School Improvement Research Paper

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1. School Improvement

Different terms are used to describe change processes in schools and educational systems as a whole. They include: ‘educational change,’ ‘innovation,’ ‘reform,’ and development.’ These terms are quite often used in an interchangeable manner, and their meaning in the literature is frequently ambiguous. Many authors do not define them, but instead tend to trust everyday usage to convey the meaning of the words. Other authors define the concept by including in the definition important conditions and crucial characteristics of the processes.

In the definition of these different concepts generally, and to distinguish school improvement from other concepts, at least three points should be taken into consideration.

(a) The level in educational system where the change takes place: the school, the district, or the state. Ultimately, every change process has to reach the classroom and the level of the individual student. In order to make a distinction, educational change at national level is often called ‘systemic reform.’ The term ‘school improvement’ makes clear that the change takes place at school level.

(b) In all definitions, distinctions should be made between, on the one hand, the process of educational change, the strategies used, and the characteristics of the change process, and, on the other, the outcomes of the change process. In everyday use, the term can refer to one of these aspects or even to a combination of them: for example, to strategy and the product of change.

Fullan clarifies what he calls ‘the confusion between the terms change and progress’ (Fullan 1991, p. 4). Not every change is progress: the actual outcome of the change processes in terms of progress is not as important as the intended outcomes in the desired direction.

(c) When it comes to the outcomes of change, there is often no well-defined concept of what the change is aimed at: the context of education, the inputs and processes, or, ultimately, the outcomes in terms of student achievement.

The International School Improvement Project (ISIP) defines school improvement as a ‘a systematic sustained effort aimed at change in learning conditions and other related internal conditions in one or more schools, with the ultimate aim of accomplishing educational goals more effectively’ (Van Velzen et al. 1985). This definition specifies improvement as an innovation or planned change with specific means (change in learning and other internal conditions of the school) and specific goals (ultimately to accomplish educational goals more effectively).

2. Practice And Theory In School Improvement

School improvement as a process has been demarcated into three global phases: the initiation, the implementation, and the continuation processes. Stakeholders of school improvement are more narrowly circumscribed and consist of students, teachers, principals, and parents at school level, and of local educational authorities, consultants, and the local community at local level. In exceptional cases, where it is a regional or national strategy to improve all schools, the stakeholders at these levels are also relevant.

School improvement is a very widespread phenomenon and a wide variety of improvement efforts can be found. For example, there is a lot of improvement going on which does not aim at enhancing student outcomes at all. These types of improvement focus, for instance, on the career development of teachers, on restructuring the organization of the school, on the way decisions are made, or on the relationships between schools and their clients. Sometimes restructuring takes place at classroom level. Changes in the writing practices of elementary schoolteachers, for example, have been described in great detail. Nevertheless, the actual impact of the changes on students and on student achievement is usually left out.

Some schools practice improvement on their own and try to find their own solutions to their problems. Other schools have chosen to implement as accurately as possible improvement programs that have been developed elsewhere. This is called fidelity implementation. Often they do not consider alternative educational options. For example, they may opt for a specific program primarily because another school was satisfied with it (Stringfield 1995). Some schools are involved in improvement only because their government expects them to be (Hopkins et al. 1994). Depending on the extent to which educational policies are translated into clear outlines and contents, fidelity implementation is a more or less appropriate concept. When the educational policy is rather prescriptive with respect to curricular content and outcome levels, as it is in the UK (Hopkins et al. 1994), it is theoretically possible to check whether or not schools are implementing this policy. When the educational policy is rather open-ended, as is the Dutch policy on educational priorities (Van der Werf 1995) or the Dutch inclusion policy, it is virtually impossible to apply the notion of fidelity implementation.

Only a small part of school improvement is based on research (Stringfield 1995). Innovations are hardly ever tested before they are implemented in educational practice, and an adequate evaluation of their impact is rare. The same applies to the occurrence of experimental or quasi-experimental designs in improvement projects. Some school improvers have preferred forms of action research instead of research-based experiments. Sometimes projects based on changing only a couple of factors report great successes. It may be that changes in just a few important areas can alter a whole system, but the question is whether these changes— often cases of educational mass hysteria—will stand the test of time. In education, the margins for change are generally small, because of the impact of noneducational factors such as the individual characteristics of students.

Evaluations are often not carried out satisfactorily or are performed after a timespan that is too short. School improvement projects have shown that it takes time to design, develop, implement, and evaluate changes in schools—more time than is often available. Because of inadequate evaluations, questions about the causation of effects, extremely important for the school-effectiveness knowledge base, cannot be answered. School improvement, therefore, should consistently pursue assessment of its results, pay attention to its failures and try to learn from these, and limit its goals to prevent confusion of cause and effect (Hopkins et al. 1999).

