The school improvement debate is often centered on the lowest-performing schools, where the entire ship needs to be steered in a new direction.
But even schools that are high performing or above average and not consistently subjected to the spotlight have blind spots that need to be addressed, whether they be tackling gaps in test scores, graduation rates, participation in SAT or Advanced Placement courses, or absenteeism.
“Until we have a 100 percent graduation rate, 100 percent achievement on whatever measures we are going to use—until we meet that—all schools are in need of improvement,” said Carlas L. McCauley, the director of West Ed’s Center on School Turnaround in Sacramento, Calif.
Moving the needle for struggling students in above-average or high-performing schools is at times difficult to start, in part because those efforts must begin with convincing school leaders that despite years, or even decades, of stellar overall school performance, they still have a lot of work to do to raise the bar for all their students.
Although the No Child Left Behind Act required states and districts to disaggregate data that enabled them to examine subgroup performance in all schools, the hammer fell heavily on the lowest-performing ones. Unsurprisingly, districts paid considerably more attention to the schools at the bottom than the ones that were, on average, making the grade.
The recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act, the updated version of the nation’s K-12 education law, will require states and districts to be much more proactive than they had been in taking action in schools where subgroups of students are struggling.
But even before ESSA, not all schools needed a carrot-and-stick approach to focus on lifting the students who were behind.
“We believe that our job is to educate every student,” said Penny Bidne, the principal of Brimhall Elementary School in Roseville, Minn., just outside Minneapolis. “We put our heads together, and we really work hard at figuring things out and what we need to have in place for all of our students to be achievers.”
For the past four years, Brimhall, a high-performing Title I school, has been recognized as a “reward school,” a designation the Minnesota education department gives to Title I schools that are making headway in closing achievement gaps.
Brimhall is a majority-minority school: 49.2 percent of the students are white, 22.4 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, 14.6 percent black, and 0.7 percent American Indian. Forty-four percent of Brimhall’s 702 students qualify for free and reduced-price meals.
The emphasis has been on narrowing the proficiency gap in math and reading between black students and their white counterparts, and between English-language learners and native speakers. In recent years, the school has added a focus on Hispanic and special education students, said Bidne, the principal for 20 years.
The school has been systematic in its improvement strategy.
For example, it uses student data to set goals buildingwide and aggressively follows up on those goals through weekly meetings.
In school improvement, local context matters, and it matters a huge deal. As a result, there really are no blanket research based strategies that will work in all schools and in all cases. Strategies have to be tailored to the school environment, quality, and history. However, lessons gleaned from years of research and from the Obama administration’s School Improvement Grants Program have provided takeaways for school leaders and others who are embarking on school turnarounds. Here are a number of prime focus areas:
A district needs a school leader or principal who can set a vision for the school, motivate others to follow that vision, and adjust that vision based on what’s happening on the ground. The leader must support teachers’ professional growth. In hiring the school leader, the district must be very clear about the problem it is trying to address and the competencies the turnaround leader must possess. And it has to make hiring decisions that reflect the school’s priorities.
Example: Fern Creek High School, Louisville, Ky. The school was put on the state’s “priority” list in 2010 under a new state law that identified the lowest-performing schools for interventions. Leadership was a key focus for the district as it sought to turn around the school. It hired Nate Meyer, who had been an assistant principal at the school for seven years, in 2014. The school was able to exit the “priority” designation in 2015.
It’s not just hiring the right leader, but also ensuring that everyone in the system has the right set of skills and commitment. There must be a comprehensive strategy to recruit, develop, and retain competent workers. On the school level, that may require rethinking professional development and adding instructional support for teachers. Teacher leadership can also an important piece of the talent-development effort. Example: Coulwood Middle School, Charlotte, N.C. The school, once an F school in the state’s school grading system, chose a distributed-leadership model, with the use of multiclassroom lead teachers. Lead teachers help write and analyze lesson plans, co teach, and assist teachers with practicing lessons before they are delivered to students.
