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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How to Reform a School without Firing the Faculty

Editor's note: Anne O'Brien is our guest blogger today. She is a project director at the Learning First Alliance, a Teach for America alumna, and a former public school teacher in the greater New Orleans area.

The Obama administration has made turning around America's lowest performing schools a cornerstone of its education agenda. And with good reason -- all children should have access to an excellent education. Schools that are not providing their students with such an education need to change.

The Findings

Recently one particular turnaround strategy has received some high-level support: the wholesale replacement of teachers -- interesting choice, given what researchers say about this approach. Turnaround experts Emily and Bryan Hassel wrote in Education Next, "Successful turnaround leaders typically do not replace all or most of the staff at the start, but they often replace some key leaders who help organize and drive change." And the 2009 Department of Education IES practice guide concluded, "The school turnaround case studies and the business turnaround research do not support the wholesale replacement of staff."

We at the Learning First Alliance have collected a number of successful school turnaround stories. In some cases the replacement of some staff started the process, such as at George Hall Elementary in Mobile, Alabama, where it was accompanied by a focus on innovative technology, rich vocabulary, and content knowledge.

Collaboration is Key

But this approach is by no means necessary for a turnaround. At Anchorage's Mountain View Elementary a charismatic leader, committed staff, and additional funding and focus on reading helped begin the turnaround process. At Westwood High School in Memphis, a new climate of collaboration and a shared purpose led the way.

Then there is Port Chester's Thomas Edison Elementary School, where 80 percent of students receive free and reduced price lunch and nearly half are English language learners. In 1999, when New York State first began to assess its children, only 19 percent of Edison's fourth graders passed the English Language Arts test. In 2009, 75 percent did.

How did the school do it? Not with a mass firing.

Rather, fourteen years ago, Principal Eileen Santiago stepped into a school with, as she says, "many, many caring people," and built the capacity of her staff. That staff then strengthened its academic program and developed strong partnerships with the community.

Connecting with Community

In fact, according to Principal Santiago, "It is partnership work that really constitutes effective turnaround work." Edison, now a full-service community school, has formed relationships with agencies, such as mental health agencies, that don't typically have much to do with schools even though they also serve children. It has created a school-based health center.

It also forged a partnership with a college that brings tremendous resources, including student teachers, tutors, and the chance for children to visit a college site to see what the future holds for them.

And the school offers parents events that cover a range of topics, including supporting children's literacy, getting a GED, taking classes in English and even basic information like when to take a child to the doctor.

Both educators and policymakers can learn a lot from Edison. For me, the most important takeaway is Principal Santiago's belief that, "[A school needs] rigorous academic curriculum, solid instructional practices that are supported by research [and] coupled with a support network of wraparound services for the whole child," she explained, adding, "That is going to be the groundbreaking work that makes a difference in school reform."

What are your thoughts on the topic of school reform? Please share your stories and your views.

Comments (6)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Dr. Mike Todd's picture
Dr. Mike Todd
Chief Learning Officer

A leader coming into a school needing transformation must assess the culture and any sub-cultures that are present. In persistently low performing schools, the typical culture is toxic. When effective practices have tried to be put into place the culture kicks it out. Fullan tells us that research indicates that in healthy collegial rich cultures those same practices flourish. I believe that one way to attack cultural toxicity is to address the climate (the feel) of the school first.

mayteesponda@fibertel.com.ar's picture
mayteesponda@fibertel.com.ar
Collaborative project coordinator

I agree about how collaboration enriches any kind of learning and how important is to teach considering diversity as a great challenge to overcome. I don't know if it is possible to post links here, but most of the online collaborative projects I coordinated dealt with diversity and that stimulated curiosity and engagement with the objective.
Mayte

Erika's picture

I totally agree with you. Mass firings will not always result in a reformed school. Your example about the principal who was able to lead her school towards reform is perfect. An administrator who can recognize the strengths of his/her staff and capitalize on them is much more effective than someone coming in and removing the entire staff and replacing it. A great leader knows how to build relationships with the staff, students, and community. This is what will bring about positive change in our education system.

Kristal Staier's picture

I agree that schools should be providing students with an excellent education. When we reflect back over the years of education and how far technology has come there is really no reason excellence is not mandated for all schools. However, what constitutes an excellent education? How can we define something like this and require all schools across the nation to be employing it?
I do agree that firing many teachers to obtain successful change is not necessarily "the way" however many teachers tend to lose their zeal and passion after just a few short years. Can you force them to regain it or must you push them out? Once teachers have tenure what can a principal do about complacency?
I also agree that collaboration is key...learning from others and discussing with colleagues is an integral part of the teaching experience. Again, though, what do you do when you don't have a committed staff? What about those few teachers who refuse to collaborate and learn new ideas because they believe what they have been doing all along 'works?'

Carol Parker's picture
Carol Parker
7/8 Drama, Film, Honors & Regular Language Arts

The Nightmare about to Happen
My principal and I were discussing next year and it seems there may not be any more room in the schedule for my class. This means there will no longer be an Arts class in the Jr. High. There will not be painting, drawing and learning about the History and Appreciation of TV, Radio and Film. I also teach Public Speaking and Speech Acquisition. I have watched my right brained children succeed in a world where they never knew they could be a success. I have watched their eyes open and their minds explode viewing films from all over the world. Once again we are cutting the arts because we do not have room for an elective, and California remains at the bottom of all 50 states. The Music teacher who is my colleague still remains fortunate to maintain his job of teaching only a small percentage of very lucky children. But, few students ever know the joy of holding an instrument and playing together the beauty of music. And, even fewer will know the magic of the silver screen unless it is a video game or an X-Box.

bbnets's picture

Many public school programs nationwide that uses food as a pathway to learning. The concept, popularized by chef Alice Waters's Edible Schoolyard and the Community Food Security Coalition's Farm to School programs, has been quietly gaining momentum over the past decade.so thanks for the nice post.
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