In school improvement, the orientation towards educational practice and policy-making is emphasized. Although, in educational practice schools and classrooms can be found that succeed much better than others, theories cannot be based on exemplary practice only.

Insofar as theoretical notions have been developed, they have not yet been empirically and systematically tested. The typologies of school cultures (Hargreaves 1995), for example, have not been studied in educational practice, and their effects on the success of school improvement are as yet unknown. Moreover, their relationships to the first criterion for school improvement (enhancing student outcomes) are not always very clear. The same holds for the factors that are supposed to be important in different stages of educational change, outlined by Fullan (1991), and for his ideas about the essential elements in educational change at classroom level (beliefs, curriculum materials, and teaching approaches). Even though these ideas are derived from school improvement practice, their importance and their potential effects are not accounted for in detail, and have not yet been studied in research.

A contribution to theory development is the generic framework for school improvement provided by Hopkins (1996). In this framework, three major components are depicted: educational givens, a strategic dimension, and a capacity-building dimension. Educational givens cannot be changed easily. Givens can be external to the school (such as an external impetus for change) and internal (such as the school’s background, organization, and values). The strategic dimension refers to the competency of a school to set its priorities for further development, to define student learning goals and teacher development, and to choose a strategy to achieve these goals successfully. The capacity-building dimension refers to the need to focus on conditions for classroom practice and for school development during the various stages of improvement. Finally, the school culture has a central place in the framework. Changes in the school culture will support teaching–learning processes which will, in turn, improve student outcomes (Hopkins 1996).

Despite the obvious gaps in theory development and testing in the field of school improvement, there are already some elements of a knowledge base. By trying to improve schools, knowledge on the implementation of classroom and school effectiveness factors in educational practice has become available. This has provided the possibility of studying, to different degrees, the influence of factors and variables on educational outcomes (Stoll and Fink 1994).

3. The Link Between School Improvement And School Effectiveness

School effectiveness and school improvement conjoin because of their mutual interest, although their actual relationship may be very complicated (Reynolds et al. 1993, Creemers and Reezigt 1997). The major aim in the field of school effectiveness was always to link theory and research on the one hand, and practice and policy-making on the other. School improvement can be fostered by a knowledge base covering what works in education that can be applied in educational practice. The combination of theory, research, and development is not new in education. Almost all movements start out to make knowledge useful for educational practice and policy-making, or state their goal in terms of supplementing policy practice with a knowledge base supplied by theory and research from a cyclical point of view. The next step is to use practical knowledge for further advances in theory and research. In this way, research and improvement can have a relationship as a surplus benefit for both.

School effectiveness has led to major shifts in educational policy in many countries by emphasizing the accountability of schools and the responsibility of educators to provide all children with opportunities for high achievement, thereby enhancing the need for school improvement (Mortimore 1991). School effectiveness has pointed to the need for school improvement, in particular by focusing on alterable school factors. School improvement projects were necessary to find out how schools could become more effective. These projects were often supposed to implement effective school factors in educational practice (Scheerens 1992) and, in doing so, could yield useful feedback for school effectiveness. School improvement might point to inaccurate conceptions of effectiveness, such as the notion of linearity or one-dimensionality (Hargreaves 1995). In addition, school improvement might give more insight into the strategies for changing schools successfully in the direction of effectiveness.

The relatively short history of school effectiveness and improvement shows some successes of this linkage. Research results are being used in educational practice, sometimes with good results. School improvement findings are sometimes used as input for new research. Renihan and Renihan state that ‘the effective schools research has paid off, if for no other reason than that it has been the catalyst for school improvement efforts’ (Renihan and Renihan 1989, p. 365).

Most authors, however, are more skeptical (Reynolds et al. 1993). Fullan states that school effectiveness ‘has mostly focused on narrow educational goals, and the research itself tells us almost nothing about how an effective school got that way and if it stayed effective’ (Fullan 1991, p. 22). Stoll and Fink (1992) think that school effectiveness should have done more to make clear how schools can become effective. According to Mortimore (1991), a lot of improvement efforts have failed because research results were not translated adequately into guidelines for educational practice. Changes were sometimes forced upon a school, and when the results were disappointing the principals and teachers were blamed. Teddlie and Roberts (1993) suggest that effectiveness and improvement representatives do not cooperate automatically, but tend to see each other as competitors. Links between school effectiveness and school improvement were stronger in some countries than in others (Reynolds 1996). In the early years of school effectiveness, links were strong in the USA and never quite disappeared there. Many districts have implemented effective schools programs in recent years, but research in the field has decreased at the same time, and, because of this, school improvement is sometimes considered ‘a remarkable example of (…) over-use of a limited research base’ (Stringfield 1995, p. 70).

