Reasons School Improvement Plans Fail

Rick DuFour & Robert Eaker list five reasons why school reform has failed in their book Professional Learning Communities at Work.

  1. Complexity of the task
  2. Misplaced focus
  3. Lack of clarity of intended results
  4. Lack of perseverance
  5. Failure to appreciate and attend to the change process.

Here’s how I see these five areas playing out:

Schools are complex organizations. Educators are great at identifying problems. We catalog and sort every wart and blemish. In fact, we are so good at it that we are become consumed with finding problems. We do not take the time to find the most strategic item we could tackle to get results… otherwise termed root cause.

Complexity of the plan then leads to ambiguous results or expectations. For example, what does co-teaching mean to the Administrators? Special education teachers? Content area teachers?  Does co-teaching mean implementation of one model of co-teaching…. generally one teach and one assist or does it mean an effective use of all six models? It really doesn’t matter what the initiative is …. rarely in our professional development work do we see teams of educators who share a common understanding in an initiative area without considerable effort to develop a shared vision.

The development of these complex and over-whelming plans leads to exhaustion. Teams focus so much of their energy of the development of the plan they have conserved little for the actual implementation, which is not hard considering we are not really clear on what actual implementation looks like.

For reform to work, research shows you need a critical mass of support to maintain momentum during the implementation process. If we are not sure of our intentions, have no clear focus and we are exhausted with the whole process… how much support, clarity, ownership can we bring?


The above post is not a commentary on how ineffective school improvement is, rather it is a response to a cycle of thinking that seems to permeate school improvement teams. By examining how it happens, we can avoid the seemingly inevitable result. Stay tuned for more strategies to support effective school improvement planning.


DuFour, R. & Eaker, R. (1998). Professional learning communities at work: Best practices for enhancing student achievement. Bloomington, Indiana: Solution Tree Press.


Lori Stollar said…
You make many valid points Kelly, especially the point of establishing the critical mass of support within the system. Where is the tipping point? How does one establish a core of support and then sustain momentum and focus? Finally, from my vantage point, how can the IU support schools and districts in sustaining the momentum and focus? Thanks for the post Kelly!

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