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Chat Wrap-Up: State Leadership for Low-Performing Schools

October 02, 2006 5 min read
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On Sept 19, readers questioned S. Paul Reville, the president of the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy, in Cambridge, Mass.; Yvonne Caamal Canul, the director of the office of school improvement of the Michigan Department of Education; and Christopher B. Swanson, the director of the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, on the topic of “New Leadership Role for States: Instructional Improvement for Low-Performing Schools.” The chat took place in conjunction with the release, in September, of this year’s edition of the paper’s annual special report “Leading for Learning.” Below are excerpts from the discussion.

Question: What can schools, teachers, and districts do to educate parents of underachieving students and encourage them to take an active role in their children’s struggle for academic excellence?

Read the full transcript of this chat online.

Reville: The first step is to make parents feel welcome, included, and an essential part of their children’s educational experience. Schools can be forbidding places for many parents. They need to reach out to reluctant parents and provide them with a variety of opportunities and supports for becoming engaged. Once they are engaged, parents need training in how they can effectively support their children’s academic success. Partnerships with community-based organizations often help districts in doing parental outreach and training. Some districts are now hiring staff members whose sole role is to reach out to and support parents as partners in the education process. James P. Comer of Yale University has done some outstanding work in this area.

Question: Would states consider the reallocation of resources so that all underperforming schools have significantly reduced class sizes?

Canul: Currently, Michigan includes an extra allocation in school aid—the amount of state funding given for each student in a school district—that can be used for reducing class sizes. We also have allowed districts to use their Title IIA funds for the purpose of reducing class sizes (after their contract limits have been met with their general-fund dollars) with highly qualified staff. We know that effective instruction has more impact on student achievement than reduced class size, though, so it might be more appropriate to allocate resources towards professional learning and increasing effective instructional practices. I think it is unlikely that Michigan would reallocate state resources so that underperforming schools could have smaller class sizes than higher-performing ones. The state has a strong local-control culture, and each district decides, based on its own needs assessment, what is best for its situation.

Question: When a school’s scores are stagnating and many strategies have been implemented without success, what is one idea you would suggest to jump-start its program for low-achievers?

Reville: While it is possible for all students to achieve high standards, some may take longer than others to reach the goals that states and the federal government have established. Massachusetts has begun to pilot models of extended learning time in urban schools around the state. Students in these programs attend school for 30 percent longer than they have in past years, allowing additional time in core subject areas, as well as for enrichment activities.

Question: What special circumstances (such as demographics, rural or urban, and so forth) do states take into account when trying to improve low-performing schools? What strategies do they use?

Canul: We look at how to build statewide capacity by providing regionally based technical assistance. High-priority rural schools are more sparsely distributed across our state, so we make every attempt to reach out to them by scheduling professional learning opportunities close to where they are located. We support many activities through our Intermediate School Districts—we have 57 ISDs, all with various capacities for providing the kind of focused assistance needed for high-priority schools. Our state office of school improvement has a field-services unit with five teams of education consultants that work with all our schools; the more rural ones get more targeted assistance from staff members. Urban schools have the advantage of building cohort capacity, and their ISDs tend to have more staff members dedicated to assisting high-priority schools. Two years ago, we developed an academic coaches’ institute (www.abcscoaches.org) that provided training to 93 educators, many of them retired school personnel, to become turnaround specialists for our high-priority schools. Participants from across the state received the training and were available to these schools to work as mentors. The schools were encouraged to use their Title I technical-assistance funds to hire coaches.

Question: The Coleman Report seemed to indicate that local control (development of social capital), not state or federal control, was the key to improving K-12 schools. Doesn’t the emphasis on state or federal control work against the recommendations based on James S. Coleman’s findings?

Swanson: You have touched on a long-running debate in education research: the relative extent to which inside-school factors vs. outside-school factors affect school success. Another related issue is the extent to which local factors vs. more-distant influences like state or federal policy drive school improvement. In his long career, James S. Coleman weighed in on virtually every hotly debated topic in education (and often fanned the flames of controversy in the process). And over time, his views on particular issues matured and changed. So it’s hard to pigeonhole Coleman. But what I think we do know is that the effectiveness of reforms may depend very much on local capacity to act. We can think of that capacity in terms of social capital (like family and community supports) or human capital (like the qualifications of educators) or financial capital (per-pupil spending) or any other flavor of capital one cares to name. The bottom line is that schools and communities, even low-performing ones, that have strength in such areas may find themselves in a better position to mobilize action around state or federal mandates when they do occur.

A version of this article appeared in the October 04, 2006 edition of Education Week as Chat Wrap-Up: State Leadership for Low-Performing Schools

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