Here’s an explanation of School Improvement Plans for Madison schools that I wrote for the December MMSD Family Newsletter:
Are you interested in knowing more about what’s going on in the classrooms of the schools your children attend? Of course you are. So take a moment to look at your school’s new and improved School Improvement Plan, or SIP. You can find it by clicking on the School Improvement Plan icon on the home page of your school’s website, or you can click here for a list of all school SIPs. You’ll find a one-page summary of the SIP along with the full plan for each school.
School improvement plans have been around for a while. But they’re different this year – they’re now the playbooks that list the few key strategies each school will follow to improve its learning culture and student achievement. What’s more, the plans identify who’s in charge of what, establish goals, and lay out timelines and specific metrics by which progress on the strategies and goals will be measured. They put some teeth into the school district’s pledge to be more transparent in our work.
The school improvement plans are the work of School-Based Leadership Teams (SBLT). Members of the teams attended a two-day conference in August, just prior to the start of school, where they learned about the new SIP process, reviewed data on their school’s performance, and began work on formulating their plans.
SIPs follow a district-wide template. The first page identifies the members of the SBLT and their roles. Next come student achievement goals for the year, both for the whole school and for particular subsets of students.
For elementary and middle schools, these goals are generally expressed in terms of improvement in MAP scores in Literacy and Math. MAP, which stands for Measures of Academic Progress, is a series of standardized, computer-adaptive tests that students take in the fall and spring. Goals typically include specific increases in the percentages of students who will test at the proficient level in literacy and math. In addition, based on a student’s fall performance, MAP projects where the student should be when he or she is tested again in the spring. Schools’ goals are also expressed in terms of the percentage of students who will meet or exceed their measure of projected growth from fall until spring.
Next, the SIPs identify the content areas the schools will focus on in literacy and math. In literacy, these areas generally center around the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). For example, some schools will be focusing their work on Common Core Reading Anchor Standard 1, which states “Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.”
Instructional focus areas are also identified in the SIPs. The school’s teachers will be working to sharpen their skills in these particular instructional techniques. These typically include “close reading” and the “gradual release of responsibility” framework. Close reading is an instructional practice designed to enhance students’ abilities to read age-appropriate but relatively complex texts so that they can both master the text’s factual content and draw logical inferences from that content. “Gradual release of responsibility,” or GRR, refers to an instructional technique by which a teacher first explains a particular skill, then demonstrates it with students, then students work on the skill together, and finally students master the skill on their own.
SIPs also include infrastructure focus areas. This does not entail improvements to the school’s heating and ventilation system. Instead, the reference is to the organizational structure of the schools and typically includes how the professional staff in the building plan to work together and collaborate effectively, often in grade-level teams, and how they will approach data analysis in service of enhanced student achievement.
School climate is another topic addressed in SIPs. This portion of the plan lists strategies the school will implement to promote a productive, supportive and disruption-free learning environment for students. This is an area where there tends to be more relative variation from school to school, which reflects the fact that the leadership teams at the schools have honed in on the strategies that seem to be the best match for their school’s particular strengths and needs.
Finally, each SIP contains a family and community engagement plan. This is the area where typically the plans are least well-developed, which is some measure of the need for the plans. Most schools simply don’t have a good handle at the moment on effective strategies for welcoming parents and community members into the schools and engaging them as genuine partners in their students’ learning.
But the good news is that this is the first year for our rejuvenated SIP plans, and we’ll have 49 different approaches to increasing parent involvement included in the plans. We’ll be able to see what approaches work best, and they can be promoted as best practices for other schools to learn from and adopt in subsequent years.
The one-page summary of each school’s SIP lists the goals the plan is designed to achieve. For elementary and middle schools, the goals listed are specific improvements in MAP results. This is misleading. The SIPs are intended to lead to far broader measures of improvement than simply increases in standardized tests scores, important as they are. Other major goals of our new Strategic Framework are ensuring that every student has access to a challenging and well-rounded education and that every student, family and employee experiences a customer-service-oriented school system. But we don’t yet have ready metrics to measure our growth in these areas. We will figure out metrics to gauge our progress on these other goals as well and they should be reflected in future school plans.
School improvement plans can be a great resource for parents. If you want to be involved in your kids’ schools, you’re going to want to ask questions. But you can’t ask good questions without some background information. The SIPs can provide that information. You can always ask the principal, “How are things going?” but you’re likely to get a more informative response if you ask, “I saw on the school’s SIP plan that your October data analysis meeting looked at MAP test results. How did the proficiency levels look compared to the school’s goals?”
So take a look at the SIP plan for your school and get involved. As our Strategic Framework puts it: “When schools engage with parents and communities in authentic and mutually supportive ways, parents and communities will be equipped to ask questions, make decisions and expect the best from their schools for their children and all children.”