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School & District Management Opinion

Keys to Radical Classroom Change

By Amanda Gardner — March 25, 2013 5 min read
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When we talk about struggling schools—and particularly when we share stories of successfully turning them around—most solutions seem to focus on a silver bullet. Whether this is a longer school day, dramatic labor agreements, slick technological advancements, or even one dynamic principal, the stories we hear the most highlight a single key to success.

As a principal myself, I see the appeal of the “one dynamic leader” narrative, but success stories like these aren’t truly replicable. They aren’t best practices that can help thriving schools reach even higher. And the truth is, these silver-bullet solutions aren’t the only way forward.

My school, UP Academy Charter School of Boston, is a turnaround success story within the Boston public school system. The academy, which is run by the nonprofit school management organization Unlocking Potential, took over the failing Gavin Middle School in fall 2011.

Some say that charter school results don’t prove best practices because changing student populations make comparisons difficult, but that’s simply not the case with us. We actually had 81 percent of the failing middle school’s students re-enroll when we took over—significantly higher than the school’s historical retention rate, which averaged 75 percent.

We have established clear schoolwide procedures and policies covering virtually any circumstance, from fire-drill management down to dealing with a broken pencil in the middle of a test.”

About those apples-to-apples results? Our school launched in fall 2011, serving even more students receiving special education services, English-as-a-second-language services, and free and reduced-price lunches than had been in the school the prior year. In spring 2012, student-growth percentile scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, exam went from 25 percent to 47 percent in math and from 33 percent to 53 percent in English/language arts—leading the state and city’s middle schools in growth. We haven’t reached the finish line, but we’re proud to have reversed the school’s downward trajectory and made such progress in just one year.

But this isn’t a charter school story—it’s a turnaround story, made possible through a handful of concrete and replicable best practices. We’ve dramatically changed the learning environment here through structural change involving both students and teachers—changes that I believe are worth sharing.

First, make the classroom a sacred learning environment. We have established clear schoolwide procedures and policies covering virtually any circumstance, from fire-drill management down to dealing with a broken pencil in the middle of a test. When policies and procedures are established for the entire school, teachers and students don’t have to spend time on administrative details or working out new class rules. No time is wasted on these matters. Instead, students come to class prepared to learn, and teachers devote all class time to teaching. Educators need not worry about dealing with the confusion—or unclear expectations—of policies that vary from classroom to classroom.

BRIC ARCHIVE

Teaching is a joint enterprise. Many people think of teaching as a solitary pursuit, with one teacher, maybe two, in a classroom all day. But those of us in schools know that nothing could—or should—be further from the truth.

We give our teachers dedicated time to work together on planning lessons and sharing ideas and best practices. Each day, our teachers have a minimum of two 50-minute planning periods with their grade-level content teams. Additionally, once a week, content teachers have a three-hour planning block with their grade-level teams. This structured time for collaboration allows teachers ample time for co-planning and reviewing student work and data. Each Friday, we have half-days for students to allow teachers 2½ hours of departmental or schoolwide professional-development time. During this time, we are able to discuss the strategic plan for the school and ensure its effective implementation.

In addition to increased time for collaboration and planning, we have a strong teacher-leadership model in place. For every four or five classroom teachers, there is one teacher-leader. These leaders receive a stipend to allow them to demonstrate instructional and cultural leadership among the adults in the building with whom they work most closely. This model of distributed leadership has been one of the most effective levers in our school’s ongoing turnaround efforts.

Accountability isn’t found in a test. Standardized tests like the MCAS are measures, but if we consistently evaluate our performance, these scores should largely serve to reaffirm what we already know. At the same time, expectations and goal-setting are more than abstractions. At UP Academy, teachers are observed and participate in a coaching meeting with their respective managers (one of our school’s three deans of curriculum and instruction) every two weeks. As needed, teachers and school leaders work together in developing corrective action. Students are assessed frequently to ensure they are on track to meet interim assessment goals. We work closely with parents to complete this circuit of knowledge, with conversations via biweekly progress reports to update them on accomplishments or rough spots along the way.

At my reinvigorated school, there is no such thing as getting “stuck” with a bad teacher ... or a bad student. There is no such thing as “slipping through the cracks.” It’s virtually impossible for bad practices—in teaching or in learning—to persist without being recognized and addressed.

Our management model does include a level of autonomy uncommon in regular public schools, and some elements like the extended, eight-hour school day at UP Academy (with an additional ninth hour for homework support and detention) aren’t realistic for everyone. But our best practices are gathered from hundreds of schools across the country. We simply put all those pieces together and pride ourselves on the attention we pay to the details of execution—and many of our processes could be rolled out in your school, too.

Our model proves that dramatic change happens when you get the details right, foster constant collaboration, and track the results. I think it’s a model we all can learn from.

A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 2013 edition of Education Week as The Many Keys to Radical Classroom Change

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