Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that one of the areas where the federal government has focused its efforts in education recently is on school turnarounds. They want to identify chronically low-performing schools and concentrate on making them better -- significantly better -- quickly.
The goal makes a lot of sense. Children only have one chance at an education, and schools that consistently deprive them of it need to be improved, fast.
But the federal government has become quite prescriptive in the way they will support improvement. To qualify for School Improvement Grant (SIG) funding, for example, districts must utilize one of just four prescribed school turnaround models:
- "Turnaround": (officials acknowledge issues with the terminology here) replacing the principal and rehiring no more than 50 percent of a school's staff
- Transformation: replacing the principal and a host of other interventions, including job-embedded professional development, a rigorous teacher-evaluation system, comprehensive instructional reform and extended learning- and teacher-planning time
- Restart: transferring control of a school to (or closing and reopening a school under) a charter school operator
- Closure: closing the school and enrolling students in other, higher-achieving schools
Stakeholders have long voiced concern about these models for a host of reasons, including that it is unlikely that those in Washington, DC, have any sense of the kind of changes needed to improve a school or that these four models will meet the needs of every school from an elementary school in rural South Dakota to a middle school in downtown Houston to a high school in the Chicago suburbs. In addition, there is not a research base that suggests any of these models will actually work.
My main concern: These four models seem to prevent schools from using federal funds to turn around under other models -- even models shown to work, such as one developed by Strategic Learning Initiatives (SLI).
During the past five years, SLI has worked with several low-performing elementary schools in Chicago, and they've seen some great results. After four years, those schools were improving in reading at a rate almost five times the average for K-8 schools across the city. One of the schools -- Cather Elementary -- was the most improved school in Chicago over the past four years, as measured by gains in ISAT composite score reading, math and science. The results have been results have been validated by the American Institutes of Research.
How did it happen? Not by replacing staff.
A Different Way to Turn Around
SLI helps school leadership teams transform themselves and their building using the teachers, leaders, curriculum and students already in it. The nonprofit's model is "based on more than 40 years of systemic research on high-performance schools and companies," integrating the Essential Supports model from the Consortium for Chicago School Research and the Continuous Quality Improvement Model used by high-performing organizations all over the world.
As SLI President John Simmons puts it, school transformation is like baking a cake: "If you include all the essential supports, you get a great cake. But if you leave out one ingredient...you are not going to get anything that takes like a cake."
The ingredients? Shared leadership at the school; strong instruction in every classroom; high professional capacity of teachers and the principal; engaged parents and community; and a good climate for learning -- as John puts it, "These schools have to have a culture and climate where people increasingly trust each other and are able to work together to create these rapid increases in results." (Something that I firmly believe.)
It sounds simple, but of course it's not. If it were, everyone would be doing it.
The Secrets to Success
One thing SLI credits with their success: Stakeholder ownership. SLI only works with schools where 80 percent of teachers vote (in a secret ballot) to adopt the program. They describe their approach to principals, who then must convince their staff it's a good idea. This ownership goes a long way in ensuring that the SLI process (which, by the way, is deliberately a "process" and not a "program" because teachers and principals are able to modify it on a regular basis) is implemented with fidelity at the school.
Other strategies promoted by the organization include on-site professional development and coaching for both teachers and principals; engaging parents to learn the Illinois state standards so they can provide better help to their children; and networking among the staff and parents of the schools to jointly plan and apply a continuous improvement process, including a common instructional calendar.
Of course, one key component to any school improvement effort is instruction. SLI has developed the Focused Instruction Process, FIP, an eight-step model that includes teachers looking at student outcomes to determine what works and what needs improvement in their classroom. It focuses on each student, every day, and includes weekly, no-stakes assessments.
According to SLI officials, the most important lesson one can take from their work is that the existing staff and parents in low-performing can be a treasure, not a drawback -- they are "an untapped reservoir of energy, ideas and commitment, ready to transform the quality of their schools and do it quickly."
That isn't the message one takes from the four turnaround models promoted by the US Department of Education.
Perhaps it's time to move beyond those, into the next generation of school turnarounds: Models (including the one presented here) that respect the research and those at a school site in making the changes needed to see real improvement in our lowest performing schools. What do you think?