The most critical piece of this puzzle is focusing on instruction. Student learning must drive all decisions, and school leaders must use student data to change the way students are taught. School leaders and teachers must focus on diagnosing students’ needs and responding when they need that support. Strategies can include extending the school day to add extra instructional time to help students. Instruction must also be grounded in rigorous academic standards and curriculum. Districts can provide instructional leadership teams to help boost teachers’ content knowledge.
Example: Albuquerque school district. A teacher-mentoring program pairs new (and now second- and third-year) teachers with experienced board-certified teachers. The teacher-mentors provide newer educators with guidance, training, and support in a number of areas, including differentiating instruction in multicultural classrooms.
There has to be a systemwide shift to a mindset that values high expectations for all. Everyone has to believe in what the school is trying to accomplish. Schools and districts must engage communities when developing plans. There must also be a clear vision and a timeline for achieving results. Initial focus should be on a few high-priority goals that will show early wins. Example: Houston school district. The Apollo 20 program, a three-year turnaround plan for low performing schools, required schools, parents, and students to sign contracts that set expectations for each group.
Strong District Role
The district must play a critical role school for improvement efforts to last. The district must put a priority on school improvement, and that must be reflected in its practices. For example, districts focused on turnaround schools need to ensure that the lowest-performing principals and teachers are not placed in the lowest-performing schools. Districts also must retool district-level professional development, help schools change instructional practices, and engage communities. Example: Denver school district. Under Superintendent Tom Boasberg, Denver has taken a systemwide approach that includes tackling talent development, student engagement, and school redesign.
Sources: WestED; Public Impact; Education Resource Strategies
It works to build positive relationships with students and families, particularly with students who are the focus of intervention efforts. Those efforts include family nights, achievement fairs, and a buddy system.
Grade-level teams meet to discuss how students are doing academically and behaviorally. Collaboration also includes flexible grouping in which four to five teachers work with 100 students.
Licensed teachers and teaching assistants also work with students for 25 minutes daily in small-group reading instruction. Teachers, interventionists, academic coaches and the principal meet every six weeks to review data and craft plans to help students who may need to be pulled out of class for small-group instruction.
At the student level, the school, through a district program, offers Reading Recovery in a one-to-one setting for 1st graders who are falling behind and positive behavioral interventions and support, or PBIS, a strategy aimed at improving social behavior schoolwide.
Brimhall has been aided by a districtwide focus on equity, part of a policy the district adopted in 2005 to close achievement gaps and ensure that all students, regardless of race, gender, socio-economic status, and national origin have a “respectful and equitable” educational experience. At Brimhall, the academic and behavioral coaches are also trained as equity coaches.
By no means has Brimhall eliminated the performance gaps between its black students and its white students.
Across all grades, 61 percent of black students were deemed “proficient” on the state reading exams, compared with 35 percent districtwide and 35 percent statewide in the 2016 Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments. But a gap still remains between Brimhall’s black and white students: 82 percent of Brimhall’s white students were proficient in reading across all grades. The same was true in math: Across all grades at Brimhall, 85 percent of white students scored proficient, while 54 percent of black students did so.
No ‘Silver Bullet’
Aldo Sicoli, the superintendent of the Roseville district, said closing the gaps requires hard work, bringing student voice and culture into the conversation, and being persistently positive. Bidne’s steady two-decade leadership has been an asset, he said.
“So often in education people talk as if there is a silver bullet, ‘Just do this, and things will get better,’ ” Sicoli said. “If there was one magic, silver bullet, things would have been better a long time ago.”
McCauley, the director of the Center for School Turnaround, said that focusing on subgroup performance in the higher-performing schools is often a matter of rethinking how resources are distributed. Those schools often already have the capacity—skilled teachers, high levels of community and parent engagement, and financial resources—that chronically low-performing schools may not necessarily have, McCauley said.
In those cases, it’s often up to the district to set the tone that no student will be overlooked.
“There has to be a connected conversation—from the role of the [school] board, to the role of the superintendent and the cabinet, to the role of building leaders, ... to the role of teachers, to the role of parents, and to the students,” said Joshua Garcia, a deputy superintendent in the Tacoma, Wash., district. “When those systems are connected and supports are connected, I think there is a greater likelihood that we’ll be able to support kids the way that we are supposed to.”
