Kai Schramm pic
Kai Schramm

The term “school improvement” is used quite a bit in the education community. It’s a term that’s as broad as it is common and encompasses a variety of elements. But what does it actually mean?

When we talk about school improvement, what we’re really talking about is improving student learning and development in a meaningful way. This is the primary goal of educators the world over.

So, what’s the best course of action to achieve this wide-ranging goal? Much like every student is unique, every school has its own personality, strengths, and weaknesses. As such, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” path to school improvement, but there are some ways in which school leaders can utilize qualitative data to make their path to improvement as smooth as possible.

The first step on the journey to school improvement is addressing the challenges preventing student learning conditions from being optimal. Again, there is no universal way to approach this.

Do you train teachers, change class schedules, provide intensive interventions, bring in external supports, or change the physical space and the resources provided? The list goes on and on. Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory always comes to mind as it incorporates how a variety of external factors (e.g., community-based family resources) and a student’s inherent qualities interact to shape their individual growth and development. Given the inherent complexities of school improvement, collecting and analyzing qualitative data by considering the external factors that may impact a student, in my opinion, is the best way to tackle such an enormous endeavor.

This far in our school improvement blog post series, we have touched on some basic steps of conducting an evaluation that can be leveraged to organize and focus your school improvement efforts. First, we addressed creating a logic model to map out the relationships of your program by establishing how your activities relate to your intended outcomes. With a logic model serving as a road map to accomplishing your school improvement goals, we then addressed how to collaborate with stakeholders to create an evaluation plan. Evaluation plans highlight evaluation questions, data sources, methods, data collection staff, data analysis staff, data reporting, and associated timelines. With these steps completed, we now look a little closer at actual data collection methods. Let’s consider the outcomes presented in the first blog of the series (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Logic Model With Classroom Practice as an Example

school improvement
school improvement

I’d argue that the mid-term outcome Use of Classroom Practice in Classroom (UoCPiC) would favor a qualitative investigation. To understand the depth of UoCPiC, including the teachers’ opinions, thoughts, and feelings, you really need to dig into the complexity of UoCPiC. A qualitative method, like conducting interviews, enables you to fully understand the complexity of classroom practice and how educators may have internalized your training to bring their newly gained understanding into the classroom.

If we fail to understand this step in our logic model, then all we know is that the program works (or doesn’t). However, thinking back to Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory, we don’t know what influencing factor occurred to lead to the long-term outcomes. For instance, the school may have also introduced teachers to a new performance evaluation system that changed teacher behaviors and led to the change in their classroom practices. To learn more, we might ask teachers to elaborate on their classroom practice, to detail the changes they have made to those practices, and what impact they believe this has made.

Qualitative data enable us to dive in and draw out a deeper understanding of a problem or success. They serve well as an explorative method, but also help us understand the complexity of the outcomes of our school improvement efforts.