Promoting Widespread Efficacy: A Key to School Success

May 3rd, 2019 | Category: Research in Education
By Glenn Schlichting


Pressure continues to mount on schools to demonstrate a positive impact on student learning. Federal and state school designations, increased transparency about school results, and elevated learning standards all contribute to this increasing pressure. This comes at a time of rapidly changing student and family demographics. Some schools persist and improve student learning in these times while others do not. Research shows that efficacy is an important ingredient in those schools that succeed, as students in schools characterized by widespread efficacy achieve at higher levels than those in schools with low efficacy (Bandura, 1993; Goodard, Hoy, & Wolfolk Hoy, 2000). Bandura (2006) defines efficacy as the belief that people have in their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over events that affect their lives. He portrays those of high efficacy as viewing impediments as surmountable by self-development and perseverant effort. They stay the course in the face of difficulties and remain resilient to adversity.

Schools with high efficacy have principals, teachers, and students who persist in the face of challenges. Conversely, schools with low efficacy are filled with teachers, students, and principals who are easily convinced of the futility of their efforts in the face of difficulties. As a result, stakeholders in these schools give up easily (Madimetsa, Branwen, & Mgadia, 2018). Efficacy is contextual and therefore impacted by what happens in the school setting (Donohoo, 2018). In fact, schools can organize and behave in ways to make principals, teachers, and students believe that they can make a positive impact on student learning, regardless of circumstances. At the same time, schools can operate in ways that leave stakeholders with widespread feelings of helplessness. What then, should schools be doing to promote high levels of efficacy among principals, teachers, and students? This article addresses this topic with recommendations about four critical school-improvement processes which, when supported by trusting and collaborative cultural patterns, foster efficacy by providing widespread opportunities for participants to exert their influence over student learning.

Shaping Efficacy

Efficacy is shaped by four motivating experiences: social persuasion, vicarious experiences, mastery experience, and affective state (Bandura, 2006). Within the context of the school setting, social persuasion and vicarious experiences refer to the importance of collaborative structures where individuals are motivated and influenced by peers, colleagues, and leaders who model efficacious behaviors and attitudes. Mastery is a shaping experience in the school setting where opportunities abound for students, teachers, and principal leaders to grow in their own knowledge and skills. As a result of their growth, they experience success, which breeds more confidence and more success. Finally, affective state refers to the need for a trusting, collaborative school environment, which promotes a healthy approach to problem solving.

In the following sections, this article describes four school-improvement processes that provide for meaningful stakeholder involvement and link with the efficacy-motivating experiences described above. School processes, however, do not occur in isolation. Their success is dependent upon cultural patterns within the school setting which influence the way participants think, act, and feel about the processes (Deal & Peterson, 1999). The cultural patterns described below must undergird the success of the improvement cycles recommended in this article. First, schools need an emphasis on distributed leadership to promote collective involvement in decision-making and problem solving at the school, team, and classroom levels. Second, stakeholders should have a shared understanding of the direction of the school and the important processes and strategies being used in pursuit of this direction. Training, dialog, and support are critical to provide this clarity. A third important cultural pattern is that the work at every level of the school should be aligned to the common direction. Lastly, schools should be characterized by open and proactive two-way communication. Concerted efforts should be made to seek and to respond to feedback from all stakeholders. These cultural patterns bring commitment, coherence, and purpose to school-improvement cycles. Conversely, the absence of these patterns in the school setting undermines even the best-designed improvement processes and diminishes efficacy by leaving stakeholders feeling frustrated and isolated.

School Improvement Processes

School excellence does not happen by chance. The best of our schools have well-understood and well-communicated improvement processes in place which reflect direction, high intention, and skilled execution. These processes are multilayered as they occur simultaneously at all school levels – student, teacher, grade clusters, programs, departments, and whole school (Van Clay, Soldwedel, & Many, 2011). The learning, problem solving, modeling, and sharing of success inherent in these processes provide motivating experiences to increase widespread efficacy. In turn, as efficacy grows, so does the commitment to these processes as participants are motivated by opportunities to exert influence over student learning. In the coming sections, this article will recommend four improvement processes to increase school-wide efficacy: 1) goal setting, 2) selecting the right measures, 3) acting on data, and 4) celebrating growth and success. Again, we know that school-wide efficacy is positively correlated with student learning.

