Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child


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Blog Entries

We're hearing a lot about Chicago's efforts to turn around struggling schools. Read the papers, and you'll get the impression that a handful of charter schools are the only bright stars in a dark firmament. But that impression is wrong.

At least one other set of schools has been posting big gains. Eight schools working with a Chicago non-profit called Strategic Learning Initiatives (SLI) have made large strides in student performance in the past few years. And their model is quite different from the turnaround models that get the most press.

They do not fire teachers. Their principals don't get the axe. But they do use concrete strategies to change what happens in their classrooms. Researchers from AIR reviewed SLI's results and called on policy makers to take note:

Well before decisions are made to reconstitute schools under the mandates of NCLB, school districts would be wise to consider far less drastic, but clearly powerful, interventions such as [SLI's] Focused Instruction Process.

As school closings and charter takeovers capture the popular imagination, we are apt to ignore other options. SLI President John Simmons recently told us about the success of his approach in Chicago.

Public School Insights: There is a lot of talk right now about turning around struggling schools. The model that is most mentioned, and has been enshrined in federal policy, is reconstitution, which involves firing the principal and replacing at the least half the teachers at a school. The thinking is that this process is required to create the conditions needed for success. Does your experience bear that out?

Simmons: We think that there's a better way. Reconstitution can work. You can get results. But our experience, which includes not only the last almost four years with our most recent network of schools but also the last 15 years using a similar model in schools in the lowest income neighborhoods in Chicago, shows that our model is getting better results than the reconstitution model. And it is lower cost and faster.

Public School Insights: What kinds of results have you been getting?

Simmons: [Part of our process is weekly assessments of student achievement.] By the way, we call it a “process” and not a “program” because teachers and principals have an opportunity to modify and improve it on a regular basis.

We are seeing that schools are able to improve their weekly assessments pretty quickly after starting our process, typically after the first six weeks. Children ...

Shocking news! You can turn around a struggling school without firing all or even most staff. You can even keep the principal. All you need is a little--or a lot of--help from your friends.

This is one of the big lessons I draw from a new study (PDF) of work by Strategic Learning Initiatives (SLI) to turn around 10 troubled schools in Chicago. SLI worked with existing school principals and teachers to improve instruction, and student performance gains accelerated by a factor of six. And SLI did this work without resorting to the slash-and-burn turnaround techniques that are all the vogue these days.

Here's an excerpt from Education Week's report on the study:

"The results that SLI has achieved, and that [the American Institutes for Research] has validated, are very impressive and suggest that well before decisions are made to reconstitute schools under the mandates of [the federal No Child Left Behind Act], school districts would be wise to consider far less drastic, but clearly powerful, interventions such as the Focused Instruction Process," write AIR analysts Steven Leinwand and Sarah Edwards in their July evaluation.

The U.S. Department of Education's four models for turning around low-achieving schools using federal stimulus money all require the principal to be fired; one calls for the school to be closed. But [SRI CEO John] Simmons argues that it's less expensive, and often more effective, to invest in the people already working in the schools. With the right tools, he says, school staffers can produce different results....

"That is the heart of our story--the application of research to the work of improving schools. High-performance schools aren't just born, they are trained and coached."

This story flies in the face of many current policy trends. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that great teachers are born, not bred. Why else spend all our ...

Yesterday, we shared our interview with David Cicarella, the union president who helped broker an historic agreement between teachers and the New Haven, Connecticut school distict.

Today, we'll hear from two district officials who were instrumental in the deal. Assistant Superintendent Garth Harries and Chief Operating Officer William Clark describe the groundbreaking collaboration that made the agreement possible.

Public School Insights: There has been a lot of attention given to the new contract in New Haven—a lot of it praise. What you think are some of the most groundbreaking provisions of that agreement?

Clark: I think the first big groundbreaking piece was how we approached it. Historically, due to Connecticut’s Teacher Negotiations Act, you are really forced into a very tight timeline of negotiations that is specifically identified by statute. Certain pieces have to be done by certain dates; otherwise you hurtle towards arbitration. So with the leadership of [Superintendent] Dr. Mayo, [New Haven] Mayor DeStefano and Dave Cicarella from the [New Haven] teachers union, what we really did was try to chart a different way and a different approach.

What we set up was essentially parallel tracks. On one track you had reform discussions and on the other track you had the classic negotiations. The reform discussions were specifically separate so as to not fall prey to the trappings of negotiations. We began by sitting around the table with the best intentions in mind: What could we do—what are the possibilities that could exist—if we look at this as a collaborative approach? That really opened a lot of doors.

