Talk of “turning around” troubled schools has become synonymous with firing educators, but a nonprofit in the Windy City is drawing attention for bringing success with a different approach.
In 2006, Strategic Learning Initiatives signed a contract with the Chicago public schools to help 10 schools serving grades K-8. More than 95 percent of the schools’ students were from low-income families. Over a decade, the schools had seen new principals, new teachers, new curricula, and professional development initiatives. Despite the changes, nine were on a list to be restructured or closed.
What Strategic Learning did with the struggling schools, using a process called “Focused Instruction,” was “not rocket science,” says the organization’s chief executive officer, John Simmons. But it worked, according to a recent evaluation by the Washington-based American Institutes for Research. And the approach the group took offers some lessons for teachers and school leaders.
The Focused Instruction Process has four main components: shared leadership, targeted professional development, continuous improvement, and parent engagement. It uses an eight-step process designed to make sure that students master skills by providing focused lessons, formative assessments, re-teaching after assessing where each student stands, and a reassessment to measure student progress.
Facilitators in each school have been trained to monitor the fidelity of the process. Teachers and administrators are expected and encouraged to make changes in the implementation in a way that makes sense for their individual schools. Schools have reorganized the day to allow time both for daily mini-lessons on the skill of the week and for “success time,” in which teachers use differentiated instruction to help students make up or enrich their knowledge of previous skills. And each school also has a leadership team, made up of teachers from each grade level, that meets regularly with administrators.
Each week, students learn about a new skill from a list of 13 that are tied to the state test students take each spring. Those skills include understanding the main idea, characterization, interpreting instructions, drawing conclusions, and summarization.
The U.S. Department of Education’s four models for turning around low-achieving schools using federal stimulus money all require the principal to be fired; one callsfor the school to be closed. But John Simmons argues that it’s less expensive, and often more effective, to invest in the people already in the schools. With the right tools, he says, school staffers can produce different results.
“High-performance teams aren’t just born, they are trained and coached,” he said.
In 2007 and 2008, two schools in the network led the city’s 470-some K-8 schools in gains on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test. By Strategic Learning’s definition, five of the 10 schools were “turned around,” meaning state test scores were improving at a rate at least six times faster than before, and school-level leaders agreed with the progress.
Strategic Learning’s work costs about $150,000 per school, per year, with the Chicago school district and the individual schools contributing about 80 percent; the rest comes from foundations and private donors. Reconstituting a school can cost much more, Simmons said, putting the figure at up to $1 million per school over four years.
Before a school could join the network, SLI requires 80 percent of its faculty members to vote to accept it. This buy-in from teachers has been seen as a key to the program’s success.
A turnaround strategy that supports the needs of teachers and principals is one the Chicago Teachers Union could support, said Rosemaria Genova, a spokeswoman for the affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.
“We spent all this time and money to attract the best and brightest to Chicago, and then they leave,” Ms. Genova said. “You have to have veteran teachers to support the younger teachers who are hired by the principal, given a key and told ‘Go teach.’ They need mentoring and guidance.”
A Process, Not a Program
The SLI initiative goes beyond simply giving schools an improvement model and skills to teach. Staffers from the nonprofit group regularly spend time in schools, demonstrating lessons for individual teachers and for the entire staff, co-designing lesson plans with teachers, and working to find materials needed in the classroom. The facilitators meet the team dedicated to the Focused Instruction Process at each school and talk about successes and challenges.
Jeremy Feiwell, the principal of Lázaro Cárdenas Elementary School, puts it this way: “It’s not a program, it’s a process. You aren’t asking [teachers] to implement new curriculum. You are asking them to take the current curriculum and see what it fits in the process. They have a say in how the calendar and schedule are addressed.”
Kathy Pozniak, an 8th grade social studies teacher at William Finkl Academy, a Chicago public school, said when teachers were first approached about working with Strategic Learning, there was some concern about whether it would mean a curriculum change. Teachers soon discovered the process doesn’t change what they teach.
“It offers good ideas about how to teach [curriculum],” she said. “It’s made me look for new alternatives and look at different strategies.”
The model also emphasizes shared leadership via intensive collaboration among teachers through both grade-level teams and the school’s leadership team. Schools make time for that work; at Willa Cather Elementary School, for example, teachers have five preparation periods a week, two of which are set aside for team meetings.
A Team Feeling
The school team at Cather Elementary has learned how to make better use of data to focus instructional decisions, noted principal Hattie King. Cather now has a “data room,” where information from assessments is posted and teachers have their team meetings while surrounded by their students’ performance statistics.
Based on how students do on the formative assessments and other classroom work, teachers make a targeted plan and create goal sheets, on which they show what supports they plan to provide for students who are not making the grade.
Chris Kruger, an 8th grade teacher at Cather and the FIP facilitator, said the model has created much more of a team feeling among the staff than existed before.
“The collaboration has been incredibly helpful,” said the longtime Cather staff member. “If I do poorly on an assessment and another teacher’s class did well, I’ll ask, ‘What did you do?’ Since we meet so often, there’s a lot of trust when it comes to lessons.”
Cather Elementary also has “clinics,” or short professional-development sessions based on needs seen when administrators walk through the classrooms. Many times, those lessons are led by a teacher who is using a particularly effective strategy.
Tia Martin, a 3rd grade teacher, said the weekly staff meetings have meant more sharing of ideas and activities.
“The teachers talked before that,” she said, “but I don’t think we focused so much on sharing ideas before FIP.”
That sort of collaboration also creates better integration of subject areas. Pozniak had a social studies class at Finkl reading about the Wright brothers’ first flight. Her history lesson was an opportunity to work on students’ ability to use the skill of characterization.
“We focused in on what were the character traits of the Wright brothers that made them successful,” Pozniak said.
The model has introduced structure the students readily recognize, she said.
“When students go from classroom to classroom, there is continuity. What you learned about in reading is reintroduced in social studies, science, and math.”
Dakarai I. Aarons is a staff writer for Education Week. This article originally appeared, in a different form, in the January 6, 2010 issue of Education Week.
A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2010 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as Zeroing In on Instruction