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A Different Turnaround Vision: A Conversation with Turnaround Expert John Simmons

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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 often start out scoring zero of six on these quizzes. Then they move up to one out of six and two out of six. And then they get excited and the teachers get excited, and motivation takes off from there.

On end-of-year state assessments, over their first three years working with us, our schools had an average of four times the rate of improvement they had in the three years prior to starting with us. That is very significant, and some schools had up to eight to nine times the improvement. We have a couple schools that were among the most improved of all of the 473 elementary schools in the city—one in the first year they started with us and another in their second year with us.

No one has seen these kinds of results before. And these schools were on the list to be closed or reconstituted the year they started with us.

Public School Insights: My sense is that people look to reconstitution because they say that at least it is a change. Historically when we have talked about turning around schools, we have not always done much actually to change those schools. How do you deal with that issue?

Simmons: We look at the research. Starting back 15 years ago, we found that there is a series of five things that schools have to do to rapidly improve their end-of-the-year test scores. They are called the “Essential Supports” and were developed by the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

[School improvement] is like baking a cake. If you include all of the essential supports, you get a great cake. But if you leave out one ingredient, like the salt or the eggs, you are not going to get anything that tastes like a cake. That is what we found as we put together the best strategies from education research and the best strategies from high-performance systems research. So now we have a systemic approach to school improvement. But it is not a silver bullet.

Public School Insights: So what are the ingredients of this cake?

Simmons: They are very common-sense. The first is shared leadership in the building--that is a crucial place to start. Then there is the instructional process that occurs in every classroom. There is improving the professional capacity of the teachers and principal. There is engaging parents in what is happening at school. For example, our parents learn the Illinois standards so when their children come home with lessons around these standards they are prepared to help with homework. And the final of the essential supports is of course the climate for learning. These schools have to have a culture and climate where people increasingly trust each other and are able to work together to create these rapid increases in results.

Public School Insights: Let's start with the first of these ingredients—shared leadership in the school building. Many people argue that in a struggling school staff become demoralized and have trouble going along with change. How do you ensure that staff really buy in to the process and share leadership? And do you find that some staff decide this is just not for them?

Simmons: Yes, some staff do decide that, and I will speak to that in a second.

To answer the first question, to ensure staff buy-in, what we do is ask the staff: Do they like this model? Would they be interested in seeing other schools that have used it? Do they think it fits their vision of how to get to great learning in the classroom? We ask the principals and the leadership teams to talk about it. If there are not leadership teams, the principal needs to take it directly to the teachers. Then we ask them for an 80% vote—a secret vote—of the faculty before we will even go to the building and talk to them anymore. So immediately the principal is responsible for leading the change process, not the outside partners.

This strategy, we find, kicks off the process in a remarkable way. Three and four years later the teachers are still talking about it—“Oh my goodness, you asked us for a vote. We had a chance to think about it. How different from being mandated as to what we are supposed to do, as we have been for the past 10 years, and from being treated like the children we are teaching. You respected us.”

Public School Insights: But you mentioned some teachers will decide that this is not for them. Do you find that is a large number?

Simmons: It is not. And once the program begins, those teachers who did not vote “yes” on the process are not penalized. They are encouraged to come along. They see what their colleagues are doing. They are part of the school leadership team or their grade level team. So they are seeing the results, and if their students are not seeing significant improvements on the weekly assessments they start to wonder, “Maybe I am doing something that I should look at more carefully.” But the power is always in their hands.

Public School Insights: Let's move to some of the other ingredients of this cake. You mentioned instructional focus and increasing professional capacity. To me, it seems these are related issues. How does one increase professional capacity, especially in a school that has so many hurdles to clear?

Simmons: Again, we ask the teachers what they'd like and what would help them move ahead with their specific children. They've got ideas and, guess what, those ideas are exactly what a lot of people are talking about—differentiated instruction, professional learning communities, critical thinking, looking at student work. They are interested in all these things. So we say, “Alright, where should we start?” Then we do on-site workshops with the teachers, encouraging them to help lead trainings so they learn how to do it. And we also do in-classroom coaching and modeling. For example, if they have a problem teaching author's purpose, which is one of the Illinois standards, we will go in there and model a lesson on author’s purpose with their kids.

We have somebody at least a day a week in each school, depending upon the issues in the school. That person—we call them a coach— is a very experienced classroom teacher and is there to help teachers. But the teachers have to ask us for help. The principal cannot send us to a classroom and say, “Fix Mary Jane.”

Public School Insights: You also mentioned climate for learning. In talking about school turnarounds, we always hear about schools that are out of control. How do you address that?

Simmons: Classroom management is just one more set of strategies and tools. If we find a building where it is a problem, we ask the teachers and principal, “Would you like some coaching around classroom management?” And we work with those who say yes. They very quickly get their classrooms under control, and then they are able to do the important academic work.

Public School Insights: I take it you are coming into these schools with a set of strategies based in research and a sense of the structures you have to apply to make things better. Is that right?

Simmons: Yes. The five factors I mentioned to you are part of a 20-year research effort by the Consortium on Chicago School Research. In fact, they just came out with a new book that reviewed the work they published in 1998 that showed these five essential supports. They have reaffirmed them and gotten even better results. Schools that apply this research get 10 times the improvement in standardized test scores as schools that do not use any of these factors. Think of the kind of improvement you can get just by applying the research.

