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All Schools Can Learn

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The education researcher Paul Hill once referred to some of the most sincere education-reform efforts coming out of Washington and the state capitals as "virga"--the rain you see in northern California that evaporates before it hits the ground. Our best-laid plans look great on paper, but dissolve by the time they reach the classroom. Meanwhile, as we "wish" change on schools, millions of students--particularly minority and disadvantaged students--are denied the skills and knowledge they need for success.

Not only do we warehouse impoverished students, but whole schools are written off as incapable of improvement because of the populations they serve. Too many Americans--including educators--unconsciously support the myth of The Bell Curve, which says that children of color lack what it takes to succeed in life. This myth, promoted at a time when America has lost its ability to generate ever-increasing wealth in the face of new global competition, continues to turn minorities into scapegoats for their own poverty.

Equally distressing, too many schools function as if they believe themselves incapable of improvement. The fact is that, to paraphrase a much-used dictum on student learning, all schools can learn. Even the lowest-performing school on the verge of being shut down can turn its failure into significant learning gains for all of its students.

This transformation requires no rapid infusion of cash but a carefully orchestrated and continuous culture change within the school building. Schools must create a web of activities that support high achievement and invest in the abilities of all staff members and students.

I know this from nearly 20 years of helping transform the lowest-performing schools in crime-ridden urban neighborhoods and impoverished rural settings. The schools with which I have worked the longest have managed, by providing rigorous academic programs, giving proper guidance and support, and setting high expectations, to send 30 percent more students to college than the national average, despite their poverty and disadvantaged backgrounds. Graduates of these schools have been four to five times more likely to major in mathematics and the sciences, and almost half have earned a grade-point average of 3.0 or higher.

Part of the reason for this success is that, as outsiders, the people with whom I work at the nonprofit group Ventures In Education are not subject to a school bureaucracy that makes promises it can't keep and continues to be stymied by its own inertia. Our independence allows us to spark changes needed in school practice, policy, and environment. Like the corporate consultant who goes to a badly performing company and offers advice and strategy, we can provide schools with a fresh perspective on their activities, back up these ideas by analyzing new ways of using resources, and identifying outside expertise needed to succeed.

Creating "turnaround" schools does not necessarily mean spending more money. Even in the computer age, success does not require fancy equipment. The most powerful computer can do little if it sits unused in a lab or is used as a high-tech drill-and-practice workbook. A creative teacher with a storybook and Crayons can provide a multimedia experience more powerful than a cd-rom computer. While schools need more resources, they also need to make better use of the resources they possess. A small library can become the nerve center of the school; entire science courses can be designed around the materials in a storage closet; and any local community is a science and social-studies laboratory ripe for exploration.

Similarly, the school day can be reorganized or lengthened to allow more planning time without raising costs. And the same teachers currently teaching low-content, low-level courses can teach more stimulating, academically rigorous college-prep classes.

My work with schools has shown me the following areas that can add up to a turnaround in a school's ability to raise student achievement:

  • Turnaround schools do not shy away from using standardized tests even as they experiment with nontraditional learning approaches. This may appear contradictory, since fill-the-bubble tests are notorious for not testing higher-order thinking. But, when not used to sort students, standardized tests are among the most useful tools we have to help students calibrate their work to a higher standard; for teachers to identify problem areas in their students' abilities and in their own teaching; and for the public to gauge school and student performance.

Although many educators rightfully deplore the use of test scores to measure and rank schools and students, the public believes these are the only reliable indicators. Test averages can be compared with those of previous years and used to set goals. I have seen too many reforms dismissed by the public because the schools failed to collect data showing improved student performance or because the only data presented were on thinking skills--leading the public to believe basic skills did not improve.

Test results set a common competitive standard colleges and employers value and students and teachers can use to compare their own results against. If a disadvantaged student wants to attend Harvard, go to medical school, or become a police cadet, he or she will need to know what is required and how to pass the appropriate tests. Tests show students what they are expected to know and be able to do and how well they perform.

Perhaps most important, test data can help teachers improve instruction by influencing grading procedures, shaping classroom practice, changing student attitudes, and accurately measuring progress. Even so, I cannot count the times when teachers attending a workshop on item analyses of their students' Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test results have told me that this opportunity--which should be routine--was their "first experience with meaningful assessment."

  • Turnaround schools are built on the natural inclination of students and faculty to want to work together and share information. Before a school can raise its performance, it must become a community with a structure that empowers teachers to work together and help each other. But few schools have mentoring programs for new teachers, and evaluations usually only determine what one is doing wrong, not how to improve. And even if a teacher tries to discover which other teachers have a particularly troubled student, a conference will be almost impossible since the teachers have different schedules.
  • Turnaround schools require a new cooperative definition of leadership. Personnel in turnaround districts function as members of the same team, with the common goal of educating all students. District officials work with building staff members to create mutual solutions to problems instead of issuing directives without input from those in the schools. When lines of communication--and authority--flow both ways from district administrators to the school staff, better decisions are made, educators are more empowered, and students learn more.

Building this level of cooperation requires establishing a new definition of leadership in which top administrators do not separate themselves from their troops, but become facilitators and cheerleaders for staff efforts and decisions. Not only does the leader act as part of the organization, but the whole organization must take on some of the role of the leader. Teachers, the backbone of the school system, must play a major part in making any decision on new teaching techniques, courses, or programs.

  • Turnaround schools assess their resources to insure they are being directed toward attaining improvement goals. Just as cooks do not begin a recipe without checking the cupboard for necessary ingredients, turnaround schools put all their resources on the table. They determine what the teachers know and can do, how to make most effective use of time, and what money and other resources are available.

No school, no community, should settle for failure as the norm or allow low expectations to be set for their students. When schools and their staffs keep focused on their main mission--educating all students--a wide range of problems, from racial tensions to violence, from poor self-esteem to lack of motivation, begin to disappear. America's schools, even in the poorest neighborhoods or most isolated communities, can create this focus and raise student achievement. America's schools--like the students they serve--can turn around and succeed.

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