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  • Statewide System of Support (SSoS)

    Sustainable Improvement Planning Guidance

    Official DESE Communications

    District Prioritization Guidance

    Sustainable Improvement Planning for MA Schools Requiring Assistance or Intervention

    In the spirit of ensuring that the MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) serves as much as a partner as possible to schools and districts, we have updated our guidance for the creation and submission of sustainable improvement plans. These changes reflect valuable feedback offered by educators in schools and districts. DESE guidance is intended to clarify for SY2019-2020 which schools must participate in a plan writing process, what that process must entail, and what resources will be available to schools and districts to support improvement efforts.

    What are the requirements of the DESE plan writing process?

    While schools engaged in the initial planning or annual renewal process are required to go through each identified stage, a new feature beginning in school year 2019-2020 is the flexibility in how to communicate each stage to DESE. Schools are no longer required to document the process in which they engaged via a large written document on a state-mandated template. However, some minimal writing is still required. School submissions to DESE must include a written executive summary that includes the school's strategies for improvement and an outline of goals and benchmarks. All other elements of the plan can be communicated flexibly, in ways outlined below, ranging from interviews with DESE, presentations, videos, etc.

    We have generally referred to these as Turnaround Plans in the past, though here and moving forward we will be referring to them as Sustainable Improvement Plans. The reason for this change is to reflect that a school team's efforts to improve its service to students is not a momentary, fast, or easily completed effort, but a process that starts decisively and must be sustained over time.

    Crucial values have motivated these changes. The revisions to this guidance are intended to maintain and encourage the best elements of planning and implementing improvement efforts that have been shown to drive improved practice. We have sought to make the process more meaningful for schools and districts by provisioning for schools to be able to explain their plan in various ways, rather than in a specific written template. This is also intended to ensure that schools and districts can submit their plans to DESE using the same materials they would create in their process as they see fit or that they would use to communicate to their own stakeholders.

    We aim to embody the State as a Partner by shifting the effort away from schools to conform in their communication and towards assisting DESE in understanding improvement efforts. We also seek to ensure that any school expected to write a plan will receive substantive support from the Statewide System of Support team.

    Which schools are required to engage in a planning process?

    The Statewide System of Support (SSoS) in the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has created planning guidance for districts and schools identified under Massachusetts' Next-Generation District & School Accountability System as requiring assistance or intervention (see Broad/comprehensive support and Focused/targeted support in the chart below).

    Schools without required assistance or intervention
    (approx. 85%)

    Schools requiring assistance or intervention
    (approx. 15%)

    Schools of recognition

    Meeting targets

    Partially meeting targets

    Focused/targeted support

    Board/comprehensive support

    Schools demonstrating high achievement, significant improvement, or high growth Criterion-referenced target percentage 75–100 Criterion-referenced target percentage 0–74

    *Schools with percentiles 1–10

    *Schools with low graduation rate

    *Schools with low performing student groups

    *Schools with low participation

    *Underperforming schools

    *Chronically underperforming schools

    Schools in the first through fifth percentiles are required to engage in this planning process. Schools in the sixth through tenth percentiles or have been identified only for a low performing student group will have the option of participating in this planning process. Those which participate in this process will likely receive financial support and will receive assistance from SSoS assistance staff.

    Just as the new accountability system in Massachusetts was designed to meet federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requirements, this sustainable improvement planning guidance is designed to support schools and districts in meeting federal ESSA planning requirements, as well as state planning requirements under the Massachusetts Act Relative to the Achievement Gap M.G.L. Ch 69, Section 1J. In addition to its alignment with state and federal planning requirements, this guidance promotes research-based evidence of best practice in high performing Massachusetts turnaround schools and the turnaround practices.

    While the resources below are intended to provide districts and schools with the guidance and additional resources they need to effectively engage in the sustainable improvement planning process, DESE's Statewide System of Support (SSoS) regional assistance staff are available to provide support to schools engaged in this important work. School and district leaders can reach out to members of the Coastal or West/Central regions to access these supports.

    Important Note for Schools Identified for Low-Performing Student Groups Only

    For schools above the 10th percentiles, but require assistance or intervention for having one or more student groups among the lowest performing five percent of student groups statewide (as measured by the student group percentile) we recommend that you use this full set of guidance in developing a plan and pay particular focus on analyzing data, selecting strategies, and monitoring progress towards improving academic outcomes for students in identified student groups.

    Getting Started

    Schools should reference the Official DESE Communications section above to determine what requirements for plan submission apply to your school. Next, schools and districts should reference the "Getting Started" section to effectively leverage the guidance for planning and implementation purposes.