Goal setting. The initiating structure in the improvement cycle is the goal-setting process. Research shows that a school, team, or individual will be more successful when desiring to make a change or accomplish an outcome when they set a challenging but attainable goal. Goal-setting theory postulates that goals affect performance by fostering direction, effort, persistence, and strategy development (Locke & Latham, 2002).

School-wide goal setting starts at the school level either at the beginning of the school year or in the spring of the previous school year. In most school settings, this occurs within a school-improvement planning process. At the foundation of an improvement process is a thorough analysis of data and evidence about the school’s current strengths and areas for improvement. Analysis then leads to the setting of goals for improvement that provide direction. Goals should be developed in SMART format, which means that they should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time specific (O’Neil & Conzemius, 2006). Too often, schools set goals that provide little direction because they are broad or overly ambitious. For example, a school where 50% of students are reading at grade level standards sets a goal that states: All students will meet or exceed grade level standards by the end of the year. This goal calls for such dramatic improvement that it will most likely not be attainable. The goal is also too broad because it does not define the measures that will be used as evidence of progress. Goals such as this reduce efficacy because they inhibit feelings of direction, mastery, and success. An appropriate SMART goal for this same school would be: By the end of the school year, 60% of students will meet or exceed grade level reading standards on at least two of the three measures which include Fountas and Pinnell, common grade level assessments, and PARCC. This goal is more appropriate because it calls for significant, but attainable, annual progress and it specifies multiple measures, which will be used to inform progress. As discussed, all school processes, including goal setting, should be supported with the cultural patterns of shared decision-making, alignment, and proactive communication. In efficacious schools, we would expect a high percentage of stakeholders to be able to define school-wide goals, discuss their importance, and tell about how they are contributing to the achievement of the goals.

The goal-setting process should not stop at the school-wide level. Principals, teacher teams, and individual teachers and students should receive support and training to set SMART goals based on an analysis of their own set of data. These goals should be aligned with school-wide goals so as to reinforce consistent direction at all levels of the school. But alignment does not mean that all goals will look exactly the same because starting data for each group is probably very different. For example, using the reading goal shared in the paragraph above, a third grade teacher team would be expected to set a goal to increase the percentage of students meeting grade level reading standards to align with the school-wide goal. However, if only 30% of the third graders are reading at grade level standards at the start of the school year the team might set a goal for 40% of their students to read at grade level standards by year’s end because goals need to be attainable. This team goal aligns with the school goal, but the improvement target is unique to the team’s current reality of student performance. As another example, an individual 5th-grade student starts the year already reading at 5th grade standards. He and his teacher might work together to set a goal for him to finish the year reading at sixth or seventh grade standards.

Selecting the right measures. All improvement processes should be interconnected. As such, these self-regulating processes provide common experiences for learning, modeling, problem solving, and sharing success that promote widespread efficacy. The SMART goal-setting process includes determining the type of measures that will be used to evaluate progress toward the goals. Just as selecting the right goals provides direction, selecting the right measures provides clarity about progress being made toward the goals. Selecting the right measures brings life to goals. Several considerations are involved in identifying the right measures. Multiple measures should be used whenever possible, so that the comparison and correlation of results increase confidence in findings. The combination of measures should also include a measure that can be administered frequently enough to provide formative evidence.

Measures that are administered only once during an improvement cycle provide valuable data for accountability and a foundation for the next cycle of planning, but they do not provide data to inform practice during the process. Measures that are administered multiple times during the improvement process provide data to allow for the refinement of practices. Lastly, measures should also be sensitive enough to capture the impact of improvement strategies implemented within the time period defined by the goal.

