An Action Plan for Creating Effective Schools

Today’s school leaders are challenged to ensure their schools are effective—providing a quality education for every student—but they must do that with fewer resources than in the past. They need an action plan that ensures success for all students.

In the past 15 years, research studies have identified the characteristics of effective schools. Those characteristics that seem to show up in all the findings include high expectations for students, a safe and orderly school climate, frequent assessment of student progress, parental involvement, collaboration among faculty and staff members, and focused and sustained professional development.

Attending to these basics can go a long way toward creating effective schools that meet the needs of all students.

High Expectations

Three factors stand out from the research that guide implementation of this component of effective schools.

  1. Faculty and staff must truly believe that raising the bar will increase student achievement. The teachers in the classroom must be willing to increase the rigor of instruction and the administrators must be willing to support these efforts. Just saying you have high expectations for students is not enough; faculty and staff members must put their beliefs into action.
  2. Faculty and staff must communicate their high expectations to the students on a daily basis. Teachers do this by raising the bar for all students in the classroom and then doing whatever it takes to help the students succeed. Raising the bar without additional support is setting students up for failure. Administrators support the “culture of high expectations” by providing staff development, resources, and support for the efforts of the teachers.
  3. Faculty and staff must have high expectations for themselves as well. This means faculty and staff members must increase the rigor of their instruction, be willing to learn and try new instructional strategies, and be available to provide additional support for students to ensure their success.

A Safe and Orderly Climate

It is important to create an environment where all stakeholders feel secure. A safe and orderly school has a positive impact on student achievement.

  1. An effective school safety program focuses on prevention, intervention, and emergency response. School leaders can take several steps to create this type of learning environment.
  2. Make sure students have a clear understanding of the behavioral expectations on the campus. Students also should be taught proper behavior. This is a responsibility of all faculty members.Establish personal relationships with students. Personal relationships are especially important on campuses with large numbers of economically disadvantaged students.
  3. Have regular emergency drills and be able to respond quickly to reports of unsafe conditions or emergency incidents. All staff members should feel confident in their ability to deal with multiple forms of emergencies. Students should also be instructed in proper response to multiple forms of emergencies.
  4. Establish a school-wide program to deal with bullying, violence, and harassment. An effective program is proactive and emphasizes prevention. A safe procedure for reporting incidents should be in place.

Frequent Assessments

To create and maintain an effective school, education leaders should guide teachers in the use of multiple forms of assessment. Teachers should use data to inform their instructional decisions. And, they should have opportunities to work in teams to develop pre-assessments, formative assessments, and summative assessments.

Pre-assessments are one of the most important elements of differentiated instruction. Pre-assessments can inform teachers not only about what concepts the students have already mastered, but can also bring to light misconceptions students may have about the concepts. This knowledge allows teachers to differentiate instruction based on student readiness.

Formative assessments are given during instruction to determine how well students are meeting the learning goals of the lesson. Teachers use formative assessment data to determine if they need to adjust their instruction.

Summative assessments assess how much of the content the students mastered at a certain point in time; summative assessment data is usually an important part of the grading process. Summative assessment can help evaluate instructional effectiveness and determine if re-teaching is necessary.

Parental Involvement

Schools cannot sit back and wait for parents to come to them. Parents should be invited onto campus and involved in decision making when appropriate. Parents who feel welcome are more likely to become involved.

Communication between school and family should be consistent and it should involve school administrators as well as teachers.


Teacher collaboration creates a culture of high student expectations, promotes sharing of best practices, and cultivates a sense of belonging.

The first step in developing a culture of collaboration is to build a core team to begin the process. The core team should include teachers and administrators who have a collective commitment to improving student achievement and are well-respected on the campus. This group will be responsible for developing the implementation plan for the campus.

The next step is to build the collaborative teams. Team members must be compatible and willing to work together. All team members must understand that they will be expected to fully participate in the collaborative team. Once the teams are built, they establish individual member roles and team norms.

Because it has a direct, positive impact on student achievement, principals should promote collaborative opportunities for teachers by building a master schedule that gives teachers time during the school day to meet together. In a perfect world collaborative teams would meet every day. However, if that is not possible, the teams should be provided opportunities to meet at least weekly.

Focused, Sustained Professional Development

For many years staff development was presented in a “one and done” method, presented only at the beginning of the year. To positively affect student achievement, professional development should be an ongoing learning experience.

  1. Determine areas of need for the campus. All staff members should have input into this needs assessment to ensure the staff development plan is focused and effective.
  2. Find experts who are well respected to present the staff development. Some staff development will be presented by campus personnel, some by district personnel, and some by outside vendors.

We know now that effective staff development is continuous and provides faculty and staff members many opportunities to learn about, discuss, and implement the new ideas.

Embracing Excellence

There’s no one-size-fits-all method for creating effective schools, but research has identified common characteristics of effective schools. Schools that aspire to improve instruction and student achievement should embrace these characteristics. It is the role of campus leaders to determine how these characteristics look on your campus.

Kenneth Cummings is the principal of T.H. McDonald Junior High School in Katy, Texas.

The article was published in AMLE Magazine, February 2014.