We started, under Garth’s leadership within that committee, by coming up with a belief statement that both parties signed on to. So then even when we had some fits and starts and ...

Teachers in New Haven, Connecticut recently ratified a contract that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised as an “important progressive labor agreement” for its provisions on teacher evaluation and school reform. David Cicarella, president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, recently told us about the agreement.

(Stay tuned tomorrow for an interview with New Haven district officials Garth Harries and Will Clark.)

Public School Insights: There has been a lot of praise given to the new contract in New Haven. What do you think are the most groundbreaking provisions of this agreement?

Cicarella: There are three components that get the most attention. One, our willingness to discuss tenure. Two, our willingness to talk about including test scores as a part of teacher evaluation. And three, the contract’s provisions for the closing and chartering of schools.

Public School Insights: Let’s start with tenure. What do you think the big accomplishment has been on that part of the agreement?

Cicarella: Historically, unions have been completely unwilling to discuss tenure, because it’s the only protection that teachers have against unfair dismissal.

But we’ve got to tighten up the dismissal process. We can’t have folks—and this is a complaint that the public makes and is legitimate—going through two, three, four years of improvement plan after improvement plan, when everyone knows that ...

Hear this posting (~6:55)

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If you're looking for a Cinderella story, get to know the people at Viers Mill Elementary School in Silver Spring, Maryland:

One of the [paraeducators] who had been here a long time said, "you know, they used to call this place 'slumville.'" Now, she says "the President's visiting here...." He came to our school for the work we did. He didn't just happen to show up.... It was the apotheosis of my entire career.... The President of the United States--the President of the United states!--is in our cafeteria...because of the work that went on in this building....

That's Susan Freiman, Viers Mill's staff development teacher, describing President Obama's surprise visit to the school last month. She worked hard with her colleagues to turn the once struggling elementary school into a national exemplar where almost every student is proficient on state tests. That is no mean feat for a school where most students are from low-income families and almost half are still learning English.

It doesn't take long for visitors to see just how remarkable Viers Mill is. Last week, Freiman took me through a school buzzing with excitement and academic purpose. She showed me some first grade classrooms where ...

Jack Grayson has been many things in his 86 years. A farmer, FBI agent, journalist, importer/exporter, professor, business school dean, and member of three presidential commissions. But he has made a lasting name for himself as one of the nation’s most outspoken champions of productivity and quality.

Grayson rose to national fame almost forty years ago as Chairman of the U.S. Price Commission, which helped avert hyperinflation in the early 1970s. His brush with economic turmoil convinced him that productivity was key to the nation’s well-being, so he founded The American Productivity and Quality Center (APQC), a non-profit that helps organizations boost performance by improving their processes. As APQC chairman, he is devoting all of his time to the organization’s work in education.

These days, many school reformers are fond of reciting lessons they have learned from business. Be innovative. Focus on outcomes. Get the incentives right. The rest, the theory goes, will follow.

But Grayson says such reformers are missing the biggest lesson of all: Focus on process! He admits that talk of process can be dry as dust, especially when all of DC is abuzz with talk of innovation. But it is process improvements that brought the best American businesses out of the industrial age, he insists.

Yes, innovation and outcomes are critical. But if reformers ignore the hard work of building schools’ capacity to produce the best outcomes, even the most innovative school systems may well go the way of GM.

Listen to Grayson's interview on the Public School Insights podcast (~23:15).

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A quick warning about our recording: It has a lot of background noise. If the side conversations and occasional pop music become too distracting, read the edited transcript below.

Public School Insights: A lot of people are talking about the promise of innovation in improving education. Do you think innovation itself holds the key to solving our problems in public education?

Grayson: No. Innovation will certainly help, and innovation in any area is the leader. It’s the new idea. But you do not want to leave the old idea behind because ...

How you measure a school's progress matters. A lot. Just ask Beth Madison, principal of a school that is thriving by common-sense measures and failing by official measures.

George Middle School has made robust gains over the past decade. Over 80 percent of George students receive free or reduced price lunch, and a full 23 percent are special education students. Yet students' test scores are at or above state averages in most subjects.

Still, the school has not made Adequate Yearly Progress seven years running. Why? Because year after year, Madison tells us, it has been a hair's breadth away from meeting its targets for one particular subgroup of students in one particular area, like attendance. Madison is bracing herself for the impact of the H1N1 flu, which could hurt her attendance numbers for yet another year. You can't win.

