Twenty-four Things Successful Schools Do

In 2007, Karin Chenoweth (@karinchenoweth) wrote a book titled It’s Being Done.  Her work highlights numerous schools that are successful with diverse student populations.  These schools prove that all students can learn when principals and teachers maintain high expectations and a commitment to the needs of each and every child.

Through a compelling narrative, Chenoweth identified 24 things that successful schools do to meet the needs of all students.  How does your school measure up?

  1. They don’t teach to the test.
  2. They have high expectations for all students.
  3. They know what the stakes are.
  4. They embrace and use data.
  5. They use data to focus on specific students, not just groups.
  6. They constantly reexamine what they do.
  7. They embrace accountability.
  8. They make decisions based on what is good for students.
  9. They use school time wisely.
  10. They leverage community resources.
  11. They expand the time students have in school.
  12. Discipline isn’t about punishment.
  13. They foster an atmosphere of respect.
  14. They like children.
  15. They make sure that students who struggle the most have the best instruction.
  16. Principals are a constant presence.
  17. Principals are not the only leaders.
  18. They pay attention to teacher quality.
  19. Teachers have time to meet and plan collaboratively.
  20. Teachers observe each other.
  21. Professional development is valued.
  22. They train and acculturate new teachers with great thought and purpose.
  23. Office and building staff consider themselves part of the educational mission.
  24. They are nice places to work.

In this era of accountability, the noise created by school reform shouldn’t drown out the important work that is being done in schools across America.  Is your school a nice place to work?  It’s such a simple question, yet it speaks to our priorities.  Can you imagine how great our schools would be if we tried our best to address the 24 practices above?  Luckily, Chenoweth’s book shows us that we don’t have to use our imagination…it’s being done.

Five Thoughts for Teachers Heading Into the Final Stretch

The spring holiday break is over for most of us now.  June will be here before you know it.  As you prepare for the remaining days of the school year, here are five things to consider when planning for instruction.

1.  Revisit Your Expectations

The final weeks of the school year can be the most challenging.  Treat the next week like the first week of school.  Have an honest discussion with students about classroom routines, behaviors, and procedures.  Make it fun and collaborative and you will be able to quickly get back into the flow.

2.  Check the Standards

Spend some time with your grade level teammates looking at the progress that your students have made toward the standards.  Much can be done and much progress can be made by students over the last quarter of the year.  Look at the formative and summative data that you have collected.  Are there instructional trends that will impact how and what you teach?  Don’t forget to speak with any and all resource teachers for support and ideas.

3.  Make a Plan

Once you have identified the instructional areas that you need to focus on, make a plan that will take you through the end of the year.  That plan should include student-specific and content-specific goals.  It is also a good idea to talk with teachers in the next grade up.  If you’re a second grade teacher, ask the third grade teachers what skills their students need to be successful next year.

4.  Set Your Students Free

No, I am not suggesting a free-for-all, but the final weeks of the school year are a great opportunity to shift the focus to student-owned learning.  Getting students actively involved in the learning process reduces many of the negative behaviors we see in the latter part of the year.  Let the students do the teaching, capitalize on their creativity, go outside for some hands-on learning, find as many ways as you can to promote “student talk” over “teacher talk.”

5.  Have Fun

Maya Angelou said it best, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

What have you done, or will you do, that your students will remember for years to come?  If you don’t have an answer, that’s okay. You have plenty of time left.  Plan a fun field trip, invite a guest speaker in, collaborate on an activity with a colleague in another grade.  Ask your students what they’d like to do.  You’re sure to get some creative answers.  Sometimes it’s the simplest things that help students remember how you made them feel.  Good luck!

Differentiating Staff Development to Grow Teacher Leadership

This is a condensed version of an article I wrote for the spring 2014 edition of Living Education eMagazine.

The National Staff Development Council’s Standards for Staff Development provide guidance to school leaders focused on fostering high-quality professional learning communities.  Principals who are willing to utilize the standards will find that they enable them to address the varied needs of teachers, which, in turn, enhances the learning of an increasingly diverse student population.  School leaders should consider using a differentiated staff development model aligned with the pedagogical practices they expect of their teachers.

