Expert Opinion


The Pewaukee School District (PSD) in Wisconsin, United States, provides an outstanding example of how to create a top performing school system. The following best practices have led to PSD’s success:

  • Annual strategic planning initiatives built on the opinions of citizens, staff, parents, and management.
  • Detailed action planning communicated through balanced scorecards and performance dash- boards.
  • Professional learning communities integrated within the school calendar to facilitate the regular sharing of job embedded knowledge.
  • Specialised school management software to enhance knowledge sharing.
  • Personal computers for all staff and students, student proficiency assessments, and specifically tailored instructions to develop excellent technological skill sets.
  • Employee performance goals strategically aligned to action plans at all levels of the organisation.
  • Workforce engagement reinforced by addressing leadership, communication, the work environment, resources, involvement, and compensation/benefits requirements.

As a result of the school’s efforts, the President of the United States presented PSD with the prestigious 2013 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. A detailed case study outlining the district’s achievements is included in this Best Practice Report. [1]

Breaking Ranks Framework

John Nori, director of programme development for the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) in the United States, describes the Breaking Ranks Framework for school improvement. [2] The framework was specifically developed for “K-12” schools, which cover the 12-year period involving elementary, middle-level and high school education. The framework does not prescribe a specific model for schools to follow; rather, it uses data gathered by individual schools to assess strengths and identify needs, and then builds a customised plan for success.

Schools, regardless of which grade they represent, must address the following three core areas, which are depicted below in Figure 2.

According to Nori, improved student performance can only take place by addressing each of these three overlapping areas. In addition, the physical, social, emotional, and cognitive needs of each student must be considered. The framework incorporates the following four critical questions, which schools must answer as they begin the process of school improvement:

  1. Why does your school need to improve?
  2. What needs to improve?
  3. How do we improve our school?
  4. Who is responsible and are they prepared?

1. Why does your school need to improve?

Personalised learning is best accomplished in a supportive environment. School leaders have to collaboratively determine whether their organisation serves all students equally well. NASSP offers a survey tool to explore how well individual students are served; this helps to clarify the reasons why a school should improve. This survey may be downloaded from the NASSP web site or from the member’s area in the Self-Assessment Tools section. [4]

2. What needs to improve?

To achieve the greatest gains in school improvement, school leaders need to focus on the following nine cornerstones of the Breaking Ranks Framework: leadership; professional development; culture; organisation; curriculum; instruction; assessment; relationships; and equity. This involves systemic reform, because each element affects all of the others. While working around the edges may lead to some immediate positive results, it will not be as effective or sustainable compared to efforts that reach into all parts of the system.

3. How do we improve our school?

Schools tend to neglect the importance of the school culture when implementing reforms. Although they are passionate about educating each student, not every school focuses on serving each student. Most school leaders have planned and implemented reforms that seem to promise substantive impact. Yet, in reality, they have found that implementation is just too difficult: resources are lacking, the results are less significant than expected, or progress cannot be sustained. Transformations cannot take place unless the school culture permits it: significant, long-term change cannot survive without an appro- priate culture to sustain it. Leaders at all levels need to foster a transformational environment. According to Nori, “[a] great idea does not create a great culture; however, great leadership teams acting on a good idea can have a lasting impact.” The following six-stage process will help to foster a culture of excellence—and continuous improvement—within an organisation:

  1. Gather and analyse data to determine priorities.
  2. Explore possible solutions.
  3. Assess organisational readiness and build capacity.
  4. Create and communicate the improvement plan.
  5. Implement the plan.
  6. Monitor and adjust.

4. Who is responsible and are they prepared?

Collaboration across the whole school is essential for generating sustained school improvement. Leadership teams and professional learning communities have a profound, lasting impact on school culture. All school leaders have to look within themselves to ensure they possess the necessary skills and attitudes, as well as the mindset to lead to improvement.

NASSP has identified the following ten skills underpinning robust school leaderships: setting instructional direction; teamwork; sensitivity; judgment; results orientation; organisational ability; oral communication; written communication; developing others; and, understanding one’s own strengths and weaknesses. Substantive improvement can only be successful if it is:
• continuous
• involves an ongoing, rigorous analysis and,
• takes into account the interdependence of each element within a learning community.

Finally, and significantly, it must be undertaken by the people responsible for the day-to-day operations of the school. [4]

Active Learning

According to Usha Jagannathan and Risa Blair from Kaplan University in the United States, educational excellence should not to be gauged by an institution’s reputation or the resources it offers. Rather, an insti- tution’s educational excellence should be assessed by the intellectual and personal development of the students who graduate from it. [5] Studies indicate that the skills most desired by employers when hiring recent graduates are:

  • teamwork (44%)
  • critical thinking and reasoning (33%)
  • oral and written communication (30%), and
  • an ability to assemble or organise information (21%) [6]

For many students, the first year at college can be overwhelming, especially when transitioning from high school to college or returning to studies after an extended break. It has been observed that when students take classes with a high online component, they often need extra assistance. When students are not able to participate in classrooms or other learning communities, they tend to demonstrate higher attrition rates than students benefitting from greater social involvement. Accordingly, the following activities have been recommended for assisting new students:

