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Strategies for Fixing Failing Public Schools

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First Principles:

Note: This FORUM originally appeared in the Nov. 4, 1998, print edition of Education Week and is reprinted here as a courtesy for our readers. The content of the FORUM is an advertisement prepared by the participating organization. Education Week does not endorse and is not responsible for the content of the statements and/or any views or opinions expressed therein.

  • Recognize that the failing school is part of a larger system that inevitably shares the responsibility for the school's failure. Make sure that the district's policies and practices, therefore, are part of the solution and not part of the problem.
  • Upper-level schools do not become dysfunctional by themselves, and any plan to improve them must also deal with the feeder schools from which their students come.
  • Failing schools need intensified attention but not strategies that differ in kind from a district's approach to all of its schools; dealing with the worst schools should have highest priority.
  • School failure is usually due to multiple causes, and all must be addressed if any remedial effort is to be successful.
  • Dysfunctional schools develop over time a culture of failure that pervades the institution, and lasting improvement is likely only if that culture is replaced with one that values quality, continuous learning, and human relationships.
  • Turning around a failing school is an arduous, time-consuming challenge, but once interventions are in place, authorities should insist that progress be continuous and significant.
  • A school should be reconstituted only as a last resort and should be considered a failure of the larger system.
  • In districts where there is a tipping point of failing schools, there should be state or district intervention to enable parents to move their children into acceptable alternative educational programs.

Design Principles:

  • Multiple indicators and measures, cognitive and noncognitive, should be used to identify failing schools.
  • Outside expertise and authority should be installed in the school as soon as it is designated as eligible for intervention.
  • Responsibility of the school should be clearly understood, and the school should have the autonomy and authority necessary to fulfill that responsibility, including control over budget and personnel matters.
  • The newly installed authority should develop, with appropriate consultation, a clear and detailed improvement plan, specific goals, and a timetable for implementation.
  • Every member of the existing staff of the school, beginning with the principal, should be evaluated. Those deemed to be insufficiently competent or unsympathetic with plans for change should be replaced. Others should receive mentoring and encouragement, with financial incentives if possible.
  • All parts of the system should be focused on improving the learning of individual students, and that function should be the highest priority in the school budget.
  • Every adult should be held accountable for performance, but the accountability, while rooted in learning and teaching, should be process-oriented and designed to help teachers and administrators improve their practice. Professional development should be a transparent part of the work environment and should take place in classrooms while teachers work with students. Professional staff should be judged on the degree to which they attend seriously to instructional goals and strive to improve their practice.
  • In order to build trust, enhance human relationships, and share expertise, professional staff should be encouraged to collaborate, and schedules and working conditions should be arranged to facilitate collaboration.
  • The needs of students must come first and student learning should dictate the actions of the school and all of the adults in it.
  • Remediation is not enough. The school must be turned into a place where students want to be. Finding ways to link to their interests and motivate them is an important priority.
  • Relevant data should be collected, assessed, and provided to school staff in a feedback loop to encourage continuous progress.
  • School staff should extend themselves to involve parents and community in the rehabilitation of the school. Data should be shared with the community and its counsel should be sought.

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