Public School Insights: Let’s also talk about parent engagement. You mentioned some of the strategies you use to draw parents in. Do you have any specific measures of parent engagement that you generally use?

Simmons: The most important measure really is, do they come to the workshops? Then, does that attendance increase? Do parents take more interest in their children's education, show up in the classrooms, ask questions? On all those indicators, the answer is yes.

We have won three national awards for our parent engagement program. In some buildings we get up to 50, 60, 70% of families attending workshops. That is unheard of in these neighborhoods, where the average turnout for this kind of thing is 7%.

It is all because we train parents from the neighborhood to lead our workshops. Initially some principals say, “I don’t want my parents to get involved—I want people with master’s degrees to lead this training.” But then we say, “We could do that, but it is too expensive. We wouldn't be able to scale it up and you wouldn’t be able to sustain it.” And six months later someone who did not even finished grade school is leading a two-hour workshop, without notes, for a group of 30 parents.

Public School Insights: That brings us to the questions of price and scalability. You mentioned that what you are doing is less expensive than reconstitution. A related question is, how do you do this on a large scale, so it is not just a small handful of schools that see the benefit?

Simmons: There are really two models for doing this sort of school improvement work in Chicago—one where we keep the principals and the teachers and one where we remove them.

On the question of the costs, we do not have to do the intensive yearlong training for the new teachers and principal that is one of the standard practices in reconstitution. We do not have to engage in an expensive recruiting process across the country. So we are saving a lot of money. We are saving the taxpayer a lot of money. We are able to do this work at 20% of the annual cost of the other model.

And scalability…We have found that after a year or 18 months the teachers and principals in these buildings really get it —it does not take very long to train people in the process. Then they can come and join our team. In fact, we did that with one building principal who wanted to retire after the first year that we worked with her. She joined our consulting team, and she has been just outstanding.

Our process makes a lot of sense. John Dewey—who spent a great deal of his life in Chicago—said that learning by seeing and doing is so powerful, and so ignored in the teaching profession. But that is how we train our people. All of the people we have on our staff have been through the program, and they know exactly what to do. So scaling up is not a problem.

And our principals and teachers are saying, “You must get this out to other buildings across the country.” So right now we are developing a national training center that will use the schools here in Chicago as a laboratory that people can visit. And anybody is welcome to come now. People are coming from around the country and from as far away as Brazil.

Public School Insights: You mentioned earlier that reconstitution can work. Do you think there are schools out there that are under such a burden that reconstitution really is the only way—that maybe even the power of your work would not turn them around?

Simmons: I prefer to see it in terms of the leadership of the building. Replacing a principal for whatever kind of incompetence is clearly necessary sometimes. The question is, how do you figure out when? We did not know, when we started working with the 10 schools the superintendent gave us four years ago, if some of those principals were really going to make the grade. We did not go in and do a six-month evaluation or anything like that. We just asked them to get the vote of their teachers. And 75% of the 100 buildings that had the chance to vote did. That says something about those principals.

The other 25 principals did not want to hold the vote, for all kinds of reasons: They were new to the building, they had an illness, they had a mother-in-law who was sick they had to worry about...They had some good reasons. So it is very hard to describe [how to know when to replace a principal]. It fits with my private sector management consulting business, going back 30 years, where it was very difficult to see whether or not a CEO could really lead a company into the high-performance future. Someone might just know all the right things to say. But what we did there was take six months to get acquainted with them and show them other companies that were doing the same thing. And that is what we do now, too. People come to see the schools. Then some people say, “Yeah, we can do this” and some people say, “Well, we are not sure.”

Public School Insights: In trying to figure out if people and schools are on the right track and building the capacity to succeed…You mentioned earlier assessments in the schools on which people can measure progress. Are there other interim indicators for your turnaround schools, particularly in the early stages, that give you a sense they are on the right track?

Simmons: Yes. The leadership teams start to meet and get really productive. The teachers on the grade level teams are saying, “This is no longer a gripe session. We are accomplishing importance stuff here.” That's the first thing that shows up—the teachers and principal start to say, “There's something happening here.” Then when the children start to chart their weekly assessments—that is a huge motivator. And these are no-stakes assessments—they do not even go into a grade book. They are purely evaluative, formative assessments.

Public School Insights: Are there any questions I should have asked you but didn't?

Simmons: What we have discovered is that there is a huge reservoir of teachers and principals out there who are called “failing” but in fact have great potential for improving and no one realized it. So a huge problem on our part was that our expectations were too low of these people and these buildings.

Public School Insights: So you would set high expectations for teachers as well as students.

Simmons: Absolutely. We guaranteed going into this that all of our schools would see significant improvements in their end-of-year scores on standardized tests, and they did. We were confident—we have used this model for 15 years—that we could get the results if they implemented the process. But just imagine—10 schools, all on the list to be closed. And eight of the 10 turned around—three in the first year, three in the second and two in the third. They did not believe that they could do it, but slowly, over the course of the first year, they got more and more confident as their weekly assessments started to improve. The psychology and the capacity of these schools in undertaking transformative change are really interesting.

Public School Insights: Another lesson the education community could draw is that transformative change means real, substantive, concrete change. You cannot just embroider around the edges and expect things to get better.

Simmons: That is right. In fact, we have two dimensions for measuring the change. One is obviously test scores—schools have to show substantial improvements on those. The other is climate, which we get from the principals and the teachers. The principals start to say, some at the end of the first year, “We have turned around.”