Teacher's bookshelf: School improvement

The new book Driving school improvement: A practical guide is designed to support school leaders in meeting their improvement challenges. Authors Pamela Macklin and Vic Zbar focus on implementation, and have designed tools, activities and proformas for educators to adapt for use in their own school settings. In this exclusive extract for Teacher readers, the authors explore the four preconditions for whole-school improvement that were identified through research conducted by Zbar, Kimber and Marshall (2008, 2009).

Precondition 1: Strong leadership that is shared

There is a need for strong leadership with a clear vision and direction for the school and a high degree of leadership stability over time. Central to this is a principal with a passion to lead and make a difference in the interests of students in the school, and one who is also willing to build and spread leadership throughout the school. In general, the principal initially focuses their efforts on building the leadership team and ensuring they all act according to a common vision and shared views.

Put simply, a principal and leadership team that knows how to use the resources and expertise available to them in ways that maximise the outcomes students can achieve is a key determinant of the success of the school and, in particular, the extent to which teachers can deliver high quality teaching to each and every class. Instances of good teaching undoubtedly exist in schools where the quality of leadership is weak, but high quality leadership is a prerequisite for this to be spread throughout the school.

In a very real sense, leadership is so central to school performance and improvement, that it almost amounts to a precondition for the preconditions, and hence constitutes the place where schools must start if significant advances are to be achieved. That also means that in cases where a requisite degree of leadership capacity does not exist in a school, then systemic intervention, such as coaching support, may be required to ensure it is in place.

Precondition 2: High levels of expectation and teacher efficacy

Improvement is predicated on having and promoting high expectations for all the students the school enrols and, in particular, challenging the belief that ‘you can't expect more of these kids'. This then is made manifest by setting higher aims and targets than simply matching equivalent schools, which often just condemns students to fall further behind their higher performing peers rather than narrowing the performance gap.

High expectations for students in turn can be used to build a feeling among staff that they have the capacity to make a difference for the students they teach. This is important, because teachers' beliefs and understandings about their professional efficacy, combined with a belief that virtually every student can learn given the right support and pace of instruction, has been demonstrated to make a difference to how the teacher, and hence their students, actually performs. Jerald (2007), for instance, found that teachers with strong perceptions of efficacy put more effort into planning lessons, are more open to new ideas and persevere in the face of new challenges. What is particularly promising about this research, however, is that efficacy perceptions are not immutable, and hence are open to the actions of school leadership teams.

Precondition 3: Ensuring an orderly learning environment where students are well known

The existence of an orderly learning environment throughout the school – established through positive rather than negative means, whereby there are high levels of teacher consistency about how it is ‘enforced' and structures in place to ensure that all students are known well by at least one adult in the school – is a fundamental precondition for improved teaching and learning to occur on which the subsequent improvement in student learning outcomes can be based.

It is interesting to note in this context that the absence of an orderly learning environment is usually the first thing noticed in an under-performing school, and the major impediment to improvement and change. And the establishment of such an environment, and the consistency of staff behaviour on which it depends, is commonly the key initial strategy for the leadership team in turning the school around. Aside from the fact you cannot have effective teaching and learning in a disorderly classroom or school, developing an orderly learning environment also provides a mechanism for getting teachers working more consistently and towards a common end. That in turn creates the basis for further united action within the school, particularly to the extent it is linked to knowing the students well, and hence developing a more personalised teaching and learning approach to ensure their needs are met.

Precondition 4: A focus on what matters most

If a school is to seriously improve, then it needs to have relatively few priorities that are focused on the core things students need, which in turn constitute the basis for the resource decisions the school makes, such as the way in which staff are allocated and used.

Beyond just limiting priorities to what matters most, schools need to have a very clear sense of where to start and focus their energies on what the management literature calls ‘putting first things first'. The point here is as much about the fact the school does prioritise and shape its allocation of energy and resources accordingly, as the nature of the priorities that are set. This in part reflects the premium placed on leadership as outlined in precondition one, since focusing on what matters most requires the leadership capacity to weigh up the current situation in the school, know where the school needs to head and know what is needed to get it there, and then clearly identify the entry point for commencing the improvement journey and associated incremental steps that need to be taken along the way.

Focusing effort on what matters most is central to the strategic planning of any successful school, and hence should be a key focus of building leadership capacity throughout the school from the principal team down. It also brings the associated challenge of being prepared to abandon those activities that effectively have less ‘bang for our buck', so the effort, resources and time they involve can instead be directed to higher leverage strategies that will genuinely improve the school.


Jerald, C. (January, 2007). Believing and achieving, Issue Brief. Washington, DC: The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement.

Zbar, V., Kimber, R., & Marshall, G. (2008). How our best performing schools come out on top: An examination of eight high performing disadvantaged schools. Melbourne: Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.

Zbar, V., Kimber, R., & Marshall, G. (2009). Schools that achieve extraordinary success: How some disadvantaged Victorian schools ‘punch above their weight' (Occasional Paper No. 109). Melbourne: CSE.

Driving school improvement: A practical guide is available to buy now from the ACER Bookshop.

As a leader, can you identify what the main priorities are for your school? Are they focused on the core things students need? How do these priorities impact on the decisions you make in relation to the use of staff and professional learning?

The authors discuss the need for an orderly learning environment throughout the school. As a school leader, what systems and structures do you have in place to ensure teacher consistency in this area?