Public pressure brought on by a host of factors, including economic competition from abroad, intensive media attention, and state and federal legislation, pushes performance expectations for schools higher than at any other time in our country’s history.  Maintaining an orderly environment, getting most students out of high school and some (or even most) into college, and of course, winning a few ball games, is no longer good enough.  Instead, all students are expected to graduate from high school college-and-career ready and equipped with world-class 21st century knowledge and skills.  Failing schools are required by law to improve significantly, and fast, or face closure.  But even schools that, in the past, could afford to be somewhat complacent with the status quo because of reputations in their communities as “good schools” are feeling pressure to get better.  In short, all schools are now being asked to rise to a level of productivity previously obtained by only a few.  All schools are being asked to go from, well somewhere, to great.

The recent surge of public pressure isn’t the only reason schools are focused on improvement.  Conscientious school people, the vast majority of all who work in schools, have always struggled with the engagement and/or achievement of one or another individuals or groups of students.  Those who have made the most progress have done so with artistry and with an “It-may-not-be-our-fault-but-it-is-our-problem” attitude.  But, important as they are, more than art and ownership are needed.  Principals, teachers and others in a school’s circle of influence need research-based guidance regarding the policies, practices, strategies, and beliefs most likely to produce results.  Fortunately such guidance is now available.

The last four decades of research in education have produced a treasure trove of information about how students learn, about effective schools and effective teaching, about what teachers need to do their work well, and about good leadership in schools and in school districts.  We know a lot about what works, or stated more accurately, what is most likely to work.  Noted researcher and author Robert J. Marzano sums it up this way:

…if we follow the guidance offered by 35 years of research, we can enter an era of unprecedented effectiveness for the public practice of education—one in which the vast majority of schools can be highly effective in promoting student learning.

Happily, there exists both an art and a science to guide our work.

Both the art and the science of school improvement tell us that significant increases in student achievement depends first, last, and foremost on improving the quality of instruction in classrooms.  The centrality of improving instruction to any effective school improvement initiative is well documented.  Structural and administrative changes, such as changes in school governance, the master schedule, the availability of technology, assessment systems, decision-making models, and school organization (the small-school movement), for example, may enable a school to move from failing to mediocre, but becoming a consistently high-performing school requires getting inside what Michael Fullan calls the “black box” in education, classroom instruction.    Researchers, theorists, practitioners, and those who invest heavily in school transformation initiatives agree on this point.  My work with school and district faculties and leadership teams is based on the belief that moving a school from good to great requires a deliberate, collective, and focused commitment to improving classroom instruction.