7 Essential Questions That Guide School Improvement


A school without clearly defined goals is like a ship without a rudder; it lacks direction and a slight wind could easily blow it off course (Wiles, 2009).

Educators across the nation are focused on writing a School Improvement Plan, identifying school goals, and recruiting teachers and families to serve on committees.  This is important work and it can have a positive impact on teaching and learning.  Early in my career, I was focused on completing the template and writing activities that would sound good on paper.  We have all been in meetings where the edu jargon was more important than the actual process.

I believe planning for improvement should begin with questions, rather than asking a team of people to fill in the blanks on a template. Great teaching involves asking students to wrestle with essential questions.  These seven questions could transform teaching and learning in your school.

What Should Every Student Know and Be Able To Do?

The Committee of Ten wrestled with this question in 1893.  Since that time, teachers and administrators have attempted to answer the same question.  Curriculum design teams should focus on this question.  Curriculum alignment efforts are improved when the entire staff reflects on this question.  Continuous improvement efforts require each teacher team to reflect and share their thoughts about content, skills, key concepts, learning goals, and transfer of understanding from one course to the next.

How Can We Determine If These Goals/Purposes Are Being Attained?

In 1949, The University of Chicago Press published a book titled Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction, written by Ralph Tyler. Tyler asked educators to consider four fundamental questions when designing curriculum and instruction.  One of the questions was, “How can we determine if these goals/purposes are being attained?”  One of the barriers to implementing curriculum and instruction is focusing on the program, product, or activities.  Too many school improvement plans focus on the event or the final product.  If we want to understand the impact of our efforts, school administrators need to provide teachers with time to determine if the goals are being attained. Tyler’s approach is expanded by current researchers such as Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, in Understanding by Design (UbD).  Does your school improvement plan explain how goals and purposes will be reviewed and assessed?

What Essential Questions Will Be Explored?

Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe highlight the importance of essential questions in their books on curriculum design.  An essential question supports student understanding and often crosses disciplines.  An essential question is timeless, rather than the typical multiple choice questions students are asked from kindergarten to twelfth grade.  When teacher teams discuss essential questions, it provides clarity for a unit and a course.  Employers continue to seek high school and college graduates who can think critically, solve problems, create, and add value to an organization.  When students learn to answer essential questions, they will become more valuable to the workforce.  What essential questions will be explored at your school this year?

Would You Hire Your Own Kids?

Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach The New Survival Skills Our Children Need – And What We Can Do About It (2008), continues to challenge my thinking.  This is a powerful question.  Would you hire your own kids? The answer to this question may lead to “What should every student know and be able to do?”  It is easy to look at the graduation rate and to pat our teachers on the backs when over 70% of the students demonstrate grade level mastery on a high stakes test.  The real question is – “Would you hire your own kids?”

Does Our School Support The Whole Child?

School Improvement Teams often begin their meetings by analyzing test data.  Data driven decision-making is important in school leadership.  School teams should use caution when focusing exclusively on test data.  Over the past decade, school improvement efforts in some schools have led to test prep.  The result is an increase in test scores, but a decrease in the love of learning.  Another strategy for improving test scores is to eliminate science, social studies, music, PE, art, and other non-tested subjects for a semester or an entire year. Does your school improvement plan focus on increasing test scores at the expense of the whole child?  ASCD Whole Child has developed Whole Child Indicators to support school improvement teams.

How Will Educators Bring the Written, the Taught, the Supported, and the Tested Curricula into Closer Alignment, So That the Learned Curriculum is Maximized?

Alan Glatthorn is an educator who has influenced my work.  I never had the opportunity to meet Dr. Glatthorn, but his books still inspire me to support teaching and learning.  I love the idea of maximizing student understanding!  This question, posed by Glatthorn, could solve many problems in schools.  Curriculum development efforts often focus on the design.  When teachers close their classroom doors, they can implement any curriculum they choose.  When was the last time teachers in your school reflected on the taught and tested curricula together?  This should not be item #25 on a team meeting agenda.  When will the school’s principal allow us time to focus on teaching and student understanding?  What things need to be revised in our district’s curriculum map?  When do we have the opportunity to speak with the Biology teachers at the other four high schools?  This may be the most essential question for school improvement teams to answer.

Who Owns the Learning?

Alan November asks this question.  It is the title of one of his recent books.  For the past year, I have reflected on this question when I observe classrooms.  The question is simple, yet complex.  When I see a Makey-Makey lab or Genius Hour, students own their learning. When I visit a Career and Technical Education (CTE) class, students are designing and creating.  When I see students working in collaborative teams and challenging each other’s ideas, I see deep learning.  The goal of a school improvement team is not to determine whether a school should have math, science, social studies, music, English, and world languages.  The goal is to determine how we can prepare students for life through meaningful learning experiences.  One of my favorite transformations in schools has been the idea of ‘learning space.’  Whether you redesign a computer lab, ‘ditch the desks’, or create a MakerSpace, you are focused on the question, “Who owns the learning?”  School improvement teams can support student understanding by reflecting on this important question.


Essential questions guide our learning.  Continuous improvement should be about answering questions, rather than checking off goals. School improvement plans can provide teachers, administrators, and other stakeholders with a rudder for supporting all students.  The questions we ask are often more important than completing the school improvement plan.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here