The NSDCs context, process and content standards offer a structure that promotes the development of school-based staff development programs capable of creating enduring educational change.  A brief examination of the standards provides insight into how school leaders might differentiate their school-based staff development.

Context Standards

Organizing adults into learning communities does not happen magically.  School leaders must provide the structure and time needed for teachers to collaborate with their peers.  A culture of learning needs to be built in order for teacher capacity to increase (Rutherford, 2006).  While the goals of the learning community should be aligned with district goals, they should be specific to the needs of the local school.

Teachers need time to discuss strategies for getting students to achieve, share their teaching practices, improve their techniques, and set communal student achievement goals (Sawchuk, 2007).  This requires strong leadership and the ability to obtain the required resources.  Principals can share their leadership without risking a loss of control.  In fact, by sharing leadership, they empower their teachers to become partners in the school improvement process.

Process Standards

The end result of all staff development must be improved student performance.  Teachers will support staff development efforts when they can make the connection between what they are asked to do and how it will lead to improved student performance.  Educators in the 21st century are being asked to do more with data than ever.  Formative and summative assessments can assist teachers in making informed instructional decisions.  It is the building principal’s responsibility to structure the school day so that teachers have the time and materials to disaggregate data.

Teachers play a critical role in educational reform and need opportunities to engage in high-quality professional development (Goodnough, 2005).  Data-driven decisions can be made by teachers only when they have the time and support to analyze and interpret data.  Given the time to work with data, teachers are highly capable of analyzing assessment results to identify appropriate instructional strategies.  With guidance, they will be able to modify their teaching to address the specific strengths and challenges of the individual student.

Content Standards

Staff development efforts should ensure equity, quality teaching and family involvement.  In the pursuit of educational excellence, we cannot ignore the social and emotional needs of our students and community.  We are still responsible for educating the whole-child.  The reliance on quantitative data should not preclude schools from actively collecting qualitative data to support their efforts in providing safe, orderly and supportive learning environments.

Teachers, guidance counselors, school psychologists and support staff play a vital role in establishing schools that meet the affective needs of all learners.  Their role can easily be extended to staff development directed at encouraging family involvement, equity and school safety.  Meaningful formal and informal staff development should be tailored to the specific needs of the school.  Through these opportunities, teachers become intimately and effectively involved in their communities (Gabriel, 2005).

What Does Differentiated School-based Staff Development Look Like?    

Differentiation for the adult learner parallels differentiation in the classroom.  Principals who expect their teachers to meet the needs of all learners must model effective differentiation practices.  School leaders who value the unique abilities of their teachers, and plan staff development with that in mind, send a message of empowerment to their teachers.  Differentiated staff development builds teacher leadership capacity.  It means utilizing staff members in the decision-making, planning and implementation phases of school-based staff development.  A differentiated approach operates from, and builds on, teacher strengths.  It includes, but is not limited to the use of study groups, action research, collaborative planning, vertical teaming, school developed mini-sessions, and district-wide initiatives.

Study Groups 

There are ample resources available for school leaders to use study groups as an effective differentiation tool.  The key is to include teachers in the selection of the topics and texts they will study.  In planning for a school year, administrators will need to schedule time for teachers to both read and discuss material.

Study groups should operate under short-term parameters.  Depending on the volume of material covered, study groups should last no longer than half of the school year.  Ideally, study groups that conclude by the middle of the year allow teachers to use the second half of the year to integrate what they have learned.

Action Research

School districts are collecting more data than ever and teachers should be given the opportunity to use that data at the building level.  Action research has the potential to answer questions that teachers have about their students and their school.  The most exciting aspect of action research is that it allows schools to take a focused look at their school-specific concerns.

School leaders should support the collection of anecdotal, qualitative data, which often provides insight into student performance that cannot be gleaned from quantitative data.  The introduction of SLOs (student learning objectives) has made familiarity with action research a must for all teachers.

