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  • Writer's pictureMatthew B. Courtney, Ed.D.

Five Common Myths About School Improvement

Updated: Jan 7, 2023

Welcome to #BeyondTheMean! Check out this post to see what this blog is all about.

When I travel and speak on school improvement topics, I am often met with great hostility. Listen, I get it. The history of school improvement is fraught with questionable policy decisions, painful and inaccurate newspaper articles, and plenty of teacher bashing. It is time that we heal from the pains of the past and move forward with a view of school improvement that benefits children and improves teaching and learning conditions for all. In this post, I want to speak to five common myths that I frequently hear about school improvement.

School Improvement is a Federal Policy

Okay – this one is only half a myth. School improvement is embedded into federal policy. Right now, school improvement is a part of Title I, Part A in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). It has been a part of federal policy in some capacity since the passage of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965 with, as I mentioned in the intro, a wide range of policy and practice decisions that both helped and hurt our schools. School improvement’s inclusion in federal policy gives it a bad reputation.

School improvement is, in reality, a robust theory of continuous improvement that focuses on ensuring that all schools are systemically reviewing student performance and making meaningful changes to instruction in order to improve instruction with intentionality. When done well, schools that engage in continuous improvement practices don’t have to worry about the federal policy consequences because they never impact them. School improvement may exist because of federal policy decisions, but in the fifty years since its inception, it has transformed into a meaningful educational management theory.

School Improvement is for Failing Schools

Can we all just agree to ditch the term “failing schools”? What does that even mean anyway? In my experience, schools that struggle with reading and math achievement often have some of the strongest teachers and the most robust set of wrap-around services available. I would hardly call that failing. We do need to focus on the struggles of reading and math achievement and school improvement plays a role in that, but if we consistently apply deficit thinking to the school improvement models, we are really missing out on an opportunity.

School improvement is for all schools! I believe that every child deserves a school where the culture is welcoming, instruction is rigorous, achievement is high, and opportunities abound. Systemic and intentional school improvement is how we make good schools great and great schools even better. When schools focus on continuous improvement processes, they help all students succeed. School improvement prevents stagnation, encourages innovation, and shows kids that their school means business.

School Improvement Punishes Teachers

This one hurts me. Teachers in “improvement schools” are often looked down upon. The public assumes that they don’t know how to do their jobs and that if they were better, they would go teach at a better school. That really isn’t how the teacher talent pipeline works. In fact, many highly skilled teachers choose to teach in lower performing schools or in schools with populations that are more likely to be lower performing due to persistent societal barriers. These are some of the best and most innovative teachers you will ever see. They are incredibly adaptive as they focus on meeting the unique needs of their diverse student populations.

School improvement processes actually promote teacher excellence. A quality improvement process includes robust stakeholder inputs that give teachers greater voice and agency in their schools. A quality improvement process includes intentional, timely, and relevant professional learning chosen in collaboration with teachers. A quality improvement process includes distributed leadership where teachers in a school building are encouraged to take on leadership roles, perform action research, model techniques to their peers, and represent the school in the community. Great teachers thrive in a continuous improvement system that values them.

School Improvement is Temporary

Because of its inclusion in federal law, many people think of school improvement as a temporary endeavor. They see the application of a federal improvement designation, the rapid and short term work performed by the school while they are under that designation, and the eventual exit from the designation and assume that that is all there is to it.

In reality, school improvement is an ongoing, long-term project. Quality school improvement processes build replicable and self-sustaining systems that ensure that schools continually improve forever. Continuous improvement is continuous. Even if a school begins an improvement process as the result of a federal designation, the work they perform as they try to exit the status becomes an integral part of how they do business. That is how they stay out of the status in the future. Many “improvement schools” go on to eventually become some of the highest performing schools in their states. The reason is that they understand that the work of school improvement is an ongoing endeavor and they don’t stop when the feds turn their heads.

School Improvement Doesn’t Work

This is the most prevalent myth I hear. Many people think that school improvement or continuous improvement processes don’t actually work. There is a persistent idea in the world that low performing schools will be low performing forever and that there isn’t much you can do about it. I chock that up to two issues. First, I think it is a research fluency issue. I think that many people don’t fully understand the nuances of small scale studies that suggest that various strategies or components don’t always work in specific settings. I also think that societal pressures and systemic barriers create a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness in many parts of our country. When societal barriers are holding you down, school improvement processes may feel fruitless.

The truth of the matter is that school improvement and continuous improvement systems are very successful. They have been shown time and time again to lead to lasting change in student and school performance. School improvement processes are incremental and systematic, which can sometimes feel like improvement isn’t happening, but with persistence and fidelity, the work of school improvement will lead to lasting positive change.

If you’re ready to get started on your school improvement journey, check out some of the supporting tools I have available for free in The Repository before you leave today. You will find tools, training videos, and eBooks to get you moving in the right direction.

Good luck on your journey friends!


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