William Sterrett

Merging Innovation and Accountability: Leading Through School Improvement Planning

Two powerful and seemingly competing themes dominate today's educational landscape: innovation and accountability. Many educational leaders are drawn to the promise and potential of new ideas and technologies while working in the reality of an age of high-stakes tests. Although some see this as a historical pendulum swing from one end to another, educational leaders might instead see the two as intertwined. Principals are uniquely poised to help bring these two facets together in a way that benefits students and staff alike.

The annual and often unappreciated ritual of the School Improvement Planning (SIP) process holds untapped potential for principals seeking to work collaboratively with their staff to improve teaching and learning while also making the grade. Over the past two years, I have worked with two colleagues, Dan Duke and Marsha Carr, in researching successful schools, leaders, and best practices related to school improvement; together we have written The School Improvement Planning Handbook: Getting Focused for Turnaround and Transition (Duke, Carr, & Sterrett, 2013). Although some failing schools are in dire need of a quick turnaround, many great schools simply need to transition to a period of sustained performance. A few examples emerge for principals seeking to lead through SIP:

Identify and State Current Goals

Some people view SIP as a waste of time. "Good planning begins with sound thinking," however, and requires school leaders to make a series of judgment calls to "take into account what is legal, what is ethical, and what has been shown to work" (Duke, Carr, & Sterrett, 2013, pp. 6–7). The school principal must truly practice shared leadership and rely on multiple perspectives, not just his own, in this planning stage.

Research Best Practices and Innovation

A team approach can ensure that multiple perspectives are honored, and the principal can set the tone by listening. Improvement teams grappling with such issues as raising math or reading achievement, improving school culture, increasing attendance, improving overall instruction, or engaging English language learners and their families must rely on best practices, research, and evidence from the field (Duke, Carr, & Sterrett, 2013). One person cannot be the researcher-in-residence; instead, we should examine and encourage an array of insights.

Form New Habits

As educators, we are creatures of habits. However, we have to change old habits and form new ones. The principal and the SIP team must lead with action because, without action, a vision (or an SIP plan) is "just a piece of paper" that soon becomes meaningless (Sterrett, 2011, p. 15). To establish habits that require leadership and follow-through, consider intentionally conducting consistent walk-through observations and meaningful coaching cycles with authentic feedback or starting each faculty meeting with a two-minute clip of a teacher from within the building engaging students in learning.

Share Ownership

If one person is taking all the credit, then multiple stakeholders are either being ignored or taken for granted, and sustainability will be at risk. We must share the planning, the work, and the credit. Transparency and continual reflection are two qualities that will ensure that shared ownership occurs. Principals and SIP teams should meet regularly (at least quarterly) to take stock of progress—and further needs—to ensure that improvement actually occurs.

The two paths of innovation and accountability do not always run parallel. Yet, for better or worse, they must coexist. Well-used quotes such as "learning for learning's sake" and "what gets tested is what gets taught" offer glimpses of this uneasy coexistence. Improvement planning, similarly, is often uncomfortable, yet necessary, in realizing change that will stand the test of time. It falls to the principal to ensure that the SIP team is focused on improving success for students and staff alike.



Duke, D., Carr, M., & Sterrett, W. (2013). The school improvement planning handbook: Getting focused for turnaround and transition. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.

Sterrett, W. (2011). Insights into action: Successful school leaders share what works. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

William Sterrett is a member of the educational leadership faculty at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and is the author of Insights into Action (ASCD) and coauthor of The School Improvement Handbook (Rowman & Littlefield). Follow him on Twitter @billsterrett. This article was originally featured in ASCD Express.

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