  1. Engagement opportunities, including participation in collaborative learning; interacting regularly with staff, faculty and other students; and, deriving a deep interest in completing meaningful academic work. Those students who are highly involved in their institution and education tend to spend more time studying and using the resources provided by institutions, including workshops and extracurricular activities.
  2. Peer mentoring programmes can help integrate first year students within an institution and help them build connections with other students. Generally, students relate more readily to their peers than an instructor when asking for clarifica- tion about course material.
  3. Authentic learning or “learning-by-doing” – with the focus on real world applications. This type of learning strategy emphasises collaboration, creativity and innovation. According to the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) in the United States, the convergence of technology, coaching and learning communities provides an essential model for effective learning and teaching in a connected, global society. Students learn best when they are faced with genuine challenges and can take ownership for their learning. [7]

Active Reading Techniques

When students first attend a university, they are at different stages of maturity and many come with learning gaps. In 2011, James Muniz, a reading enrichment specialist and academic development programme director at The University of Scranton, Pennsylvania, reported that the university’s Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence had received more than 1,800 student tutoring requests during the previous academic year. Most of these students could read well, but did not know how to apply reading to learning. Most college-level learning occurs outside of the classroom; this is the opposite of most high school situations. For this reason, the active reading techniques presented by the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence coach students to extract information from text books, organise the information, and connect it to usable ideas. [8] Most active reading techniques build on the SQ3R system, which is summarised below in Figure 3. [9]

For Theresa Valiga, who is clinical professor and director of the Institute for Educational Excellence at the Duke University School of Nursing in the United States, excellence involves striving to be the very best in everything you do – simply because you do not want to act in any other way. It means setting high standards for yourself and the groups with which you are involved; holding to these high standards, despite challenges and pressures to reduce or lower them; and, not being satisfied with anything less than the very best. Excellence in teaching involves challenging yourself and seeking to go beyond the things you have already mastered; in this way, educators continue to grow, which makes their students’ learning experiences powerful and inspiring. Consider the following ways in which excellence in teaching can be demonstrated:

  • Design open, flexible curricula to specifically meet students’ learning needs.
  • Create an environment to encourage the lively exchange of ideas, through which students and teachers can learn together.
  • Have an evident passion for nursing, teaching and the subject being presented.
  • Create options for course assignments that allow each student to select an activity that best matches their preferred style.
  • Involve students in determining course learning objectives, rather than predetermining everything.
  • Focus on deep learning rather than providing only the required content.
  • Challenge and expect great things from students.
  • Seek out peers to provide thoughtful, critical peer reviews of our classroom, online materials, laboratory/clinical performance, course design, and course material in order to continually improve teaching practices.
  • Base teaching practices on solid evidence rather than tradition and past experience.

Valiga argues there are many other ways in which excellence in teaching can be defined. She asks teachers who aspire to excellence to rise to the challenge and add something of their own to the above list. [10]

Engagement Brings Success

Margarita Lenk, from the Colorado State University (CSU) College of Business in the United States, has been the recipient of many awards in recognition of her teaching skills, among which is the Outstanding Service Award from the American Accounting Association for introducing minorities to the profession. As an associate professor, she has taught a mix of undergraduate and graduate courses each semester, telling her students they must grasp what they want to do in their lives and how they want to contribute to society if they wish to succeed.

Her students have learned valuable life skills, including time management, team skills and accurate job expectations. She gives her students real world projects to accomplish. One example of this involves a class of 18 first year students or ‘freshmen’, who raised 2,200 pounds of food for a Food Bank. She told them that the previous year, 19 students had brought in 1,200 pounds of food – and she wanted them to beat this total. The students undertook a market assessment, mapped out where activity usually occurred, and found areas that were not covered. They set to work using this infor- mation and doubled the result. From this, the students began to appreciate that market opportunities existed if they were willing to look for them. Lenk’s students also carried out many useful tasks for the CSU offices and departments, government agencies, schools, and non-profit organisations. They helped train boards of directors in financial fiduciary responsibilities, created accounting systems, and disseminated resources to local non-profit organisations. Lenk says “by teaching critical thinking, communication skills, cross-cultural and cross-generational approaches, we can impress on our students that they will be able to embrace the issues of our society and become leaders and develop unique solutions.” [11]

Excellence in Research-Led Teaching

In New Zealand, the University of Auckland’s strategic plan for 2013-2020 specified excellence in research-led teaching for all academic staff as part of its mission. The mission stated the university was committed to developing and maintaining “a high quality learning environment that maximises the opportunity for all our students to succeed and provides them with an inclusive, intellectually chal lenging and transformative educational experience.” A framework, incorporating planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation, and enhancement, was used to support the organisation’s learning and teaching quality programme. This is shown in Figure 4.

Students took part in the university’s planning cycle for learning and teaching through representation on Council, Senate, the Education Committee, and the Teaching and Learning Quality Committee. They also provided feedback through a class representative system in each department or school: this feedback was conveyed via faculty-level staff-student consultative committees. Students also provided feedback through course and teaching evaluations, as well as other surveys, as depicted below in Figure 5.

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