Why You Need More Than School Improvement Plan Goals: 5 Critical Strategies Missing from Most Plans and How a Systems Approach Increases Ownership Beyond the Principal




5 critical strategies missing from most school improvement plan goals


As you prepare for the next school year, school improvement plans and goals can be one of your most powerful leadership tools as a principal.

Yet, there’s no shortage of memes across the Internet poking fun at school improvement plans for the time required to develop them, the relatively low number of people who have input into their content, and the huge disparity between what is in a plan and the policies that need to be changed at the state and district level to affect their success.

Meme featuring a principal opening a huge book with text overlaid that says: “We finally finished the school improvement plan! 347 goals each with its own strategies, action steps, and everything.”

A meme I created about school improvement plan goals.

While these memes attempt to make light of an often frustrating situation, the very real disconnect between the purpose of a school improvement plan and its actual use must be addressed.

What if we reimagined our school improvement plans?

What if our goals truly became tied to what our students need instead of what might be required to avoid punitive measures tied to an accountability system?

What if more teachers hear their voice in our plans?

What if our plans turned into more than just a document collecting dust and instead morphed into a supercharged engine for blazing policy change and positive student outcomes?

What if?


There is a real disconnect between the purpose of a school improvement plan and its actual use. What if we reimagined goals tied to what our students truly need, with more teacher voice and supercharged for positive change? - James Mills Click To Tweet


In this blog, I draw on my experience as a school leadership coach to share examples of typical missteps that principals make while creating and implementing school improvement plans. I also share five critical strategies that are often missing from plans.

You can use these examples and strategies to reimagine school improvement plans – from a chore you don’t have time for, to a planning tool that actually saves you time and resources.


What is in a school improvement plan?

A school improvement plan, or SIP, has requirements that vary from state to state, but their unifying purpose is to document goals, strategies, and action steps that aim to improve the quality of education students receive. School improvement plan goals are generally aligned to outcome measures on statewide assessments.

The big question is: what makes a good school improvement plan?

What the research says about school improvement plan efficacy

      • Many educators doubt the efficacy of school improvement plans: According to a RAND survey, only 44% of teachers and 67% of principals believe school improvement plans change teaching practices. 62% of teachers and 81% of principals believed school improvement plans improve schools over a period of five years (Doss, et al., 2020).
      • Teachers with more knowledge of their school’s improvement plan were more likely to believe in its effectiveness: The same RAND study found a significant disparity between how teachers felt about school improvement plans when they were familiar with the plan’s major points vs. when they were not. See figure 1 (Doss, et al., 2020).


Chart depicting how teachers’ knowledge of school improvement plans affects their belief in school improvement plan efficacy.

Figure 1. When asked if the school improvement plan would lead to changes in teacher practice, more teachers who were familiar with the major points of the plan agreed (55%) compared to those who agreed but were unfamiliar with the major points (12%). Likewise, when asked if the school improvement plan would make the school better over a period of five years, teachers were more likely to agree if they were familiar with the major points (72%) vs. those who were unfamiliar (30%).


When we get into the five strategies below, I will explain more about how to involve teachers in creating and implementing school improvement plans.


What are some typical school goals – and what keeps schools from accomplishing them?

Circular target with many arrows on the floor around it representing missed school improvement plan goals.

Pull your most recent school improvement plan. Now look at the goals.

More than likely you will find astronomical student achievement targets like 30% increase in ELA proficiency or 54% increase in math proficiency.

Or you might find much more reasonable targets like 4% and 6% increases in ELA and math proficiency, respectively.

Either way, these targets are truly a shot in the dark without substantive goals, action steps, and strategies.

But even when the targets have goals, actions steps, and strategies, chances are they were written by a principal or assistant principal without teacher input. They might have even been provided by the district as a boilerplate for all schools to include. This is unacceptable and dooms school improvement from the outset.


How do principals typically implement school improvement plans?

School principal looking stressed and overwhelmed as she sits at her desk with a laptop working on implementing the school improvement plan goals.

In the majority of school improvement efforts, the principal takes responsibility for the action steps outlined in an improvement plan himself or herself.

The principal might also delegate specific tasks without responsibility for the larger goal from which the task is connected. How many times have we seen or been on the receiving end of a “do this” email at 2:30 in the morning?

