Developing Strategies for Increasing Student Success


Interest in the improvement of schools and student results has been the focus of rhetoric and action since the 1950s. And while many efforts have been mounted, widespread educational improvement remains unrealized in far too many schools. During the 1996-2000 Regional Educational Laboratory contract, SEDL carried out two projects that hold significant progress. The first involves the creation of communities of continuous inquiry and improvement as an infrastructure to support improvements in schools. The second focuses on comprehensive school reform, improvement efforts that involve deeper and more extensive change.

Creating Communities of Continuous Inquiry and Improvement

SEDL focused on the creation of communities of continuous inquiry and improvement, or professional learning communities (PLC), early in the contract period, when evidence was growing about the value of such an infrastructure in schools but little information existed on how to build and support these structures. In such communities, the school professionals examined the core relationships they created and experienced with students, reflected on their work with students, and supported one another as they assessed the results of their work with students. These communities possess five common characteristics: shared and supportive leadership, shared values and vision, collective learning and application, supportive conditions, and shared practice.

Field-based research and development

SEDL identified 24 colleagues from higher education, state education agencies, intermediate service units, school districts, and other organizations who were interested in working with SEDL to understand how to build such communities. The partners identified 18 proficiencies they thought would be required to undertake this work and created modules to support the proficiencies' development. These modules are available to others who are undertaking similar work in Creating Communities of Continuous Inquiry and Improvement: A Collection of Strategies.

Each of the colleagues (or co-developers) identified a school involved in an improvement effort that also was interested in building a professional learning community. Over a two-year period, they worked with these schools nurturing the development of the school’s PLC and documenting the school’s progress. SEDL collected these stories and published them in Multiple Mirrors: Reflections on the Creation of Professional Learning Communities.

SEDL also studied five schools (one per state) that created communities of continuous inquiry and improvement and validated an instrument to assess the maturity of such schools. In the course of that work, SEDL developed and published a set of indicators to chart the progress of a school in becoming a community of continuous inquiry and improvement, called Indicators of Professional Learning Community Development.

Our work with the co-developers, the study of the five schools, and the development of the instrument produced additional knowledge related to the creation of communities of continuous inquiry and improvement including:

  • A community of continuous inquiry and improvement exists when each of the five dimensions is in place and all are interacting together.
  • The most logical and effective way to begin developing a community of continuous inquiry and improvement is to bring the professionals together to learn.
  • A critical element in these communities is the continuous engagement of staff in inquiry directed toward improving the learning of students.
  • Determining school and staff readiness is important.
  • Identifying barriers and boosters that will slow down and accelerate the development of a community of continuous inquiry and improvement is important. One may begin by collecting and reviewing student demographic and achievement data.
  • The dedication of time for school people to learn and share is critical to the accomplishment of school improvement goals.

The experiences of the co-developers in their respective schools, the case studies of schools identified as operating as PLCs, and the maturity instrument were presented in multiple issues of a periodic publication, Issues…about Change. SEDL also published a monograph on research about PLC, Professional Learning Communities: Communities of Continuous Inquiry and Improvement. The updated version is titled Professional Learning Communities: An Ongoing Exploration.

Facilitating Implementation of Reform Strategies and Tactics (FIRST)

For the Facilitating Implementation of Reform Strategies and Tactics (FIRST), SEDL worked directly with one low-performing school in each of SEDL’s five states to understand how schools engage in comprehensive school reform. This work focused on the entire school as an interrelated system of parts that impact each other, involved multiple technical assistance providers, and examined existing and proposed structures and practices on an ongoing basis to determine how they impact student learning.

SEDL worked with the school administrators, classroom teachers, and other staff members in these schools over a two-year period. SEDL assisted each school in assessing its strength and weaknesses, identifying a focus for our working together, and developing and implementing a plan for this work. Major components of the work involved examining student performance data, building staff consensus on the work's focus, researching alternatives to address problems in the school, and building shared leadership to carry out one or more of the alternatives. Five factors were identified that influenced school progress: (1) the focus of the improvement effort, (2) organizational structures, (3) personal and social dynamics, (4) contextual influences, and (5) leadership. Findings related to each of these factors are summarized below.

