George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

The Next Generation of School Turnarounds

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

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 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.

Lessons Learned

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?

Was this useful?

Comments (12) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Stephanie Butler's picture
Stephanie Butler
3rd grade teacher from Indiana

I teach in Indiana and we are going through a very transitional time in education. There are numerous reports of the "Turnaround" effect that you refer to at the beginning of your article. Hundreds of teachers, specifically in urban areas are losing their jobs. The majority of teachers who lose these jobs are new hires who simply don't have the years or experience that some districts are searching for. I do not feel that this method is right in any manner. There are numerous young teachers who are phenomenal teachers and should not be punished simply by age. I am currently entering my fourth year and due to my district's good standing, I have been lucky enough to keep my position, but every year I fear that my luck is going to run out. I believe the SLI strategy you mention is a much needed intervention system for schools in my state. Professional development needs to be specific to each school's varying needs. Just as we ask our students to be involved in their education, we need to be involved in our future development as well. There is not one simple solution that will fix the issues in all schools across America, but if we take the time to analyze and reflect on what is and is not working in schools, I believe true progress can be made.

Nanette Fabrey's picture
Nanette Fabrey
5/6 grade special education

Here in Michigan we are experiencing something like a combination of all of the national government plans rolled into one, with transformation be the most prominent component. I to have a concern about the changes be handed down by officials in Washington and in my state from Lansing. I do believe in the accountability they are trying to establish but think that they are unaware of how to go about it. Ownership of that accountability has to belong to everyone, not just school staff. We need to build partnerships with government, community, parents, and school staff. There are so many factors that influence a students success, and they all need to be addressed to create a productive learning environment.

Mandy's picture

Like Nanette, I am in Michigan and I am having such a hard time understanding what our government is doing with our education program. I find it so interesting that those in power in Washington D.C. really have no clue what happens in the classroom. Although school many be failing, it is not always the best idea to close the school, get a financial manager or fire all the teachers. Sometimes you have to take into consideration the school district you are in. Although you never lower your expectations for your students you still need to understand and look closely at why a school is not preforming.

Starwalker Reed's picture
Starwalker Reed
fourth grade teacher from Gastonia, North Carolina

I love your idea of using existing teachers and staff in the school turnaround model. I have never heard of SLI before but is sounds very promising. I teach in a Title I school whose students come from a low socioeconomic background. Typically, our test scores are not as high as some other schools, and we are always worried that our school will be faced with one of the government imposed turnaround models. In fact, the first scenario that you described happened to one of our neighboring schools, and half of the staff was let go. In our school, we have recently implemented Professional Learning Communities as a way to improve student learning. I believe it was somewhat successful, in that this past school year our school had the most improved test scores in the county. It was our first year doing this, however, and we still have much to learn. Does the SLI model you describe utilize PLC's, and if so, has this shown improvement to student learning?

Katie's picture
Fourth grade teacher from Craig, CO

I agree with so many of you. I loved this article because it hit home for me. One of the elementary schools, in the district in which I teach, is trying an SLI this past school year. They are focusing on literacy professional development. The administers looked at the teachers and what professional development they have attended, also they looked at the teachers whose students performed higher. From that they went through and started creating on-site professional development. The teachers said what professional development they felt would be the most important to them. Then that was what the administers started with. They also did a bunch of other changes but none of the changes had to do with the firing of teachers or the principal.

Jteacher's picture
5th grade Intervention Specialist

I do agree that the four models in this posting are not a one size fits all for school districts. Myself as a teacher I would love to see the SLI model at work it seems to me that this maybe the way for schools to go who are in an extremely bad academic situation.

Jia's picture
First grade teacher from Philadelphia

I like the SLI model. It allows effective teachers to have imput and be a support for those teachers who may need help in specific areas of teaching. Continuous professional development is great, especially if it targets specific needs of the school. One program does not fit all and each school has different issues that one program may not fix. When people feel like real stakeholders, they feel that their voice counts and that makes a huge difference in job performance, attitude, and community relations.

Ellen St. Clair's picture
Ellen St. Clair
First grade teacher in Accokeek, Maryland

I would have to agree that the four non-research based interventions need to be re-evaluated, or to add more choices to the list. I like that SLI offers a program that leaves the teachers and principal in place, and also like the cake analogy described by John Simmons. The problems at a particular school may not be centered on the staff; one of the other essential supports may be missing. The school district itself could be a large part of the problem: lacking qualified bodies in decision-making positions, cutting funding, programs, and personnel below an efficiently operational level and leaving the school staff without any viable options to solve their problems themselves. Our school had been meeting AYP for four or five years in a row until some school district decisions and reassemblies were imposed. What we were left with, among other things, was insufficient funding and personnel for the school improvement plan we already had in place. We are now in our second year of school improvement and the majority of our staff of hard working, dedicated, professional teachers are worried that fifty percent of us will be tossed to the wind due to some circumstances beyond our control despite all of our efforts. Is the SLI program available all over the US? Does SLI work with the local school board?

Sarah's picture
Preschool Teacher Washington D.C.

I too, find it interesting and inspiring that the SLI model proves to work while maintaining the same staff. I found it interesting that when describing the important ingredients involved in a successful model engaged parents and community was on the list. I would love to learn more about strategies used to involve parents and help them feel apart of the effort to educate their child. I also found it interesting that at the end of the blog it states that an important lesson to learn is that the existing parents in these schools that need assistance are a "treasure, not a drawback." I would love to learn more about the ways that the SLI model helps to involve parents in their efforts to improve schools.

Marsella's picture
Virginia Beach School System

This can be very scarey for under achieving schools. If they fire the principal and at least 50% of the state? Then who is in charge? How will the school be safe? Who will be held accountable?
There are 4 models the federal Government uses to "turn-around-schools" and none of them worked. One very important reason is; Washington can not relate/understand the real issues in the schools and what the teachers are up againist.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.