during this professional learning are aimed at generating reflection at the local level about the implications of applying the School Improvement Tool lens to school improvement practices.

Schools then undertake a self-review or commission ACER to conduct this on their behalf. Either way, this is a process of broad evidence gathering against the characteristics or practices outlined in the 9 domains, involving as wide a range of stakeholders as possible. The performance levels in each domain allow schools to determine how embedded these practices are across the school.

From this set of first steps, the School Improvement Tool provides guidance on where a school might direct its future improvement efforts, including the articulation of a small set of contextualised and targeted improvement goals.


Australian Council for Educational Research & Queensland Department of Education. (2022). School Improvement Tool Elaborations: Student engagement and wellbeing. Australian Council for Educational Research.

Australian Council for Educational Research. (2023). School Improvement Tool. ACER.

Dix, K, Kashfee, S.A, Carslake, T, Sniedze-Gregory, S, O’Grady, E, & Trevitt, J. (2020). A systematic review of intervention research examining effective student wellbeing in schools and their academic outcomes. Evidence for Learning: Melbourne.

Masters, G. N. (2016). National School Improvement Tool. Australian Council for Educational Research.

Masters, G. (2018). Principal Performance Improvement Tool. Australian Council for Educational Research.

Taylor-Guy, P., Van der Kleij, F., Lasen, M., & Wilson, J. (2022, September 1–10). Supporting ongoing principal professional growth: Development of a Principal Capability Framework [Paper Presentation]. European Conference on Educational Research Plus (online).

For more information about how to access and use the School Improvement Tool, visit