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School & District Management Opinion

We Know How to Turn Schools Around

By Allan R. Odden — December 07, 2009 5 min read
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School turnarounds are not a new phenomenon, despite their increased visibility as part of the Obama administration’s education agenda. For decades, America has been trying to turn around its low-performing schools and school districts. Because most of them enroll large numbers and substantial concentrations of students from low-income and minority backgrounds, this mission has a strong equity component.

Guidelines for the administration’s Race to the Top initiative encourage states to focus reform efforts on the country’s 1,000 worst schools. These educational institutions are indeed bad for the country, but they are also an embarrassment for the education community—because we know how to fix them, and have not. In fact, we know how to literally double student performance in these places, and in the process take huge chunks out of the achievement gaps that separate students along racial and socioeconomic lines.

Drawing on studies my colleagues and I have conducted as part of school-finance-adequacy research, as well as the research of others examining districts that have beaten the odds and produced high-performing schools in poor communities, and related research on school improvement, I have been able to identify 10 core elements of what it takes to turn around low-performing schools and districts. One striking finding is that the strategies are quite similar across all contexts: rural or urban, large or small, rich or poor. It seems reasonable to expect states, districts, schools, administrators, and teachers to use them now to fix these failing systems.

The first step is to create a sense of urgency. Such heightened awareness of problems and their impact emerges when teachers and administrators analyze state student-performance data together and become more informed about the academic effectiveness of their school and district. Though the experience may be sobering, the data will show staff members the wide gap that exists between their current and their desired performance, helping create a will to change.

The next step is setting ambitious—some might call them eye-popping—goals: to double student performance on state tests, to double the percentage of students scoring at advanced levels, to make sure that no student performs below the basic level at the end of 3rd grade, and that all students leave that grade reading on level. Whatever they are, these goals should go far beyond “adequate yearly progress.” The Montgomery County, Md., school district, for example, has set and attained a goal of having large percentages of its high school students score at or above 24 (out of 36) on the ACT college-admissions test, or above 1650 (out of 2400) on the three SAT exams.

The problem isn't funding, it is having the will and persistence to fix the system."

The next step for turnaround schools is to throw out the old curriculum and adopt new textbooks, create new curriculum programs, and start to build, over time, a common understanding of effective instruction. Districts that move the student-achievement dial by large amounts have a systemic view of curriculum and focus intensely on instructional practices shown to work—and they require all of their teachers to use them.

The fourth strategy is to move beyond a concentration on state tests and use a battery of assessments, including formative and diagnostic assessments, common end-of-curriculum-unit assessments, and benchmark assessments. Formative and diagnostic assessments hone instructional strategies before each curriculum unit begins. End-of-unit assessments not only measure what students have learned, but also compare the effects teachers have had across classrooms. Benchmark assessments gauge overall student performance every nine weeks. All of these enable teachers to make midcourse corrections and to get students into interventions earlier.

Step five is creating and implementing an intensive and ongoing professional-development program. The best districts and schools form collaborative teacher teams—professional learning communities—that meet often, make use of student data, and work with school-based coaches to improve curriculum and instruction. These schools and districts also include intensive summer institutes in their professional-development plans, to allow teachers opportunities to gain new knowledge.

Successful turnaround districts also know that no matter how powerful the core instruction may be, many students will need extended learning time and extra help to attain proficiency. So they offer some combination of one-on-one or small-group tutoring for struggling students, together with extended-day and summer programs that emphasize providing academic help.

Time is also used more effectively in these schools. Core instructional time for reading, math, and increasingly science is protected from intrusions; each minute is devoted to teaching the class. Literacy time often is extended to 90 to 120 minutes a day, and double periods are provided in secondary schools to accommodate extra-help sessions for students struggling in core courses.

Leadership in successful turnaround systems is “dense.” Teachers lead grade- and subject-based professional learning communities. Most of the instructional coaches are the school’s best teachers, and they orchestrate the overall professional-development system. And principals provide real instructional leadership. Moreover, these districts also have instructional leaders in the central office who know how to support schools and teachers and can help create the systemic approach to curriculum and instructional practice needed.

Turnaround schools and districts are professional in the best sense of the word. Their staff members read the most recent research, reach out to experts in the field, look for and use best practices, and take responsibility for assessing the impact on student learning of what they do, improving instructional practices when student results are not what’s desired.

Finally, human capital is important to districts and schools that have doubled student performance. It takes talent to accomplish lofty goals and implement the collaborative and powerful educational strategies discussed here. Often, the initial talent in low-performing schools is not up to the task. So new superintendents may be named, some of them perhaps graduates of the Broad Academy. Principals and teachers also may be moved out, replaced by individuals with greater expertise.

The bottom line is that the country knows how to turn around low-performing education systems, dramatically boost student learning, and close achievement gaps. And in most cases, the funds to accomplish these goals are already in the system. The problem isn’t funding, it is having the will and persistence to fix the system, drawing on knowledge that exists now.

A version of this article appeared in the December 09, 2009 edition of Education Week as We Know How to Turn Schools Around—We Just Haven’t Done It


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