What does Madison want? In short, some flexibility. She feels her school should be judged for its students' academic growth over time rather than against absolute performance targets. The school has made steady strides despite big demographic shifts that have increased its share of low-income students. But it still falls short of state goals.

Madison is no whiner. She praises No Child Left Behind for pushing schools to do much more for vulnerable children. She believes the extra money she has received for missing performance targets has helped the school improve. But she still feels No Child Left Behind is a "messed up" law.

She can thank her lucky stars that the Portland school district will not throw George Middle School on a Procrustean bed of reform. District leaders will not hobble her by imposing one-size-fits-all reform strategies. (Madison has particularly harsh words for strategies that require struggling schools to fire most teachers. She calls them a “train wreck.”)

The district listens when she describes her school’s success, Madison told us. And the district offers support tailored to her school’s specific needs.

George Middle School is not in thrall to the official version of success. That's good news for teachers and students alike.

Listen to Madison's interview on the Public School Insights podcast (~26 minutes).

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Or read an edited transcript:  

Public School Insights: George Middle School has made tremendous strides since the early 2000s. But you've missed Adequate Yearly Progress seven times. Could you tell me a little bit about how you see the school’s progress in the light of the AYP issue?

Madison: AYP in Oregon is not a growth-based model. It is a model with many subcategories within English language arts and math in which [the state] judges students' ability based on a RIT score [which is essentially] a simple score of grade level. [AYP also includes student attendance measures, again divided into subcategories].

So regardless of the fact that the kids who come in at very low levels of previous performance may make years and years of growth gains in one year — or at least their testing shows they do — that may not be enough to meet the magic number.

If Oregon used a growth-based model, then I think that we would not have had any trouble making AYP the last three years. But we have a very large population of special education students -- about 23 percent. Many of these kids come in [to sixth grade] with their learning achievement level between Kindergarten and second grade. We have one of the ...

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Welcome to Our World

"Welcome to my world," said the traditional public school to the charter.

Reformers who get mugged by reality can sound an awful lot like the dreaded "establishment." Take, for example, the story of the Opportunity Charter School in Harlem. Started by ardent reformers, the school now faces closure if it can't raise students' scores by next year. The reformers are crying foul.

Their arguments sound familiar and reasonable. The school takes the city's lowest achievers, half of them with learning disabilities, so it has a tougher road to travel. The state's tests can't measure the kinds of progress the school has made with those students. And the one-year deadline is unreasonable.

The reformers are on shakier ground when they seek to distance themselves from traditional public schools. The charter's assistant principal claims that the state can't "expect the school to be accountable for a system that has failed ...

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has announced an ambitious goal: To turn around the nation’s lowest-performing schools. The Learning First Alliance (LFA), which sponsors Public School Insights, applauds that goal. Today, the Alliance released a set of principles for tracking the progress of the nation’s school turnaround efforts. Principles for Measuring the Performance of Turnaround Schools outlines how education agencies and communities can determine whether those efforts are leading to both swift improvement and sustained change in persistently struggling schools.

This statement offers a framework for aligning turnaround efforts with a vision for giving every child access to an excellent public school. The proposed principles can help policymakers, educators and communities identify schools in need of intervention, reliably gauge the progress and ...

There is a school turnaround strategy for every taste. At least, that's the impression I get from the National Journal's most recent panel of experts. Asked to name the best strategies for turning around schools, different experts list different ideas. Pair struggling schools with the best teacher training institutions, writes Steve Peha. Create a year-round calendar, writes Phil Quon. Shutter struggling schools and start from scratch, writes Tom Vander Ark.

Each of these ideas has merit in some cases--I myself love the first idea, like the second, and am not fully sold on the third. But none is a necessary ingredient for all or even most schools.

So what do we know about turnarounds? Two big themes stand out in much of the school turnaround literature:

  1. There is no detailed prescription for what works in all cases.
  2. There is, however, abundant evidence that a school will not turn itself around unless it gives teachers the support they need to succeed.

These themes are also clear in the many turnaround stories we profile on this website. Policy makers should take note.

The Reconstitution Myth
It's high time to slay the reconstitution dragon. Despite what you may hear these days, you do not have to kill a school to save it.

Here's what Emily and Bryan Hassel write in Education Next, which is hardly a pro-union rag: “Successful turnaround leaders typically do not replace all or most of the staff at the start, but they often replace some key leaders who help ...

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