If Principal Marquez is going to take responsibility for every goal in the plan herself, that means she will visit 20 classrooms a day and give targeted, specific feedback to each teacher. Then she will attend PLCs both before and after school. Plus, she will call 15 parents back each day to respond to their concerns and maybe have time to grab a bite of the cold school lunch sitting on her desk for the last six hours.

Implementing the school improvement plan does not need to be – and shouldn’t be – this draining. Read on for strategies you can use to take a different approach.


5 critical strategies missing from most school improvement plan goals

Reimagining the usual process for creating and implementing school improvement plan goals means using new strategies.

The following five strategies are based on my work with the school improvement team at LSI. We developed supports and coaching for a new process called distributed system maturity.

In this process, daily school improvement efforts are driven by responsibilities, metrics, goals for improvement, documented processes, and regular leadership inspection and feedback on progress to goals.

5 critical strategies missing from most school improvement plan goals:

  1. Distributed responsibilities
  2. Weekly metrics
  3. Sustainable systems with documented processes
  4. Classroom walks & feedback
  5. Continuous improvement meetings


5 critical strategies missing from most school improvement plan goals: 1. Distributed responsibilities 2. Weekly metrics 3. Sustainable systems with documented processes 4. Classroom walks & feedback 5. Continuous improvement… Click To Tweet


1. Distribute responsibilities to other individuals rather than being a hero leader

The school principal, teachers, and other education professionals stand in a circle with their hands together representing teamwork and distributed leadership responsibilities.Distributed system maturity begins with shifting from a “hero leader” to empowering your team to take some of the ownership for school improvement goals.

Hero leadership means a principal takes on the burden of responsibilities by himself or herself. It is not a system for true school improvement, because it is heavily reliant on one individual.

Do any “hero” principals you know come to mind? It’s heart-wrenching to think about how many hours our school leaders work to lead improvement, the personal sacrifices they make to the detriment of their families, and the damage they do to their physical and mental health. We have to change now!

So how do you start with distributed leadership?

At a minimum, school improvement plan goals must include the individuals responsible for each action step of each goal, and you must leave the task management associated with these action steps to the individuals responsible. The planning process should begin months before the new school year starts.

To illustrate this strategy, consider the following goal which I will use for the duration of the discussion:

By the end of the 2021-22 school year, 65% of students will demonstrate at least one year’s growth, or learning gain, as measured by the ELA statewide assessment.

On the surface, this goal is admirable, worthy of pride as a school, and no doubt helpful toward exiting a school from any turnaround status it may be in or approaching. But it lacks clear action steps – and more importantly, clear responsibility.

The responsibility for a goal like this one almost always falls to the principal. But in a distributed system maturity model, an individual other than the principal becomes the owner and responsible party to see this goal through to success.

There is certainly more than one action step that will be connected to this goal, and those action steps must be owned by a responsible party. To further the example, consider the following action step:

The reading coach will facilitate subject-area planning with all ELA teachers during their common planning period on Mondays and Wednesdays focusing on improving target/task alignment during the first grading period.

In this action step, the responsible party is clearly identified, along with the task that he or she is committing to fulfill. Now we have the reading coach involved, and you’re beginning to distribute leadership to others besides yourself.


2. Use metrics that you can monitor on a weekly basis rather than on a bi-annual basis

A principal or educator looks at charts and graphs on his computer representing monitoring progress to a school improvement plan goal.Don’t stop there! What would it look like if we then added a goal for improvement that is tied to a metric for progress monitoring?

You might be thinking: Don’t we already have our goal for improvement? Isn’t it the 65% learning gains in ELA?

For most schools currently in turnaround status (or a similar situation), progress monitoring data is limited to twice per year, around October and February, which will likely be used to make a school grade projection. I have done it myself. It does not work, and it places immense amounts of stress on teachers and leaders.

What if we took our example and added a low-stakes, weekly metric?

The reading coach will facilitate subject-area planning with all ELA teachers during their common planning period on Mondays and Wednesdays focusing on improving target/task alignment during the first grading period. During classroom walkthroughs, the reading coach will measure target/task alignment using a research-based classroom walkthrough tool, such as RigorWalk®. She will specifically identify the taxonomy level of the lesson learning target and the taxonomy level of the student work being produced and track whether the levels are aligned. Each teacher will demonstrate target/task alignment in three out of four weekly classroom visits as measured by the walkthrough tool.