By way of example, suppose a school initiates research-based flexible grouping practices during core math instruction as a strategy to meet its goal of improved math achievement. Obviously, this is a complex initiative that will take time to implement with fidelity. Therefore, it would be important to avoid using a state or national test to measure the early success of this initiative because these tests are not designed to be sensitive enough to capture the impact of changes that would occur within the first year (Popham, 2010). As changes in math instructional practices become consistent and widespread, large-scale tests should be used to measure progress toward this goal. So, what kind of measures could be used early in this process to provide clarity about our progress? One strategy could be to measure the changes from the beginning of the year to the end the year in how well students perform on classroom math assessments. Another tool could be a survey to measure variations in students’ perceptions about the appropriate challenge of their math work from the beginning of the year until the end of the year.

Aligned and interconnected improvement cycles should be occurring simultaneously at all levels of the school. The attention given to the types of measures differs depending on whether they are being used to provide data for goals set at the individual, team, or school-wide levels. The preponderance of school-wide improvement plans identifies large-scale state and national tests as measures of student learning goals because these data are linked to state school designations and community perceptions about local school quality. These assessments should be given school-wide priority, as they are clearly important measures of student learning for professional and community accountability. Unfortunately, many school-improvement planning processes identify only these large-scale tests as measures of student learning. These tests alone don’t give full life to the goals. Most large-scale tests are administered infrequently – at most three times a year – so they do not provide formative data as a source to refine improvement strategies. Although they may be aligned with standards adopted by the school, these large-scale tests measure student attainment of these standards with a broad sampling process (Popham, 2010). As a result, they provide valuable trend data, but they are not generally sensitive enough to capture the impact of changes in teaching practices that occur within the improvement cycle. Therefore, these important tests should be coupled with measures that come from the classroom work of teachers and students such as common unit assessments, department tests, and grades.

As discussed, teams and individuals should align their improvement work with school-wide direction. Many teams and individuals make the mistake of relying solely on large-scale measures to inform progress toward their goals since these are the data most readily available and they receive the most attention. Teams and individual teachers and students that align their goals based on large-scale tests understandably get frustrated with the limited connection to their ongoing efforts to improve, especially if testing results do not reflect their hard classroom work. While these large-scale tests do provide important information, teams and individuals should give priority to the use of the aforementioned classroom measures. These measures provide formative data that are sensitive enough to capture changes in classroom teaching and learning strategies. As such, they allow individuals to realize the results of their efforts.

Acting on data. Setting goals and using the right measures are necessary but not sufficient for stakeholders to fully engage in improvement cycles. Without school-wide processes designed to act on data, improvement plans tend to gather dust until the end of the year. Professional learning teams (PLTs), which operate at multiple levels throughout the school, should form the core of these processes. PLTs are characterized by collaboration, professional learning, modeling, problem solving, and success sharing (Dufour & Fullan, 2013). So, it comes as no surprise that work in PLTs increases widespread efficacy (Voelkel & Chrispeels, 2017; Johnson, 2012). It is important to remember that the improvement processes should be well communicated so that teams at all levels of the school operate in mutually supportive and connected ways.

At the broadest, school-wide level, a PLT should be comprised of school principals, teachers, non-certified staff, and perhaps parents and students. This team should meet frequently, a minimum of once a month, to review progress toward goals and the implementation of improvement strategies. This team should monitor progress using large-scale state and national tests as well as classroom measures. With each review, the team should focus on the refinement of school-wide improvement strategies.

PLTs with teachers organized by grade level, departments, and program teams should meet weekly to monitor progress toward their own goals. These teams should focus primarily on the use of common classroom and department tests and assessments as their data sources. Results from large-scale tests should also be used to correlate with student performance on local assessments. The team should evaluate and refine instructional strategies and identify interventions for remediating or enriching students with its ongoing review and analysis of data.

