Leading school improvement - it's difficult isn't it?

Being the leader of a school is a demanding and complex enterprise. A critical agenda for any school leader is improving the learning of students.

Why can it be so hard to generate improvement that is sustainable? If the solution was straightforward, all schools would be on a trajectory towards strong academic achievement.

A characteristic of high performing schools is strong and effective leadership; but, what is it about leadership (at all levels in a school) that can move a school towards improvement and transformation?

Our work at the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) has revealed that there can often be a disconnect between the intent of school leaders and classroom reality. Having a commitment and desire to improve student outcomes is one thing, but putting together an explicit plan and communicating that to staff and the school community is the difficult part.

For the past two years, a team of ACER school improvement consultants has conducted reviews across the country. The team observes school practices and provides an evaluation of teaching and learning against each of the nine domains of the National School Improvement Tool (NSIT). We then work with the school leadership team to develop a school improvement plan based on the findings.

Some common findings

From our experience, the tool helps in setting a baseline of current practice on which to build capacity for improvement, wherever that baseline may be. Given the variety of contexts and settings it's interesting to note some common findings.

One area in particular where schools routinely need further development is Domain 1: An explicit improvement agenda. Across this domain, in 88.8 per cent of schools ACER reviewers determined the following statement to be true: 'The school leadership team is clearly committed to finding ways to improve on current student outcomes. This is reflected in an eagerness to learn from research evidence, international experience and from other schools that have achieved significant improvements.'

In order for this to be considered true in a school, the review team needed to be convinced by evidence that this statement is true in almost all areas of a school. It demonstrates the sincerity and commitment demonstrated by leaders in almost every school ACER reviewed. This comes as no surprise. Almost without exception, every school leader I meet is passionate and committed to their work.

However, the fourth most frequent statement observed (at 55.5 per cent) was: 'The Principal and other school leaders articulate a shared commitment to improvement, but limited attention has been given to specifying detail or to developing a school-wide approach (e.g. plans for improvement may lack coherence, be short-term or without a whole-school focus).'

Further, the reviewers also observed in 53.3 per cent of schools the following statement: 'Plans for improvement do not appear to have been clearly communicated, widely implemented or to have impacted significantly on teachers' day-to-day work. Targets for improvement are not specific (e.g. not accompanied by timelines).'

Disconnect between intent and reality

These findings suggest there appears to be a disconnect between the intent of school leaders and what is actually happening at the teacher level in classrooms.

Almost universally, leaders express their desire that the school leadership team is clearly committed to finding ways to improve on current student outcomes. At the same time, the evidence demonstrates this commitment is not articulated or communicated well to staff.

Commentary from teachers in schools ACER has reviewed often reflects the significant rapid change agenda that exists within schools and education systems across Australia. Teachers routinely comment that they are either confused or overloaded - neither of which contributes to the likelihood for ‘new' plans and ideas of leaders being carried out effectively by teachers.

Michael Fullan (Fullan and Quinn, 2016) lists the following as commonplace when teachers experience a level of disconnect:

  • Initiative fatigue;
  • Ad hoc projects;
  • Arbitrary top-down policies;
  • Compliance-oriented bureaucratisation;
  • Silos and fiefdoms everywhere;
  • Confusion;
  • Distrust and demoralisation.

Learning from what we don't see

Sometimes, what isn't seen in schools can be as revealing as what is seen in schools. Let's look at two statements from the 'outstanding' rating in Domain 1 of the NSIT.

'This agenda is expressed in terms of specific improvements sought in student performances, is aligned with national and/or system-wide improvement priorities and includes clear targets with accompanying timelines which are rigorously actioned.

'... Teachers take responsibility for changes in practice required to achieve school targets and are using data on a regular basis to monitor the effectiveness of their own efforts to meet those targets.'

Neither statement was observed as existing in a single school ACER reviewed over the last two years - there was zero per cent occurrence.

This may seem remarkable, but probably isn't. While there were instances in isolated pockets in schools where these statements were true, examples of this behaviour as a common and routine practice of teachers was not evident in a single school.

In light of the highest frequency of statements mentioned earlier, this should not be a surprising result. Leaders were observed as not being explicit and/or clear in communicating a specific improvement agenda in their school. The importance of Principals focusing on the things which matter in schools, such as developing an explicit improvement agenda, cannot be overestimated.

Implications for leaders at all levels

In light of our findings, whatever your role is within a school:

  • Be explicit in your communication and follow up;
  • Implement initiatives with clear accountability measures;
  • Effective schools have clear goals, with specific targets accompanied by achievable timelines and high levels of accountability in regard to achieving the goals and targets;
  • If you expect staff to do something, then inspect it. It is essential that school leaders ensure there is follow up and follow through.

ACER CEO Professor Geoff Masters AO has identified that rapidly improving schools, and schools that produce unusually good outcomes given their student intakes and circumstances, tend to have a number of features in common: ‘They pursue an explicit improvement agenda – they know what they want to see improve and they know how they will monitor success.'

Our observations in schools confirm these two characteristics to be essential for ongoing and sustained improvement.


Fullan, M., and Quinn, J. (2016). Coherence, The Right Drivers in Action for Schools, Districts and Systems. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin.

Does your school have an improvement plan?

Does your strategic plan have specific priorities, targets and timelines?

As a leader, how are you communicating these details to staff and the wider community?