Now, not only do we have a task and person responsible, but also we have a metric (in this example, RigorWalk®) and a goal for incremental improvement (target/task alignment in three out of four weekly classroom visits) which rolls up to the larger goal of 65% learning gains in ELA.

The distribution of our school improvement work has grown from the reading coach to now include all ELA teachers. The wave of ownership is building!


3. Build sustainable systems with documented processes rather than relying on talented individuals  

Person typing on a computer with abstract shapes overlaid including a check mark, document, team, computer, and notebook representing building sustainable systems for school improvement plan goals.Let’s revisit our annual goal example quickly so we don’t lose sight of what we are trying to accomplish:

By the end of the 2021-22 school year, 65% of students will demonstrate at least one year’s growth, or learning gain, as measured by the ELA statewide assessment.

We can’t simply off-load tasks and responsibilities to the reading coach and ELA teachers and think everything is going to be okay. Don’t stop there!

If true, sustainable school improvement is what we desire (and it is!), we must develop mature systems – systems that can succeed regardless of the individual.

I recall late one January afternoon when a tenth-grade ELA teacher approached me in the courtyard and shared that she was going to be leaving our school in about a month. Her husband had just accepted a new job in a location that both of them had dreamed of visiting for years. Instead of being excited for her, my mind immediately activated the anxiety switch.

How was I going to replace this amazing teacher? She consistently got 65% to 80% learning gains every year. There was no system in place that could replicate what she could do.

Avoiding overdependence on talented individuals is one of the aims of the distributed system maturity model. The system exists to ensure teachers and other stakeholders have the support, resources, and trust to continue the hard work of school improvement regardless of the circumstances.

Looking back, I wish I would have been able to celebrate along with that teacher. Where was this model way back when?

If we look at our example so far – individuals with distributed responsibilities and metrics for weekly progress monitoring – what would happen if the reading coach left?

Maybe, as the principal, I should go down and coach the classes myself? I can already hear the elementary principals who are reading this say, “I’ve done that before, too!” But that is not the answer.

A documented process is critical: a process that can be picked up, utilized, refined, and passed on to ensure success continues. Using our example, the documented process for the reading coach would include:

      • Weekly coaching calendars
      • PLC agendas
      • Sample student work products
      • Instructions related to classroom walkthroughs
      • How to use the RigorWalk® (or whichever tool she is using) to capture target/task alignment data
      • Suggested ways to share the data
      • How to use the data collected to inform next steps in the PLC process

When teams create a documented process, it results in high ownership and reduces the risk of failure to attain system goals because it isn’t dependent on a single person. The power is in the process.

Now we have the reading coach, ELA teachers, and anyone else who might join the team on equal footing. New teacher? New reading coach? Veteran teacher? Veteran reading coach? District reading specialist? It doesn’t matter. The process supports everyone.


Distributed systems for school improvement mean creating documented processes that any person can use, refine, and pass on. Even as the team adds or loses members over time, the hard work of improving student outcomes continues. Click To Tweet


4. Inspect classrooms regularly and provide feedback on progress toward the goal

Closeup of someone’s hand holding a pen and writing on a clipboard representing a school principal providing feedback on progress to the school improvement plan goal.I can imagine you asking: Where is the principal in all of this? He or she must have some responsibility for ensuring that we meet our goal of 65% learning gains as measured by the ELA statewide assessment.


In a distributed system maturity model, the principal’s most critical function is regular leadership inspection and feedback on progress toward the goal.

When these two responsibilities become the principal’s focus, we experience the highest levels of ownership, most reliable results, and lowest risk of failure to attain system performance goals.

Think back to all of the research and discussions over the years about the need for the principal to be the instructional leader of the school (e.g., Lunenburg, 2010). This is how it’s done.

So far, we have focused on one example goal from our school improvement plan: achieving 65% learning gains as measured by the ELA statewide assessment. We should now break our annual goals down into 45-day goals and make them visible for everyone. For example:

100% of students will demonstrate on-target growth in ELA as measured by the comparison of the NWEA MAP Reading Baseline to First Quarter progress monitoring assessment.

This 45-day goal is then displayed on the school’s action board. An action board is a visible tool that provides urgency and focus, guiding the school leadership team (SLT) in implementing and monitoring the systems that lead to the vision of transformed student achievement.

