Chalkboard Education

One dictionary defines needs as things that are necessary for an organism to live a healthy life. If we take that same definition and apply it to students, the purpose for the Comprehensive Needs Assessment (CNA) becomes very clear. The purpose of the CNA is to assess how well schools are providing the education needed for students to live healthy lives. A robust CNA is also an essential component of school improvement planning. It's the starting point for everything from compliance with local, state and federal laws, to innovative ideas for advancing student achievement. Successful administrators know to review the CNA before recommending any new program, practice or making any important change.

It's clear that the CNA is critical—so what is the best way to write one? There are many different ways to develop a CNA, but no matter what method you use, the following six tips will help you develop an effective needs assessment.

Tip # 1: Get Clear with Vision and Mission.

Piechart Presentation

Words have power. For example, school leaders bristle when the media or a parent describes a school's instructional program as "teaching to the state test." That is simply not the reputation that school leaders desire. Nor does it reflect the practices in quality schools. Developing and widely communicating the school's mission and vision can help combat negative school perceptions. Good use of the mission and vision statements can positively influence the staff's mindset and help grow a positive culture. What are your school's mission and vision statements? When were they written? Dust them off and take a fresh look at mission (what the school does everyday) and vision (what the school strives to become).

Tip #2: Aim for Continuous Improvement.

Developing a CNA is not a "one and done" activity. In fact, the CNA is never truly finished. The CNA is created via a systematic set of processes that are part of a cycle, rather than a race to the finish line. You collect data to build the school's profile. Then you interpret the information and determine priority needs. The CNA is then the base for the development of the improvement plan. It guides and focuses the actions. If your improvement planning is successful, some needs will be met. Meanwhile, new needs may arise. When new data arrive, the process is repeated, and by this method, the school can continue to improve. It is the professional responsibility of educators to continuously assess the progress of programs and practices through the CNA. For the best results, approach the CNA with a mindset of continuous improvement, rather than process completion.

Tip #3: Focus on Progress, Not Compliance

Piechart Presentation

A good CNA is about progress. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) does not pair the CNA with compliance. ESSA intends for educators to make the shift away from simply looking at test scores and proficiency measures, and to instead focus on growth measures. ESSA looks at formative, real-time information to support success for students. When educators have insight into how much or how little students are learning during the year, they stand a much better chance of helping students succeed. So, a good CNA contains a summary that includes information about progress in addition to statements of strength and need.

Tip #4: Consider all the Data—and Help Stakeholders do the Same.

Schools collect enormous volumes of data, but most educators are only aware of small parts of this data set—usually the data that is closest to their job assignment. The result is, they have a narrow and fragmented understanding of the school as a whole. That is no fault of the educator; it is due to the structure of school operations. Without a good process where educators can learn the meaning of data from one another, schools fall back to only reporting what is easiest to report—the school’s ratings on the latest state assessment. While these data are important, they only tell a portion of a school’s story. Steven White, author of School Improvement for the Next Generation, says, “As long as the only evidence we bring to the table is exclusive to students, we will never close the achievement gap.” The CNA requires schools to review all relevant data when assessing campus needs. This helps stakeholders understand the big picture when it comes to the needs of students and the school.

Tip #5: Sharpen Focus: Prioritize Needs and Identify Root Causes

Magnifying Glass Shapen Focus on Success

An unfocused CNA leads to an unfocused improvement plan and ineffective action steps. To ensure your CNA is focused and ready to be used in developing the improvement plan, it is important to study and prioritize the needs. There will always be more needs than can be addressed within one school year, so determine which needs should be addressed first and which can wait until a later time. A prioritized list of problem statement needs with root causes will help guide and focus the improvement plan. Spend enough time with the problem statements so that the true root causes are fleshed out. Educators are “fixers” and often want to jump at the first reason that pops up to explain why a problem exists. That first impression is often a symptom and not a true root cause. Finding one or more root causes takes time, but it also makes all the difference because of the tremendous focus it will create for the improvement plan.

Tip #6: Involve All Stakeholders

An unfocused CNA leads to an unfocused improvement plan and ineffective action steps. To ensure your CNA is focused and ready to be used in developing the improvement plan, it is important to study and prioritize the needs. There will always be more needs than can be addressed within one school year, so determine which needs should be addressed first and which can wait until a later time. A prioritized list of problem statement needs with root causes will help guide and focus the improvement plan. Spend enough time with the problem statements so that the true root causes are fleshed out. Educators are “fixers” and often want to jump at the first reason that pops up to explain why a problem exists. That first impression is often a symptom and not a true root cause. Finding one or more root causes takes time, but it also makes all the difference because of the tremendous focus it will create for the improvement plan.

Start your school improvement process by developing a robust CNA.

School Graduates

The key to developing a great comprehensive needs assessment is to have good processes in place that involve multiple stakeholders. It will take time to implement all of the above tips, but a good CNA process is not rushed. It is spread out over several months during the spring, with quick revisions occurring throughout the rest of the year. A CNA is about a constant look at progress. Where are we, and where do we want to be? To learn more about creating your CNA, click here.