Collaborative Planning & Vertical Teaming

School districts must support vertical teaming among elementary, middle and high schools.  While this can be complicated, it allows teachers to stay current on what skills their students need to be successful at the next level.  Principals will have to balance the individual planning needs of teachers, while also engaging them in the value-laden process of collaborative planning and vertical teaming.

School-based Mini-Sessions

Staff members often have skills or training in areas that might not fit in neatly with school-wide initiatives.  It is important to give these staff members a forum for sharing their knowledge.  Technology, classroom management, school climate, teacher morale and an array of other topics can be covered by offering mini-sessions throughout the school year.

By actively seeking out teachers and by understanding their strengths, school leaders can “recruit” more staff members into the collective intelligence of their school.  Mini-sessions can be offered before and after the school day.  As optional, or alternative staff development, they give the teachers choice in the scope and depth of their involvement.  The “edcamp” approach is another vehicle for capitalizing on the strengths of your teachers.

District-wide Initiatives

Most school leaders understand that district-wide initiatives often come with mandatory staff development for their teachers.  School leaders need to stay current on what is coming from the district level to avoid overloading the staff development plates of teachers.  That means sometimes they will have to balance the needs of their school with the needs of the district.  However, circumstances may also provide opportunities for schools to combine their staff development efforts with the district.


The NSDC standards provide a structure that school leaders can use to meet the diverse needs of their teachers.  School-based staff development in the 21st century requires non-traditional thinking.  While this requires organization and planning, it is ultimately worthwhile, productive and empowering.  The development of a professional learning community requires meaningful interaction and engagement on the part of teachers.  Differentiating school-based staff development may serve as a catalyst toward those efforts.


Gabriel, J. G. (2005). How to thrive as a teacher leader. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Goodnough, K. (2005). Fostering teacher learning through collaborative inquiry. The Clearing House, 79 (2), 88-92.

Hannon, S. M. (2003). Building a better staff. School Library Journal, 49 (2), 4-5.

Morrow, L. M. (2003). Make professional development a priority. Reading Today, 21 (1), 6-7.

Rutherford, P. (2006). Leading the learning. Leadership, 36 (1), 22-26.

Sawchuk, S. (2007). Groups endorse peer driven, job embedded development. Education Daily, 40 (196), 2.

Book Review-The School Improvement Planning Handbook

The School Improvement Planning Handbook:  Getting Focused for Turnaround and Transition. Daniel L. Duke, Marsha Carr, and William Sterrett. Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2013, 287 pages.

The school improvement process can seem daunting to even the most seasoned administrator.  Many school districts are focusing on turning struggling schools toward increased achievement.  However, deciding where to start, what to include, and how to address the needs of a school community remains extremely challenging.

So, how should school leaders approach the improvement process and how do we turn schools around? The authors of The School Improvement Planning Handbook provide readers with a framework for developing specific strategies that may pave the way for success.

The authors offer a structured approach to targeting the key elements in a school improvement plan. They note that, “[s]uccessful school improvement plans are not merely the private product of savvy principals. They are the result of a number of carefully executed steps, a good deal of teamwork, and lots of open and honest reflection.”

While the book is much more than a “handbook,” its handbook format makes it very user-friendly. Section one takes the reader through the seven steps to good planning, assists school leaders in finding their focus, and offers suggestions on how to avoid the many pitfalls faced by school improvement planners. Section two uses several scenarios to demonstrate how school leaders can use research-based strategies to focus on challenges in reading, math, school culture, teacher performance, ELL students, at-risk students, attendance, and the achievement gap. The third and final section takes a more in-depth look at comprehensive school reform. The authors provide guidance on effective turnaround planning, sustaining improvement, and reaching the ultimate goal of educational excellence.

The School Improvement Planning Handbook is ideal for principals looking to invigorate the improvement process, or for any school leader interested in developing a “living” school improvement plan. New principals should find the seven-step process described in section one as an excellent guide for structuring a comprehensive plan. The authors intended their book to be “a practical book for practitioners.” Their focus on real-life examples and research-based best practices makes it just that.

This article, written by Christopher Wooleyhand, was published in the March/April 2014 issue of Principal magazine. Copyright 2014 National Association of Elementary School Principals. All Rights Reserved.