Transforming Low-Performing Schools

One of the most serious problems in American education is the persistently low-achieving school, one that despite substantial attention and efforts over the years fails to make significant progress on test scores and other indicators. My colleague Robert Balfanz calls high schools like this “dropout factories,” but there are persistently low-achieving elementary and middle schools as well.

For many years, localities, states, and the federal government have tried a variety of carrots and sticks to try to improve these schools. Most recently, persistently low-achieving schools have been eligible for substantial School Improvement Grants (SIG), but to get them they have to choose among four draconian alternatives, including school closure, turning the school over to a charter operator, or replacing the principal and at least half of the staff. Most SIG schools choose a “transformation” alternative in which the principal is replaced and the school receives extensive professional development. Yet a recent analysis of SIG data from the U.S. Department of Education shows success is spotty and elusive for these schools, especially considering the billions of dollars spent on them.

Designing replicable “transformation” programs to help persistently low-achieving schools would seem to be essential, yet it has not happened. A few years ago, the Institute for Education Sciences put out a request for applications to create and evaluate whole-school designs for turning around persistently low-achieving schools, but inexplicably, they did not fund any of the proposals they got and never issued another RFA on the topic. Whole-school reform models developed and evaluated in the 1990s are almost all gone, due to opposition by the Bush administration. Some of these had excellent evidence of effectiveness, but this did not matter. These models were not even mentioned in an IES-produced practice guide on turnaround programs, for example. As a result, schools now receiving SIG funding are mostly making up their own strategies, often with the help of consultants. Some of these home-grown strategies may work, but we won’t know which ones, or why.

The recent funding of Investing in Innovation (i3) might offer a model for identifying and expanding school turnaround practices. Some of the i3 funded programs that have already been proven effective were designed as transformation or turnaround models, especially our own Success for All model and our colleagues’ Diplomas Now high school program. Despite their considerable evidence of effectiveness, neither of these are used in many SIG schools. Existing proven models, whether or not they are funded by i3, certainly need to be used in turnarounds. Yet more proven programs are needed. The Department of Education should set aside funds for fast-track development, evaluation, and scale-up of proven transformation models, patterned on i3 but restricted to turnaround strategies. This problem is far too important for there to be so few proven programs available for these desperate schools to use.

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NOTE: Robert Slavin is co-founder of the Success for All Foundation, a recipient of i3 grants.

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Seeds, Bricks, and Sand: Stages of School-Reform Readiness

Every school, no matter how effective at improving student outcomes, could probably be even more effective, and some schools have a particularly long way to go. Various proven reform models for whole schools, particular subjects, or specific purposes stand ready to help all of these schools improve. Yet schools vary a great deal in terms of readiness for particular approaches to reform.

A metaphor for three types of schools in terms of readiness for reform is seeds, bricks, sand. The “seeds” metaphor implies an environment so conducive to reform that anything can grow there. The staff and leadership of the school are capable, aware of research, participating in professional development, well-coordinated, cohesive, and unafraid of change. Such a school can create and evaluate its own reform methods and sustain and improve them over time, perhaps with general advice from consultants. “Bricks” schools are also positively oriented toward change, but are unlikely to invent effective reforms themselves. Such schools have committed and hard-working teachers and leaders who have not had the time or resources to become reform experts themselves, but are welcoming to proven models. The “bricks” metaphor implies that if someone brings the bricks and a set of plans to the site, a durable edifice can be built and maintained.

A “sand” school, on the other hand, is one that is not ready for reform, and building on this site is like building a sand castle, which will wash away with the next tide. In such schools the staff and leadership may be at odds with each other, may not believe that children can learn any more than they do now, or may have experienced failure with previous reforms. These schools may need serious restructuring.

The usefulness of the “seeds-bricks-sand” categories is in understanding how to help schools adopt and sustain proven programs. The great majority of Title I schools, in my experience, are “bricks” schools, ready, willing, and able to implement well-defined, research-proven programs, but unlikely to have the inclination to invent their own school-wide approach. Others are clearly in the “sand” category. Yet Title I schools in trouble are frequently given “seeds” advice. For example, schools receiving substantial funding under the current School Improvement Grants (SIG) are routinely given consultants to help them work out their own school-wide reform designs, rather than being helped to adopt proven programs. There are “seed” schools that can benefit from such strategies, but they are rarely the ones that are persistently low achieving, as all SIG schools are.

Whole-school reform is difficult and expensive, and when it fails, the consequences for children as well as educators can be dire and long-lasting. We need to get smarter about targeting interventions to specific types of schools to increase the likelihood that all will benefit.

