Brigitte Sarraf | Coordinator, Accrediting Commission for Schools, WASC
Is this even possible, you might ask, considering that most self-study reports run anywhere from 200 to 850 pages! The question is, “what fills those pages”? Is it 30 pages of pictures? 50 pages of charts and graphs? 200 pages of appendices? 40 pages of blank and wasted space? Or the countless redundancies that fill up so many pages, where the template and structure of the report entices the writer to keep saying the same things over and over again, but using slightly different words in response to similar prompts? In truth, it is a combination of all of the above.
Take heart!!! It can be done, not by compromising QUALITY, but by seriously reducing QUANTITY and unnecessary fillers. You will be amazed, the outcome is a much more user-friendly, highly focused, and coherent report that communicates the essentials and keeps the reader engaged as a picture emerges in the reader’s mind that is an accurate description and depiction of a school’s programs and services, and its commitment to engaging all stakeholders in the cycle of ongoing school improvement.
The process that culminates in the self-study document is one that engages the entire school community in a rigorous, relevant, and ongoing reflection and self-evaluation that is centered on student learning. The document itself will show that the school has a clear purpose, expressed through its mission and vision and its schoolwide learner outcomes. A deep dive into the analysis of student outcome data results in a clear understanding of what the most critical learner needs are. From this flows an Action Plan that establishes SMART goals designed to address previous recommendations and the needs that have emerged from the data analysis.
To help keep a self-study report under 100 pages, here are some ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’:
- DO follow the prompts carefully, but be concise! Use simple, clear language to address what each prompt asks you to address.
- DO give yourself permission to NOT repeat information that was already provided, but simply refer the reader to the page where this information was discussed before.
- DO feel free to use bullets instead of narrative wherever possible, or mix the two as you see fit.
- DO focus on schoolwide systems and stay away from too many obscure, isolated, and discrete examples.
- DO remember that you are NOT writing a creative essay; eliminate as many unnecessary words, including adjectives, adverbs and other unessential descriptors.
- DO prominently display your mission/vision, your schoolwide learner outcomes, and your most critical learner needs.
- DO use hyperlinks wherever possible throughout the report to refer the reader to supplemental material that you believe to be useful to support a certain point.
- DO report your findings from the data analysis in the body of the report, and provide links to the actual charts and graphs so the reader can refer to them as needed.
- DO remember that your Action Plan goals must be measurable and must be focused on an outcome you want to achieve. Your Action Plan steps show the process you will use to achieve your desired outcomes.
- DO prepare a layout/outline of your report before you start writing, allocating a certain number of pages to each section, remember the goal is to keep the entire report under 100 pages; then stick to this as you develop your report! If you see yourself going far beyond your allocation for a certain section, edit, cut, and revise until you reach your goal.
- DO remember LESS is MORE!!!
- DON’T fill your report with pictures! One or two to show your school/students engaged in exciting learning activities is all you need.
- DON’T repeat yourself unnecessarily! Say it once and say it well!! If a prompt asks for information that you have already discussed, refer the reader to the page where this discussion took place.
- DON’T be tempted to think that the more information you cram into the report, the more informed the reader will be.The opposite is true … the reader easily gets lost and distracted by long, repetitive, and often redundant narratives and loses the essence of what you wish to communicate. It is NOT the number of pages that impress your visiting committee, but the QUALITY of your report!!
- DON’T write an Action Plan that may challenge your school’s capacity to implement it. Keep it focused on your most essential needs. Make sure it is aligned with, and/or reflects the goals of your LCAP and your Single Plan for Student Achievement. Limit the number of Action Plan steps under each goal and make it DOABLE! Remember, this is a living document that will guide your ongoing and continuous school improvement efforts over the next six years.
This perpetual cycle of assessment, designing and planning, implementation, monitoring, and reassessment based upon student achievement is what fosters excellence in schools and establishes that your school is worthy of the public’s trust and worthy of WASC accreditation.