The federal education law known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requires all U.S. public schools to demonstrate yearly progress in reading and mathematics. This is usually measured by standardized state assessments. Each state sets its own standards for meeting adequate yearly progress (known in the law as "AYP"). Failure to reach AYP for two consecutive years triggers federal school improvement requirements, which start with a school improvement plan.

Federal education law views a school improvement plan as the first step in the improvement process for schools that fail to meet standards for yearly academic progress by their students.  The law requires schools and their districts to specify the area(s) in which the school fell short of required performance standards and to set measurable performance goals. The school also must outline a set of research-based strategies that are designed to meet those goals.

The federal school improvement program is a "two-years-on, two-years-off" process. Schools that miss performance standards for two consecutive years are subject to program requirements and must meet the standards for two consecutive years to exit the program.

When writing a school improvement plan, the school must not only seek input from the faculty and school district, but also from parents and the community in which the campus is located. In addition to federal requirements, most states' departments of education have their own school accountability systems, which may include requirements for school improvement plans.