    Getting Started+
    Sustainable Improvement Plan Submission Requirements and Process+
    Stakeholder Engagement+
    Envision the Future+
    Assessment of Assets and Challenges & Root Cause Analysis+
    Strategic Objectives & Initiatives Aligned to the Turnaround Practices

    The strategic objectives and initiatives reflected in your sustainable improvement plan are the coherent group of overarching initiatives and key levers that your team identifies as most likely to lead to rapid improvement in your school. The specific strategic objectives and initiatives of the school's plan emerge from:

    • Your school's vision of the future;
    • The specific root causes your school hypothesizes that, if addressed, are most likely to lead to rapid improvement and will provide the strongest return on investment;
    • A deep understanding of Massachusetts' Turnaround Practices research; and,
    • A knowledge of evidence-based practices addressing the key root causes your school identified that have helped similar schools and student populations make and sustain gains.

    While providing the most detail for year one of implementation, the strategies should outline a multi-year roadmap that will guide the work of the school for at least the next three years.

    Approaches to Brainstorming and Narrowing Down Strategic Objectives and Initiatives

    The overall process your school takes will depend on how the planning process is shaped. The initial steps of taking all the preliminary needs assessment and root cause analysis work, brainstorming strategic objectives and initiatives, and then narrowing these down to a small, coherent set of strategies can be challenging and messy. However the time spent defining a few high-leverage strategies can pay off later when the school is able to focus on implementing those few strategies well, rather than trying to implement several big (or small) strategies at once.

    In choosing which strategies are best suited for your school's unique context, look for cross-cutting themes that emerged from visioning discussions with stakeholders and from the analysis of assets and challenges. What 'big buckets' stand out? Those buckets should be addressed by the key strategic objectives of your school's sustainable improvement plan.

    Select Strategies for Implementation Aligned to the Turnaround Practices

    As you work to identify your school's key strategic initiatives, consider them through the lens of the four Massachusetts Turnaround Practices . The sustainable improvement planning process recommends that schools categorize key strategies by each turnaround practice. This framework reflects DESE's research finding that schools that effectively addressed all four of these turnaround practices succeeded in improving educator, student, and school outcomes, and, ultimately, exited underperforming status. However,

    • While the school's sustainable improvement plan should address all four turnaround practices, this does not mean that the plan should have completely different strategies under each turnaround practice. Ideally the school would identify just a few key strategies, and then address them in an integrated way using the lens of the four turnaround practices.
    • It is acceptable for a sustainable improvement plan to place a stronger emphasis on two or three of the turnaround practices and less emphasis on the others, as long as it is clear from the analysis of assets and challenges why this approach is likely to accelerate gains for students.
    • For schools that have one or more student groups among the lowest performing five percent of student groups statewide (as measured by the student group percentile) we recommend that you select strategies to support those specific student groups in response to your school's student group data analysis.
    • Schools above the 10th percentile who have been identified for low performing student groups do not need to write a full comprehensive sustainable improvement plan. Your school's plan should primarily focus on strategies to support the identified student group(s), making sure to address how each of the turnaround practices are addressed in those strategies. Keep in mind that the "Low performing student group(s)" designation is based on a statewide comparison, and these student groups may not actually be the lowest performing in your school, and/or they may represent the majority of students and not just a subset. School Leader's Guide to the 2019 Accountability Determinations

    Reflecting upon and addressing the ways in which your key strategies align with all four turnaround practices will give your school a solid sense of how the work it is doing within each practice intersects with and reinforces the other three. Used back in the assessment of assets and challenges stage, the Guiding Questions Aligned to the Turnaround Practices Guiding Questions Turnaround Practices can also be a great resource to support schools in identifying strategies for implementation. Also, DESE has developed the MA Tools for Schools website as a one-stop shop for access to resources and tools aligned to the turnaround practices, which can help schools learn about successful strategies in other schools.

    For instance, a school may ask: Do any strategies fall squarely under one turnaround practice? Or does the strategy span multiple turnaround practices, requiring actions related to all four practices? Ensuring effective instruction for English learners, for example, would have implications for school leadership and professional collaboration (Turnaround Practice 1), instructional practice (Turnaround Practice 2), student-specific supports (Turnaround Practice 3), and also for school climate and culture (Turnaround Practice 4). As your team looks at your key strategic initiatives from this lens, it will be clear that the four Turnaround Practices are not mutually exclusive, and changes in one turnaround practice are interconnected with and/or have ripple effects across the other three practices.

    Identify and Select Evidence-Based Programs and Practices

    In order to meet both state and federal requirements, schools developing sustainable improvement plans must incorporate at least one strategy backed by evidence that meets the criteria from one of the top three evidence tiers as defined by ESSA :

    • Tier 1: Strong evidence from at least one well-designed and well-implemented experimental study;
    • Tier 2: Moderate evidence from at least one well-designed and well-implemented quasi-experimental study (confined to Regression Discontinuity Designs according to the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC), or
    • Tier 3: Promising evidence from at least one well-designed and well-implemented correlational study with statistical controls for selection bias

    DESE developed the How Do We Know? website to help schools and districts learn more about how to explore the research and evidence base to identify programs and practices that successfully address root causes similar to those they seek to address. See the Additional Resources section below for a more detailed description of the resources available on this site.

    Curriculum Strategies

    If your school chooses to select a new curriculum as a strategy to support sustainable improvement, DESE's Curriculum and Instruction team has generated several tools to assist schools in selecting high-quality, evidence-based curriculum.

