Building the Big Picture for District and School Improvement

The transition from NCLB to ESSA truly challenges the state of California and its almost 1,200 school districts.  The state barely achieved approval of its ESSA plan by the feds this year. Because most school districts do not have strong internal accountability systems, the application of the external accountability of both the NCLB and ESSA system creates pathologies within school districts system including but not limited to teaching to the test.

The current Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) created a new set of pathologies in changing from central to local control.  The LCAP is complicated and seeks to serve a multiplicity of guiding principles as well as too many subgroups. The LCAP fails to use a strong theory of action to provide purpose, clarity, and alignment to both district and school plans. Combine the complicated nature of the template with the inability of many school districts to build and implement quality internal strategic plans, and you find yourself with plans that are long, disjointed, and do not tell a coherent story.

Michael Fullan conducted a review of California School Districts who are successfully implementing the LCAPs in his report called California’s Golden Opportunity  I would  like to build upon this work by suggesting some improvements based upon 40 years of experience and specifically with my work as a consultant with Performance Fact, Inc.  As in Fullan’s Long Beach School District exemplar, a relentless focus on the continuous improvement of a few aligned professional practices is the best way to ensure the improvement of student outcomes.

Building a district strategic plan using a theory of action is critical. It is not sufficient for the theory of action to give local control of the process to school districts and then embed it with a plethora of bureaucratic requirements involving multiple subgroups. A theory of action must begin with a focus on improving student outcomes based upon a careful review of student data.  All goals for a school district should address student outcomes which are the ends and not the means. Setting goals for parent engagement or building infrastructure are flawed because these elements, while important, are still means to the end of improving student outcomes.

The second key part of the theory of action is to identify a few aligned professional practices that work in harmony to help achieve the desired student outcomes.  Student outcomes are surrounded first and foremost by specific research-based teaching practices. These teaching practices are then surrounded by district, parent, and community practices that align and enhance the ability of teachers to continuously improve their practices. These aligned elements provide a consistent through line to the work in classrooms.

These essential elements can be woven into a one-page Big Picture Template that includes Educational Strategies, Professional Development and Collaboration themes, and Metrics. (See Figure 1)


Figure 1

The beauty of the Big Picture approach is that it creates a coherent and aligned system for strategic planning and implementation.  It provides a catalyst for deeper dialog about the quality and alignment of the student outcomes with professional practices educational strategies and professional development and collaboration.  It also provides model for school improvement planning and a clear through line to the work in classrooms. All stakeholders can easily determine whether the plan makes sense.  Support teams from the State and County will have a comprehensible and manageable template that they can use to provide meaningful feedback to District and School teams.

Within the system, there should only be 3-5 district student goals. For each of the goals there is an implementation plan that would include up to 3 key objectives per educational strategy and professional development and collaboration theme. The objectives are an opportunity to elaborate on support for the guiding principles and key sub-groups.  Each objective would include up to 3 tasks that identify a team leader, team members, timeline, and due dates.  These implementation tools could also be incorporated into a monitoring system that would gauge the extent and quality of the implementation of the educational strategies and professional development and collaboration themes.

Let’s dispel the fog of education that envelops our current state mandated LCAP process by embracing a Big Picture approach to district and school improvement planning and implementation that will create a quality system to improve student outcomes through an aligned focus on professional practices, educational strategies, and professional development and collaboration themes. Let’s ensure that our LCAPs tell coherent stories that make sense and that we can all be proud of and be held accountable to achieve.


Conrad, William. School Improvement Big Picture

Elmore, Richard and Fuhrman, Susan. Redesigning Accountability Systems for Education. 2004. Teacher College Press.

Fuhrman, Susan and Elmore, Richard. Redesigning Accountability Systems for Education. 2004. Teachers College Press.

Fagbayi, Mutiu. Performance Fact, Inc.

Fensterwald, John. Report says LCAP Needs Tighter Focus. 2015. EdSource.

Fullan, Michael. California’s Golden Opportunity. 2017.

Local School Accountability Plan. (LCAP) California Department of Education.



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