Extreme School Makeover: Creating the Conditions for Success
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:
- There is no detailed prescription for what works in all cases.
- 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 organize and drive change.”
A 2009 IES practice guide reaches similar conclusions: "The school turnaround case studies and the business turnaround research do not support the wholesale replacement of staff."
The clean slate approach may work in some cases. In others, though, it alienates communities, disrupts students’ lives, and banishes teachers who can be critical assets in a new regime. What’s more, it assumes that scads of eager new teachers are waiting in the wings.
Rallying Staff Around Decisive Change
I can understand the lure of reconstitution. When schools have struggled for years on end without any glimmer of improvement, big changes are in order. Persistently struggling schools almost always need new leadership, new instructional strategies, and an entirely new culture of achievement.
Teachers often support big changes when they begin to see their positive effects. According to the Hassels, “not every teacher would be willing or able to do what’s needed, [but] most would rise to the occasion.” Those who continue to resist change generally leave of their own accord. Others may have to be let go.
We feature quite a few turnaround schools on our Success Stories page. Almost all of them made dramatic changes by bringing most teachers along rather than firing them.
Empowering Professionals to Succeed
Successful principals make a strong case for change and then empower their staff to succeed. In many cases, they give their teachers the gift of actionable information. When teachers at Forest Grove High School saw data on different subgroups’ school performance, they took it as a “call to action.” For years, most staff at James Cashman Middle School had not been privy to detailed data on their students’ achievement. After reviewing the data together, teachers and administrators could work together to address the root causes of failure. Both Grove and Cashman made big gains.
For a success story about empowering teachers, look no farther than the Benwood schools in Chattanooga. In 2001, the local Public Education Fund and the Benwood Foundation joined forces to turn around eight struggling elementary schools. Strictly speaking, this is a story about reconstitution. The district required all teachers to reapply for their jobs. It worked with the teachers union to create a merit pay system. And it tried to attract new teachers into the schools.
But reconstitution had little to do with the schools’ ultimate success. New teachers did not flood in to the Benwood schools. Rather, the district re-hired most of the original teachers but gave them much better support: Better professional development and mentoring. Help from reading specialists and other support staff. More time for planning and collaboration. Even scholarships for continuing education. Students of Benwood teachers made bigger gains than students of other teachers in the district.
Elena Silva puts it well:
It seems that what the Benwood teachers needed most was not new peers or extra pay--although both were helpful. Rather, they needed support and recognition from the whole community, resources and tools to improve as professionals, and school leaders who could help them help their students.
Successful turnaround leaders recognize that teachers are not part of the problem. They are part of the solution. Give a school’s staff the tools they need to succeed, and help them collaborate on improvement.
Taking Things Personally
Many of the “bad to great” stories I see are at base stories about personal attention. In struggling schools, students tend to feel disaffected, disconnected, and anonymous. Successful new leaders build their staff’s capacity to win these students back, make them feel valued and address their individual needs.
At Westwood High School in Memphis, for example, the new principal worked with her staff to create ninth-grade mentoring programs, peer counseling programs, and stronger connections between students and adults. At Granger High School in Washington State, a new advisory system and individual learning plans contributed to a dramatic rise in graduation rates. At Forest Grove, extra math and reading workshops help struggling freshmen catch up with their peers.
In almost every school that turns itself around, teachers and administrators use data on student learning to tailor instruction to individual students’ needs. No big surprise here. The phrase “data-driven instruction” is on the lips of just about every principal and superintendent in the country. But data systems often founder on lack of staff development about how to use data well. Again, support for teachers is a crucial ingredient of any turnaround strategy.
Nothing New Here, Folks
None of the ideas I have offered above is in the least bit original. Most are covered in one way or another by the IES Practice Guide on Turning Around Chronically Low Performing Schools. Still, so much talk of turnarounds these days focuses on a few grand gestures: Fire the staff. Hand the school over to a charter organization. Close the school entirely. Evidence for any of these strategies is thin. Whatever the strategy, turnaround efforts will have to create the conditions for staff and student success.
Click here to browse dozens of Public School Insights interviews with extraordinary education advocates, including:
- 2013 Digital Principal Ryan Imbriale
- Best Selling Author Dan Ariely
- Family Engagement Expert Dr. Maria C. Paredes
The views expressed in this website's interviews do not necessarily represent those of the Learning First Alliance or its members.
Excellence is the Standard
At Pierce County High School in rural southeast Georgia, the graduation rate has gone up 31% in seven years. Teachers describe their collaboration as the unifying factor that drives the school’s improvement. Learn more...
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