  • All of the schools were strongly encouraged to focus their work on improving student performance. Lack of access to and understanding of student achievement data played a large role in the difficulties encountered as each school sought to define and maintain the focus of their improvement efforts.
  • Problems that are rooted in leadership, context, and organizational structures almost always affect personal and social dynamics negatively. Similarly, advancement in any of the other four areas tends to support positive dynamics.
  • While schools are the locations of improvement work, they are critically affected for better or worse by the contexts in which they exist. External change facilitators must have a wide and deep range of strategies and information to be ready to anticipate and address contextual issues during improvement efforts. Bringing all parties to the table, where possible, is the best strategy in addressing these issues. In all cases, more and better communication—and more and better understanding—mitigated the negative aspects of context, and allowed stakeholders to begin to imagine context as a strength of, and not a hindrance to, their school.
  • Leadership plays a pivotal role in any school change effort. Comprehensive school reform efforts advance most effectively and smoothly in schools where principals are committed to high-quality instruction leading to success for every student. These schools also are adept at handling day-to-day operations as well as the crises, enjoy strong working relationships with district and school staff, and have the professional security and commitment to foster and use teacher leadership.

SEDL included these findings on supporting comprehensive school reform in these schools in the Issues…about Change publication.

Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Program support

To support the U.S. Department of Education’s Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration (CSRD) program, SEDL and other regional labs provided assistance including SEA network meetings, LEA assistance, development and dissemination of products to support CSRD programs, and research studies to deepen understanding of comprehensive school reform.

State assistance and networking. In the first year, SEDL assisted the five state education agencies in developing their CSRD plans and conducting competitions. In the following years, SEDL responded to individual state requests for assistance, which often were specific to a state's reform context. SEDL also convened the five state CSRD coordinators three times each year to identify emerging issues, share the progress made in each state, and discuss mutual issues. These meetings helped the five coordinators share ideas and solve problems that improved each of their state CSRD programs.

Local assistance. SEDL provided a series of workshops each year to assist schools and districts in either applying for or implementing a CSRD program. During three years, nearly 4,000 educators attended. SEDL also sponsored a workshop for 218 CSRD technical assistance providers working with CSRD schools in SEDL's states. These workshops helped facilitate the sharing of information among the local schools and districts, the CSRD technical assistance providers, and SEDL to increase the consistency and coordination of assistance to schools and districts implementing CSRD programs.

Development of products. SEDL developed a number of products to support the ongoing implementation of CSR programs. They included the National Database of CSR Awardees, a searchable database available on SEDL’s Web site that provides descriptive information on CSRD awards in all 50 states, and Connections, a newsletter that addressed issues schools and districts faced as they implemented CSRD programs. A set of audiotapes, Voices from the Field, describes six strategies that leaders can adopt to support comprehensive school reform. Finally, Disaggregation without Aggravation, a resource kit, helps educators understand how to disaggregate and make sense of their student achievement data.

Research studies. SEDL conducted five research studies on implementation issues related to the CSRD program. The first two studies, “Analysis of Southwest Regional CSRD Competition,and “Analysis of National CSRD Competition,” examine the first cycle of CSRD competitions in each of SEDL’s five states and in 28 states across the United States. These two studies are intended to inform SEA and U.S. Department of Education officials on the first cycle of competitions, and suggest improvements to strengthen subsequent competition cycles.

SEDL developed the Early Implementation Survey to track schools’ status on 10 factors that influence successful school improvement efforts. These factors were identified in SEDL’s review of relevant research, development, and dissemination knowledge, Correlates of Successful Implementation and Change, An Annotated Bibliography.

SEDL also conducted two sets of case studies to assess the implementation of CSRD programs in rural schools and schools serving high concentrations of American Indian students. “Rural Implementation Case Studies” revealed that the size of the schools actually helped solve some common implementation problems (e.g., opportunities for staff planning and sharing). In addition, rural schools in this sample selected models with close geographic ties (rather than more nationally known models with technical assistance providers based far away) to resolve access and travel concerns. Rural schools, nevertheless, faced many of the problems associated with implementing large-scale change in their schools.

The second set of case studies, “Native American Case Studies,” was conducted to examine the impact of the American Indian culture on the implementation of CSRD programs. Because few of the models had been developed with American Indian cultures in mind, SEDL was interested in exploring how the American Indian culture interacted with these models. SEDL’s case studies showed that few cultural or linguistic accommodations were made in the two CSRD models implemented at the sites. Contextual issues (e.g., turnover and training of staff, parent involvement) played a more significant role than culture in determining the success of these schools.