    Deeper Learning

    In 2019's Our Way Forward Commissioner Riley launched a campaign to improve and expand deeper learning opportunities for students across the Commonwealth. As your school engages in the process of selecting strategies aligned to the turnaround practices, we recommend that your planning team visit DESE's deeper learning webpage. Statewide System of Support assistance staff are also available to help your school consider ways in which to incorporate deeper learning strategies in your sustainable improvement plan. Check back here frequently in the Additional Resources section for new resources as they are developed out by DESE.

    Cultural Responsiveness in Education

    As Massachusetts students become more diverse, and since diversity and inclusion is good for everyone, it is imperative that our schools and classrooms are inclusive of, responsive to, and reflective of all cultures and backgrounds. DESE has guidance that helps define cultural responsiveness, addresses its importance in our schools and classrooms, and provide resources to support this work. Schools should consider this resource while in the process of selecting strategies for plan implementation. Be sure strategies are selected that fully address challenges in student learning and school experience identified in your school's Assessment of Assets and Challenges & Root Cause Analysis process, especially for historically marginalized student groups.

    Think Through What It Will Take to Implement Each Strategy/Initiative

    As your school is identifying strategic objectives and initiatives, a critical step in the process is to assess what it will take to implement these specific approaches in your school. In addition to the evidence base, schools need to consider:

    • Usability: whether the initiative can be adapted to meet the needs of your school context.
    • Required Supports: identification of the supports required to train, staff and implement the initiative well. Required supports includes actions that may need to be taken at the district level, such as adjustments to policies, practices, and/or funding to address root challenges at the school.
    • School Capacity: whether the school has enough resources to sustain staffing, coaching, training, monitoring, assessment, and funding to implement the initiative with fidelity.
    • Congruity of Match: how well the initiative addresses the most critical needs identified.
    • Integration: how well the initiative fits with other initiatives in the school/district.

    Determine how your school can reasonably scaffold the implementation of its selected strategies across multiple years (Year 1, Year 2, Year 3…), taking into account different phases of implementation (e.g., buy-in/capacity development, pilot stage, scaling up, etc.). We offer the following sample graphic organizers as resources your team may find helpful as it considers when specific strategies should roll out based on school context and implementation phase.

    Anticipate Implementation Challenges

    Sustainable improvement work is hard! Identifying challenges ahead of time can help your planning team proactively and strategically remove or reduce any anticipated barriers to implementation. Alternatively, reflecting on implementation challenges can help a school discern if a strategy is the right match for the context, or if another approach would be more effective. The 2014 Turnaround Practices Report includes side-by-side comparisons of strategies implemented in schools that made gains vs. schools that did not. Reviewing these comparisons can help schools anticipate challenges to implementation and make proactive plans to mitigate them. For the purposes of your school's sustainable improvement plan, focus on only the most significant challenges anticipated for each set of strategies and any initial thoughts on how your school might address them.

    Think Ahead to Monitoring Progress

    The challenges identified at this stage of the process can help inform the process for monitoring implementation and outcomes. Schools should reference the Goals & Benchmarks and Monitor Progress sections before finalizing the set of strategies for implementation.

    Examples of some of the resources and protocols that SSoS Regional Assistance Teams frequently use with districts and schools they support appear in the Additional Resources at the end of this section.

    Flexible Format Submission

    • Describe how the set of strategies the school plans to implement will help it achieve its vision for the future
    • Explain the rationale for selecting the strategies aligned to the turnaround practices. Be sure to include how the strategies:
      • Build on assets and specifically address the root causes of the identified challenges, and are appropriate for the school's unique context
      • Address the school's reasons for designation as a school requiring assistance or intervention. For example, if the school is identified for low-performing student groups, describe how the selected strategies will support those specific student groups
      • Address the four turnaround practices
      • Ensure equity, including racial equity, and the implementation of culturally proficient practices in the school.
    • Identify which strategy (or strategies) in the sustainable improvement plan is backed by evidence that meets the criteria from one of the top three evidence tiers defined by ESSA and cite the research to support each evidence-based strategy. (Remember, the plan as a whole must include at least one strategy that meets ESSA evidence-based criteria)
    • Provide details on how the strategies will be implemented. Be sure to:
      • Indicate systems, structures, and processes that will be in place to ensure effective and coherent implementation
      • Address challenges the school might encounter and how they would be handled
      • Outline a brief multi-year timeline for what will be implemented in years one, two, and three, highlighting key aspects of each strategy that may be phased in over time

    Additional Resources Relative to Strategic Objectives and Initiatives Aligned to Turnaround Practices

    While not required, these resources may be helpful as you engage in this stage of the sustainable improvement planning process:

    For any questions, suggestions, or additional assistance with evidence-based practices, please contact Kendra Winner at kwinner@doe.mass.edu or 781.338.3129.

    Goals & Benchmarks+
    District Systems+
    Executive Summary+
    Monitor Progress+

    Last Updated: June 22, 2022

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