How Do Schools Get Better? (Part 4)

The Center for the Advancement of Christian EducationInnovationLeave a Comment

jarmoluk / Pixabay

jarmoluk / Pixabay

**Doing the right thing…knowing the right thing to do. This is a question that we ask ourselves everyday as school leaders. Richard Elmore, professor of Educational Leadership at Harvard University, published a paper with this title through the NGA Center for Best Practices (can be found here). He offers suggestions and practical advice on how schools can get better. After reading Elmore’s article graduate students in the Dordt University School Leadership program blogged similar advice, written specifically for Christian school leaders. Our third guest blogger is Matt Van Muyen, Middle and High School Vice Principal at Unity Christian School in BC.**

I had been making a straight vertical hike for over two hours, or at least it felt like it. My legs were burning, my lungs, desperately trying to pull in enough oxygen, and my heart was pounding so hard it was about to blow straight out of my chest.

Exhausted, I reluctantly took my eyes off my feet and glanced ahead. The destination, the summit of Golden Ears mountain in Maple Ridge, British Columbia Canada, appeared well in the distance. Alder Flats, I thought. Just get to Alder Flats.

The Golden Ears trail is a 12 km trek with an elevation gain of over 1500 meters. There are sections of the trail that contain steep inclines and difficult ascents, while other portions are flat plateaus, such as Alder Flats and Panorama Ridge. The plateaus offer the necessary time for recovery, reflection, and rejuvenation, to address the next steep incline.

Hiking is a fitting analogy for school leadership and the process of school improvement. For schools, the destination point is student improvement, which is much more fluid than a static point of arrival. Yet, along the endless trek are peaks and valley’s; times of tremendous growth and times of being stagnate, both of which are necessary to pursuing school improvement (Elmore, 2004). As a member of a school leadership team, we are regularly asking, “How do we get better?” How do we improve at improving student learning, performance, and engagement in the classroom?

School improvement requires that teachers and administrators have a growth mindset. Far too often good teaching is seen as a destination point; a teacher’s “arrival” is evidenced by less planning time and leaving the school parking lot by 3:30pm.   Teachers with a growth mindset use the plateaus on the journey to reflect on their practice, strategize new instructional techniques to improve learning in their students, and then begin the steep incline on the journey.

Teachers with a growth mindset collaborative with their colleagues; they do not isolate themselves but rather understand that teaching is a group responsibility (Elmore 2007). Teaching, like hiking, is not a solo activity. You can’t do it alone. Improving the capacity and opportunity for teachers to work collaboratively is a necessity for improving student learning and performance.  Having common planning time and professional learning communities are two ways to improve staff collaboration.

For schools to improve, teacher professional development must be strategic and measured for effectiveness in the classroom. Teachers complete a minimum of 30 hours of professional development in a single school year. Much of that time is internal professional development planned by the school. Far too often professional development has little impact on student learning and fails to lead to any sustained improvement in the classroom. Professional development should be directly focused on techniques and strategies that need to be implemented in order to improve student learning.

School improvement requires diverse ways of measuring progress.  It is limiting and misleading to simply rely on provincial tests and assessments (FSA’s, provincial exams etc.) (Elmore, 2007).   Rather, administrators need to be in classrooms to regularly assess the work and learning of teachers and students. Measuring progress is absolutely necessary for teachers because it will provide feedback on whether to continue or to stop with the current strategy in the classroom. Teachers need to see that their actions are improving student learning, or if not, may eventually lead to student improvement.  If there is no tangible indication that improvement has or will occur, the teacher can adjust and make necessary changes (Elmore, 2004). More importantly, teachers are motivated when they see that they are making a difference in the classroom.  Like hiking, you become increasingly motivated and encouraged as you near your goal, teachers are motivated to continue when they see the positive impact of their actions on student learning in the classroom.

School improvement is an endless trek. The times of apparent stagnation are an important time for reflection and assessment to prepare for the next leg of the journey. Teaching is exhausting because a growth mindset means always asking and questioning how to do things differently to improve student learning.  “How do we get better?”  The answer is simple: Together, and one step at a time.


  1. Elmore, R. F. (2004). School reform from the inside out: Policy, practice, and performance.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
  2. Elmore, R.F. (2007) “The Road to School Improvement.” Harvard Educational Review, Volume 23, Number 3. Retrieved From:



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