That’s what’s happening in Tacoma, which devised a local accountability system that grades schools on a number of factors, including their success in closing persistent achievement gaps.
Six years ago, 70 percent of Wilson High School students graduated in four years. In the 2015-16 school year, the unofficial four-year graduation rate at Wilson, a high-performing school, hovered around 92 percent, according to Principal Dan Besett.
“We are so refined with our data, I can tell you every student who did not graduate on time, what they need to do, and what program they are enrolled in” to get their diploma, Besett said of the 1,350-student school, which was named a Washington state High School of Distinction from 2011 to 2015.
That keen eye on data and attention to individual students are among the reasons the graduation rate rose for all students, Besett said.
Besett believes that all his students can excel and make it across the stage at graduation, and his staff members let the students know that.
In the past five years, the school has added staff to help all students, but with an emphasis on low-income students and those of color. For example, HERO (Higher Education Readiness Opportunity) counselors work with 9th graders to help with the transition to high school, including assisting with schedules and accessing tutoring if they are struggling.
The district added extra-credit-earning opportunities. Teachers also stay after school to help students who have failed courses or are on the verge of failing. The school monitors grades and credit-completion aggressively so there are no surprises when senior year arrives.
“If you want to figure out the key to why these schools are doing well—from the top all the way down, they all understand what this goal is, and everybody is supporting everybody along the way,” Besett said.
A districtwide focus on equity and a belief that closing the gap was the right thing to do for all students also propelled administrators at Franklin High School, in Baltimore County, Md., to tackle gaps in graduation, enrollment in Advanced Placement classes, and SAT scores.
That focus came as the school’s student enrollment went from majority-white to majority-minority, which officially occurred in the 2011-12 school year. About 40 percent of Franklin’s students are white, 40 percent are black, 10 percent Hispanic, and 10 percent Asian.
Working with teachers, parents, and students, the school was able to begin narrowing some key gaps between all students and African-American students.
The gap in the combined SAT scores for African-American students and all students at Franklin fell from 110 in 2013 to 92 in 2016. Those scores rose from 910 to 949 for African-American students, and from 1,020 to 1,041 for all students.
Separately, African-American AP participation rates still significantly lag those of their white peers, but participation has grown from 9.6 percent in 2012 to 14.4 percent in 2016. (In comparison, 68 percent of white students took AP courses in 2012 and 2016.)
Patrick McCusker, the school’s principal, said Franklin High began “gingerly” on reducing the SAT score gap.
The school started Opening Doors, a kind of open house for parents and students to sell them on the importance of taking the SAT exams even in those cases where students did not immediately plan to go to college. Three years ago, the district began paying for all students to take the test to eliminate another barrier.
The school also targeted students who took the PSATs in the 10th grade and whose scores indicated that, with some help, they could do well on the SATs. Teachers were asked to be more intentional about seeking out students who would be able to pass higher-level courses to get them enrolled in AP classes.
Franklin hopes that by 2020, participation in Advanced Placement courses will mirror the school’s demographics.
Shrinking the Gap
In shrinking an already-narrow graduation gap, the school used credit recovery, blended-learning opportunities where students take courses online at their own pace and teachers provide in-school direction and support throughout the school year, and the monitoring of student progress.
Drawing on research on the success of Chicago’s 9th grade academies in keeping students on course to graduate, Franklin High School also targeted incoming freshmen who were at risk of dropping out based on their attendance, grades, and suspension data in middle school. About 40 to 50 students annually are invited to school in the summer before they enter 9th grade as part of Freshmen Connection. Students are matched with mentors and staff members who follow them throughout the year and pay attention to everything from attendance to how well they are doing on tests.
Although the intensive support is in the 9th grade, some measures stay with the students throughout high school. Most staff members continue to mentor students. McCusker mentors two, he said.
While it is too early to see the results of the Freshmen Connection effort, McCusker said that credit recovery and relationship building with students and families have helped shrink the graduation gap.
“Kids don’t care how much you know, unless they know how much you care,” McCusker said.
A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 2016 edition of Education Week as Assuring Needy Groups Aren’t Overlooked