School Improvement: we all want it…but what does it actually mean?

During a conversation this afternoon, our principal asked a colleague and I to define “school improvement.” After taking a moment or two to consider my response, I realised that he had essentially asked us a trick question. And I thank him for that, because it really got me thinking.

The term “school improvement'” is one that is used often in current political, social, cultural and educational debates and agendas. From politicians to social commentators to principals, teachers, parents and sometimes even students – we all want improvement, yet it seems that we can’t necessarily come to an agreement about what that means. But during today’s meeting, it hit me that perhaps the reason we can’t seem to come to a common definition is because we are all looking at it with different hats. So we need to consider the perspectives of all stakeholders.

The government seems focused on standardised tests and funding. It seems like a cold, heartless approach. However they need evidence that they are allocating money effectively in order to provide the best possible education for all Australian students. Many would argue that they may be misplacing that funding. I’m not going to enter into that debate here, but what I do want to acknowledge is that whilst I, as an educator, may cringe at the anonymity of standardised tests such as NAPLAN, the government needs tools of some sort to gauge how millions of Australian students are progressing.

If we consider individual schools, the focus moves to ensuring that students have the opportunity to access appropriate pathways upon leaving school. There is also a focus on developing leadership and positive citizenship. What we see here is the holistic education of the ‘whole child.’ This becomes even more so when we narrow our focus to examine what is going on in individual classrooms. Within my classroom, school improvement is about helping the individual child recognise and develop both their strengths and weaknesses, helping them to build resilience and a positive self-image and expectation of personal success.

As was pointed out during our discussion, parents perceive school improvement from a different perspective. For them, it is about their child being nurtured, encouraged and supported to achieve personal success – whatever that may be for the child.

And for students, I believe that school improvement is about feeling welcome and loved, confident of personal success, and as my colleague pointed out, “interest and relevance.”

It is clear that the key stakeholders desire success and improvement for students, but that they come at the concept from very different angles. And the story becomes more complicated when we consider demographic. The social and cultural composition of the community in which a school exists has a very strong influence on the school’s role and goals. For example, a school located in a low socio-economic area would have very different goals from one in a more affluent area. That is not to say that expectations for success are lower in the first community, but more that success is defined or identified in different ways.

Perhaps what we need to do is accept that, whilst we might not always agree with each others’ approach, key stakeholders all want the best outcomes for Australian education. “School improvement” will ultimately mean different things to different people, and will differ from school to school. Individual schools and teachers can make use of tools through groups such as AITSL and ACER for quantitative data, but it is crucial that they revisit their aims and mission statements and measure their improvement qualitatively. It is in this that we can truly identify effective school improvement: how well are we addressing and achieving our stated aims in order to provide the best educational experience in relation to the specific needs of our students and school community?


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