When states put a school on probation, they need to provide the right mix of resources to help it turn around, a study suggests.
Simply labeling the school a failure and assuming that act will be enough motivation for its leaders and staff is more likely to yield employee discontent and turnover than a strategy for improving student achievement, according to the study of 11 low-performing schools in Kentucky and Maryland.
Instead, states need to ensure that principals and teachers work together to set out an improvement plan and give them help to accomplish it, said Heinrich Mintrop, an assistant professor of education policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, who led the two-year study.
“There needs to be a de-emphasis on sanctions and a stronger emphasis on the development of organizational capacity in the schools,” said Mr. Mintrop, whose research was published this month in the Education Policy Analysis Archives, an online professional journal.
Kentucky and Maryland are two states that have led the way in attempting to turn around their lowest-scoring schools with state intervention.
The Bluegrass State started its accountability system as part of a landmark education overhaul in 1990. In recent years, Maryland has declared that about 200 schools should improve their student achievement on the state test.
Mr. Mintrop led a team of researchers that interviewed principals and teachers and observed classrooms at least four times a year from 1998 through 2000. The names of the participating schools were not revealed.
The researchers discovered that many educators bristled when the state gave them a negative review. The educators complained that the state had unreasonable expectations for their students—often from low-income neighborhoods where student achievement is usually low. They also said that the state assessment used for determining the school’s probationary status was an incomplete measure of student learning.
The negative label often drove principals and teachers out of their schools, according to the study, in part because of what the researchers call “intolerable pressures” to improve student performance.
By contrast, schools in which the leadership accepted the probation and worked with faculty members to make changes often showed improvements on state tests, the study found.
“The schools that don’t have that fall apart,” Mr. Mintrop said in an interview.
The study suggests that states offer “baseline stablization” to help schools deal with basic problems, such as student behavior and staff turnover. After those issues are addressed, the intervention can focus on instructional changes.
Both Kentucky and Maryland have made improvements to their interventions, Mr. Mintrop said, by working to upgrade the skills of principals and teachers in low-performing schools.
Maryland redesigned its intervention process even before Mr. Mintrop published his research, according to Ronald A. Peiffer, the state’s assistant superintendent for school and community outreach.
“The authors ... recognized, as have we, that a stable, high-quality teaching force and good principal is important to improving student performance,” Mr. Peiffer said. In recent years, Maryland has offered financial and other incentives to keep experienced teachers in low-performing schools, he added.
“That is exactly the direction I would have suggested they go,” Mr. Mintrop said. “There has to be a capacity-building strategy in place.”