Archived Information

Tried and True: September 1997--The information in this publication was current as of September 1997, and has not been updated since. Some services described in the publication may no longer be available.
[School Improvement Strategies]

Onward to Excellence

A Ten-Step School Improvement Process Designed
To Improve Student Performance

Developed and tested by the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory (NWREL)

What is the idea behind Onward to Excellence?

Onward to Excellence is both a school improvement process and a training and technical assistance program:

The process begins by (1) introducing the effort throughout the school and the community, and continues with (2) staff learning about the research, (3) profiling student performance, (4) setting one or two improvement goals, (5) checking current practice related to the goal or goals, (6) developing a prescription for improvement, and (7) developing action plans for implementation. The final steps in the initial cycle of the process include (8) implementing action plans, (9) monitoring progress, and (10) renewing the effort. The leadership team of 10 or fewer individuals includes teachers, specialists, and a principal in all instances. It includes students, community representatives, and classified staff in some instances.

Two conditions seem to be necessary to maximize potential for successful use of the Onward to Excellence school improvement process. The first is that the district and the schools have gone through a thoughtful process of deciding to use Onward to Excellence. Full consideration should be given to time and resource implications of the process in light of other improvement activities being undertaken in the school and district. Second, districts and schools should consciously decide to commit some of their own resources and leadership to the effort. Obtaining outside funding for the entire process seems to cause schools and districts to take the process less seriously than when they commit their own resources.

What does research say about how this idea can help teaching and learning?

Two research bases underlie Onward to Excellence: effective schooling, and adult learning and professional staff development.

1. The effective schooling research

The effective schooling research is summarized in a publication entitled Effective Schooling Practices: A Research Synthesis/1995 Update. Drawing upon several research bases, the synthesis identifies practices at the classroom, school, and district levels that have been shown to have a positive impact on student resultsłacademic achievement, attitudes, and social behavior. Within each level, findings are organized by topic; for example, the school-level section summarizes research on leadership, setting goals and objectives, curriculum integration, uses of computer technology, workplace preparation, site-based management, grouping, time use, discipline, equity, staff development, assessment, parent involvement, alcohol and drug use prevention, and others. Onward to Excellence schools and many others use the information in the synthesis to develop school improvement plans.

Some two dozen additional research syntheses are available that explore these and other topics in greater detail, and 40 other feature pieces describe effective programs in schools in the NWREL region and beyond. Together, these materials compose the "School Improvement Research" series, which is available on a subscription basis from NWREL.

2. Adult learning and professional development

A synthesis of adult learning theory and professional staff development is also available from NWREL in a publication entitled A Review of Adult Learning Theory and Development Research. Based on an extensive review of research on the ways adults learn and the effects of different approaches to professional development, effective development programs were found to have the following characteristics, grouped into three categories:

How was program tested?

Onward to Excellence, as a process and training program, has been in use for over 10 years. Pilot testing was carried out in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington between 1981 and 1984. The training program has been available on a "for-fee" basis since that time. Leadership teams from well over 750 schools in 12 states have been trained in this school improvement process since the pilot tests. Schools having a wide variety of characteristics--students of racial or ethnic mixes, students on free and reduced-price lunch, schools in rural, suburban, small city, and urban locations, for example--have been trained in the process.

What communities and states are using this program?

Many states have benefited from implementation of Onward to Excellence, including Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Mississippi, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Washington. In addition, Guam, American Samoa, Panama, British Columbia, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands have also used it. The benefits most often cited by schools after completing the training program are increased focus on agreed-upon important goals, improved collegiality and support among staff members, greater involvement of staff in making decisions that affect the whole school, and improvement in student performance.

What's involved in using this program in my school and community?

Costs for use of Onward to Excellence fall into two categories: (1) trainer and resource costs and (2) staff costs. Trainer costs outside the NWREL region are slightly more than inside the region.

Staff costs include release time for leadership team members to participate in training and additional time to complete tasks related to the school improvement effort. Each team member will need approximately 8 days of release time for each of the 2 training years. Following the training program, leadership team members should be able to do their work in the equivalent of 3 release days per year.

A need also exists to involve the full faculty in improvement activities. An estimate of the amount of time with the full faculty is four blocks of 2 or 3 hours each per year. Committee work may be organized and handled in the way that other committee work is already managed in the school.

The decision to use Onward to Excellence is usually made in several steps. Initially, schools or districts will receive informational materials from NWREL after inquiring about the program. If they decide they are interested in implementing the program in their district, they can request an awareness session that is a half-day to a full-day workshop that highlights the process.

Following the workshop, or in some instances before, there is a request for names of schools that have used the process and the training program; references are provided. The next request is usually for an estimate of costs and the names of potential trainers--schools and districts generally have a high level of concern about who their trainers will be.

With this final information, the district makes a yes or no decision to proceed. Throughout the decision process, many individuals at many levels are involved in learning about the process and the training and technical assistance program. Principals are then asked to discuss the process with their staff and, if enough interest is evident, agree to participate.

Costs associated with implementing this program vary, depending on the components of the program being used.


Robert E. Blum, Director
School Improvement Program
101 S.W. Main Street, Suite 500
Portland, OR 97204
Phone: (503) 275-9615
Fax: (503) 275-9621

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