The action board provides a clear focus on how the SLT members should spend their time. Action boards allow us to take our 45-day goals and break them down into one-week “sprints,” where action steps move through columns titled “To Do,” “Doing,” and “Done.”

Example of an action board with sticky notes in three columns labeled: “to do,” “doing,” and “done.” The action board is used for school improvement plan goals.

An example of an action board created by a SLT that I coached.

The action steps on an action board are not a “to do” list in the traditional sense. They are connected to specific actions that individual members of the SLT own, which are all connected to the school improvement plan goals. Any miscellaneous or operational items that members of the SLT need to get done (for example, creating a fire drill plan) do NOT go on the action board.

An action step is considered “done” when it meets specific criteria connected to the metrics we identified earlier (in our example, the number of classrooms that demonstrated target/task alignment as measured by the RigorWalk® tool). If the action step does not meet the criteria, it cannot be considered “done.”

Let’s take a look at an example that includes two action steps from the reading coach with one definition of done that requires leadership (principal) inspection:

      • Action Steps
        • The reading coach will attend and participate in Grade 4 ELA PLCs on Monday and Wednesday, focusing on Target/Task Alignment.
        • The reading coach will conduct a classroom walkthrough for each Grade 4 ELA teacher and submit feedback on Target/Task Alignment through a tool such as Growth Tracker.
      • Definition of Done
        • The principal will visit all 5 ELA teachers during their ELA block on Friday. In 4 out of 5 classrooms, the observed learning target and task will be aligned at the appropriate taxonomy or higher as measured by the LSI RigorWalk®.

Notice how throughout these examples, our annual goal has transitioned to a 45-day goal, then to specific action steps that the reading coach owns, to teachers getting consistent and documented feedback directly connected to action steps, to the principal verifying through leadership inspection.

The throughline here is powerful! Imagine the support the reading coach and teachers are feeling knowing that their principal is also invested in the outcome. That ownership wave just grew another 10 feet!


5. Lead your team towards continuous improvement with daily stand-ups

A school principal stands in front of an action board with two teachers or educators during a daily stand-up to review progress to the school improvement plan goals.The final strategy that brings the distributed system maturity model together is the regular feedback on the team’s progress and efficacy at meeting the school improvement plan goals.

Like leadership inspection of the action steps, the principal owns this critical process.

At the heart of the continuous improvement process is the daily stand-up. A daily stand-up is when members of the SLT gather around the action board as the principal leads 5 to 15 minutes of discussion. The daily stand-up happens at the same time each day and in the same location. This time is sacred.

You should put some thought as to when the daily stand-up should take place. Support staff should be aware of it and protect this time as well.

During the daily stand-up, the principal asks each member of the SLT what he or she observed the previous day that is moving us toward meeting our definitions of done.

It is not a rundown of what each member did or did not do; the focus is on specific actions and outcomes from the classroom that will lead to meeting the definition of done by the end of the week. It is also the time to identify any impediments to meeting the goal for the week.

Data is central to all discussions. The game plan for tomorrow is also cemented. No more annual, quarterly, monthly, or weekly focus on where we are as a school. Now you know on a daily basis!

For the purposes of this blog, I included only one school improvement plan goal from ELA. You will likely have additional goals, as well as other members on the SLT who own the action steps of those goals (such as the math coach, science coach, behavior specialist, ELL specialist, guidance counselor).


What results can you expect after using the 5 strategies?

So, what does it look like when a school fully commits to the five strategies described above?

Learning Sciences International has partnered with many public schools to implement these strategies. You can find the powerful results in our Applied Research Center’s case studies.

In our partner schools, the improvement process becomes a system owned by everyone, not just a select few – and in the end, students have benefitted immensely.

By embracing distributed responsibilities, weekly progress metrics, documented processes, regular leadership inspection, and daily feedback on goals for improvement, principals have empowered the entire school.

Don’t you want to be a part of a school like this?




Doss, C.J., Akinniranye, G., Tosh, K. (2020). School improvement plans: Is there room for improvement? RAND Corporation. https://doi.org/10.7249/RR2575.4-1

Lunenburg, F.C. (2010). The principal as instructional leader. National Forum of Educational Supervision Journal, 27(4). http://www.nationalforum.com/Electronic%20Journal%20Volumes/Lunenburg,%20Fred%20C.%20The%20Principal%20as%20Instructional%20Leader%20NFEASJ%20V27%20N4%202010.pdf



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