Leadership: Making school improvement happen

In their book Driving School Improvement: A practical guide, Pamela Macklin and Vic Zbar supported leaders in crafting an improvement approach to meet the needs of their own school context. Since it was first published in 2017, the authors have continued to work with individual schools and clusters, refining and updating their research, inviting feedback from leaders and teachers on the ground, and gathering case studies. They’ve just released an updated second edition Driving School Improvement: Practical strategies and tools, which includes these new materials and resources, and a foreword by Michael Fullan. In today’s Q&A, Macklin and Zbar discuss a common improvement challenge faced by leaders, and share examples of how different schools are meeting this challenge.

The book has lots of advice and practical strategies for school leaders, but what’s the starting point for improvement – it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach is it?

Really the starting point in our mind for each edition of the book is the need for schools to clearly diagnose where they are in the improvement cycle, guided by an understanding of the way in which school improvement typically occurs.

With this in mind, we provide an outline of the stages of school improvement and, most importantly, a photocopiable self-assessment that school leaders can use to determine where their school is at, as the starting point for then exploring the range of strategies outlined in the rest of the book for moving to the next improvement stage.

This is underpinned by a discussion of how change for improvement happens in schools, and the processes leaders can adopt to engage staff and engender their support. And we back it all up with case studies and examples of schools that have done it successfully over a number of years.

We know that driving school improvement is complex. From your ongoing work with school leaders in Australia, what are the challenges they're facing – is there a common theme?

A lot of time has been spent in Australia talking about what needs doing in schools at a time when leaders know what they have to do. They all appreciate, to use the jargon, the need to ‘raise the bar and narrow the gap’. The challenge is less the ‘what’ than the ‘how’. How to consistently implement the key strategies the school has chosen to adopt in ways that are sustainable through time.

In other words, making it happen on a day-to-day basis whereby all teachers are invested and on board with what the school is trying to do. That is why so much of this second edition is focused on implementation and the ways in which many leaders, schools and even clusters of schools have simply made it so.

Consistency is critical in this regard, since consistency of implementation not only is the key to sustainability, but is generally the place that any underperforming school can start. The more you can get people working together, pursuing agreed strategies for improving the school, the more you will experience whole-school success.

You mentioned there that successful implementation is an ongoing challenge. Can you share a couple of examples from different contexts of how schools are meeting this challenge?

A really good example of building capacity to plan and deliver better lessons in class is provided by two groups of schools in Tasmania — the Central Coast Cluster and the Queechy Alliance — that we describe in detail in Chapter 6.

Rather than seeking to implement the instructional models they devised in a holus-bolus way, they each instead focused on embedding one phase of the model at a time. In each case they started with learning goals because, as we describe in Chapter 7 as well, they determine the way in which the whole lesson unfolds. They then moved on to cementing the review and reflection phase of their instructional models, because that is where their teachers told them that they needed the most support.

Teachers in schools across the clusters were given materials, planning tools, professional learning, time and, most importantly, the opportunity to give their lesson planning a go in a risk free environment, where they then sought to collectively examine what they had learned. The result was that teachers across the 15 schools that comprise these clusters felt far more confident, initially in using learning goals and then in how to bring their lessons to a successful end.

Schools such as Springvale Rise Primary School and Glen Waverley Secondary College, both in the south-east of Melbourne, have backed up this type of activity by developing simple to use manuals for teachers that outline key elements of their instructional models in terms of specific examples to use in class and the research on which they are based. In the book we provide a couple of samples related to teacher modelling and effective questioning during the lesson itself.

Auburn North Public School in Western Sydney has taken things a stage further still, by developing annotated work samples to demonstrate quality success criteria in practice and using these to support both collaborative planning of lessons in teams and the classroom observations that leaders and teachers subsequently undertake.

Finally, in this short tour of school-based examples from the book, we would highlight the way in which Dandenong North Primary School in Melbourne has involved students in classroom observation and feedback to teachers on what they have seen. The program, which requires students to apply and be trained if they are to become involved, saw 40 students in 2020 observing all teachers in the school, and provided teachers with what they consider to be worthwhile feedback and support.

While these are just a handful of examples from the book, where they are spelt out in more detail, they give a taste of the way in which, between the two editions of Driving School Improvement, a number of schools have tackled the implementation challenge and the need to make it happen throughout the school.

And, to return to where we started, in each case, it meant pursuing the strategies that aligned to the school’s diagnosis of where it is at.

Driving School Improvement: Practical strategies and tools, Second edition, is published by ACER Press and available to buy now from the ACER Bookshop.