Acting on data is also critical at the individual level. Consistent with the impact of PLTs, individuals engaged in these self-regulating processes are motivated by the influence they have on their desired results (Locke & Latham, 1991). While principals set goals and use measures that are consistent with school-wide improvement processes, individual students and teachers should act on goals and measures that reflect their work in the classrooms. The evaluation process is the common forum for teachers to set goals and use evidence to inform their teaching practices. With data coming directly from classroom measures, teachers have confidence that they are receiving valid information about the impact of their instruction. Likewise, students, with the support of their teachers, should take control of their own learning and experience the fruits of their efforts by acting on data unique to their own learning needs.

Celebrating success. In a continuous-improvement environment, stakeholders reflexively look to the next challenge as they examine evidence from the improvement cycle. Often, they do not take the time to recognize their collective progress and achievements. Success is a powerful experience to increase efficacy, as success breeds success. Therefore, periodic celebrations should be intentionally planned throughout the improvement cycle. These celebrations should be well communicated and include artifacts such as awards, announcements, and graphic displays. Teams and individuals will not fully meet their challenging goals all the time, but they can always find accomplishments worthy of celebration from a well-executed improvement plan.


Schools must continue to improve student learning, even in the face of complexities brought by our rapidly changing society. An important ingredient in schools that are meeting this challenge is the presence of widespread efficacy where students, teachers, and principals persist in the face of the most challenging circumstances because they believe that they can meet difficult goals. Efficacy can be motivated and increased in the school setting. This article recommends a commitment to intentional and structured improvement processes, which promote widespread efficacy through modeling, learning, problem solving, and sharing success. These vehicles motivate participants with opportunities to exert influence over student learning. The best of our schools are, in the words of Peter Senge (1990), “places where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire.” LEJ


Bandura, A. (1993). Perceived self-efficacy in cognitive development and functioning. Educational Psychologist, 28, 117-148.

Bandura, A. (2006). Adolescent development from an agentic perspective. In F. Pajares, & T. Urdan, (Eds.), Self-efficacy beliefs of adolescents (pp.1-43). Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.

Deal, T. & Peterson, K. (1999). Shaping school culture: The heart of leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Donohoo, J. (2018). Collective teacher efficacy research: Productive patterns of behavior and other positive consequences. Journal of Educational Change, 19(3), 323-345.

Dufour, R. & Fullan, M. (2013). Cultures built to last: Systemic PLCs at work. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Goodard, R., Hoy, W., & Wolfolk Hoy, A. (2000). Collective teacher efficacy: Its meaning, measure and impact on student achievement. American Educational Research Journal, 37(2), 479-507.

Johnson, S. (2012). The impact of collaborative structures on perceived collective efficacy (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Notre Dame of Maryland University.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1991). Self-regulation through goal setting. Organizational behavior and human decision processes, 50, 212-247.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation. American Psychologist, 57(9), 705-717.

Madimetsa, M., Branwen, H., & Mgadia, I. (2018). Perceived collective efficacy in low performing schools. South African Journal of Education, 38(2), 1-9.

O’Neil, J., & Conzemius, A. (2006). The power of smart goals: Using goals to improve student learning. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Popham, J. (2010). Everything school leaders need to know about assessment. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Senge, P. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York, NY: Doubleday/Currency.

Van Clay, M., Soldwedel, P., & Many, T. (2011). Aligning school districts as PLCs. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Voelkel, R., & Chrispeels, J. (2017). Understanding the link between professional learning communities and teacher collective efficacy. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 28(4), 505-526.

Dr. Glenn Schlichting is in his first year as an Assistant Professor in the Educational Leadership Department of Concordia University Chicago. Prior to his position at Concordia, Glenn spent 36 years in the public schools as a teacher, principal, assistant superintendent, and superintendent. Glenn earned his B.S. degree in Elementary Education from Knox College in Galesburg, IL, his M.S. in Educational Leadership from Northern Illinois University, and his Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from Loyola University of Chicago.