Reynolds et al. (2000) came to the conclusion based on the analyses of Dutch, British, and North American initiatives that the following principles are fundamental to a successful merger of school effectiveness and school improvement:

(a) a focus on teaching, learning, and the classroom level;

(b) use of data for decision making;

(c) a focus on pupil outcomes;

(d) addressing schools’ internal conditions;

(e) enhanced consistency (through implementation of ‘reliable’ programs); and

(f) pulling levers to affect all levels, both within and beyond the school.

Recently, several projects (Stoll et al. 1996, Hill 1998) have started to integrate school effectiveness and school improvement. They form successful examples of the concept of sustained interactivity. These projects all share a clear definition of the problem that should be overcome, in terms of student outcomes and classroom strategies, to enhance these outcomes with- in the context of the school. Often, the outcomes are clearly specified for one school subject or elements of a school subject, such as comprehensive reading. The content of the projects is a balanced mix of the effectiveness knowledge base and the concepts from school improvement. The projects have detailed de- signs, both for the implementation of school improvement and for evaluation in terms of empirical research. By means of a research component integrated into the projects right from the start, it is possible to test effectiveness hypotheses, and to evaluate improvement outcomes at the same time. The use of control groups is essential in this respect, and various projects now incorporate control groups or choose to compare their results to norm groups on the basis of nationwide tests. Also, many projects are longitudinal in their designs. Although most integrated projects have started recently, some of them have been running for almost a decade now, and they have been disseminated to various educational contexts. Therefore, long-term effects and context-specific effects can easily be tracked by means of follow-up measurement.

An additional feature of projects which last for several subsequent years is the possibility of testing the effectiveness of school improvement strategies and changing strategies whenever necessary. The Halton’s Effective Schools Project illustrates this feature clearly (Stoll and Fink 1996, Stoll et al. 1996). The project started in Canada in 1986 with the intention of implementing British effectiveness knowledge in Halton district schools. It soon became clear that the effectiveness knowledge base in itself would not automatically lead to changes in educational practice. Over the years, the project paid a lot of attention to questions on the processes of change in schools. It focuses on the planning process in schools, the teaching and learning processes in classrooms, and staff development. Successful changes turned out to be enhanced by a collaborative school culture, a shared vision of what the school will stand for in the future, and a climate in which decisions are made in a transparent way. Based on their Halton experiences, Stoll and Fink (1996) have developed a conceptual model which links school effectiveness and school improvement through the school development planning process. The model blends the school effectiveness knowledge base with knowledge about change processes in schools. The school development planning process is at the center of the model. The process is considered to be multilayered. Two outer layers comprise invitational leadership, and continuing conditions and cultural norms. The inner cycle layer is formed by the ongoing planning cycle of assessment, planning, implementation, and evaluation of educational processes. The two central core layers refer to a strong focus on the teaching–learning processes and the curriculum, and the students in the school. The school development planning process is influenced by the context of the school and foundations such as research findings, and, in turn, influences intermediate outcomes at teacher and school levels, as well as student outcomes. Finally, the planning process is influenced by several partners (external agencies, educational networks).

In the UK, 66 percent of improvement programs now pursue goals which fit into the school effectiveness tradition of student outcomes (Reynolds et al. 1996). However, it is still not clear whether real improvements will always occur. The IQEA project (Improving the Quality of Education for All, Hopkins et al. 1994) started in 1991 as a staff development project. Gradually, a focus on classroom improvement and its effects on student achievement took over. The project does not stop with the implementation of priorities for development, but also pays explicit attention to conditions that will sustain the changes. These are staff development, involvement, leadership, coordination, inquiry and reflection, and collaborative planning (Stoll et al. 1996). In addition, when the classroom became the center of attention, the project specified the classroom-level conditions that are necessary for effective teaching and student achievement. These are authentic relationships, rules and boundaries, teacher’s repertoire, reflection on teaching, resources and preparation, and pedagogic partnerships. Other promising projects in the UK are the Lewisham School Improvement Project and the Hammersmith and Fulham LEA Project. Both projects actively try to enhance student achievement by means of school effectiveness knowledge, and both projects are cooperating with a research institute (Reynolds et al. 1996).

Recent theories about school improvement stress the self-regulation of schools. Self-regulation assumes target setting and embodies the behavioral concept of mechanisms, feedback, and reinforcement. This self-regulatory approach to school improvement can be combined with the analogous self-regulatory feedback loops in educational effectiveness, which are again further elaborated in the upward spiraling school development planning process (Stoll and Fink 1996, Hopkins 1995).

The analysis of school improvement efforts over a period of time resulted in a distinction of several types of schools (effective vs. ineffective and improving vs. declining). Stoll and Fink (1998) and Hopkins et al. (1999) give descriptions of those schools and the features of the change processes going on. The declining effective school (the ‘cruising school’) has received particular attention because it points at the difficulties of keeping educational quality at the same level (Fink 1999).


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