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Note to SIG Schools: Good Lists ≠ Good Outcomes

Everyone loves a good list of things to do to get desired outcomes. Go into any bookstore and you’ll see 10 habits, eight steps, 12 secrets, to accomplish all sorts of wonders. What’s nice about lists is that they are easy to understand and they appear finite: implement the “seven-step plan to weight loss” and you’re done.

In trying to improve struggling schools, government likes lists too, and so do educators. Comprehensive school reform in the 1990’s required schools to implement nine elements (e.g. curriculum, professional development, parent involvement). Reading First had its list of five elements of reading instruction. Today, the most ambitious school improvement effort ever undertaken, School Improvement Grants (SIG), is trying to turn around America’s most persistently difficult schools. Schools have to choose among four models, the least draconian of which (and therefore by far the most popular) is “transformation,” which usually involves changing the principal and implementing a set of whole-school reforms. The reforms constitute – you guessed it – a list of required elements. And many transformation schools are adopting as a central element of their approach – you guessed it again – even more detailed lists of practices, in this case those found by Robert Marzano and/or Charlotte Danielson, to characterize effective schools.

Each element of all of these lists is valid, well-supported by research, and sensible. Yet a list, no matter how well justified, is not in itself an effective program.

Appealing as they appear, there are several problems with lists as a route to genuine improvement. First, lists focus on processes rather than outcomes. If every teacher has a parent involvement program, for example, then we can check this off, right? Wrong. There are more and less effective ways to involve parents. Whatever a school is doing with parents, it should be resulting in outcomes such as better attendance, more children getting eyeglasses or health care, better home-school communication, and fewer home-school conflicts. If notes home to parents do not accomplish these or other goals, then they are not moving the school toward success.

Another problem with lists is that they present needed actions separately, when real school reform should be an integrated whole. A first-grade teacher might set aside a time for phonics (check!), another for fluency (check!), and a third for comprehension (check!). But effective reading instruction requires the integration of strategies to move toward the ultimate goals.

Effective whole-school change comes about when proven practices are introduced in all aspects of school functioning, with a clear vision of what each practice looks like when effectively implemented and an elaborated coaching process to help all teachers use proven practices. It requires constant assessment of the degree to which proven practices are being widely implemented and assessment of students’ progress toward key goals. Leadership and professional development structures need to be aligned around the goal of ensuring effective use of proven approaches throughout the school and maximizing communication and shared leadership among all school staff to get the best thinking and best efforts of all to focus on progressive improvements in implementations and outcomes.

Lists may be useful in ensuring implementation of all aspects of proven programs, but they do not themselves lead to improved practice or enhances outcomes. At the broadest level, here’s the list most likely to turn around schools struggling to meet standards:

1. Adopt whole-school approaches proven to improve student outcomes.
2. Implement the program with intelligence, energy, and fidelity, constantly improving the quality of implementation and outcomes.
3. Keep doing (2), well, forever.

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A Sleeper Study for Education Reform?

NOTE: This is a guest post by Steve Fleischman, deputy executive officer at Education Northwest, a nonprofit headquartered in Portland, Ore., that conducts research, evaluation, technical assistance, training, and strategic communications activities to promote evidence-informed education policy and practice.

In the movie Sleepers, Woody Allen awakens in the year 2173 to find out that health food is bad for you and that deep fat, steak, cream pies, and hot fudge are all healthy. A character in the movie notes that Allen’s beliefs are “precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.” The scene ends with a scientist offering Allen a cigarette, because it is “one of the healthiest things for your body.” This scene gives rise to the question: What if all our beliefs about what it takes to improve the nation’s schools turn out to be wrong?

A recent article by Carrie R. Leana, a professor of organization and management at the University of Pittsburgh, argues that the current “ideology of school reform,” based on a belief in the “power of teacher human capital, the value of outsiders, and the centrality of the principal in instructional decision practice [is] rooted more in conventional wisdom and political sloganeering than in strong empirical research.” Based on her own studies, Leana presents a reform approach characterized by the collective engagement of staff, the establishment of trust and “meaningful” communications among teachers, and the work of principals who spend their time supporting teacher efforts by building external relations. For a teacher’s take on the article see the EdWeek blog Teaching Now.

Also on the “human capital” front, a recent post by Bob Sutton, a Stanford professor and frequent author on evidence-based management, writes in relation to New York City halting its teacher bonus experiment, “Are you surprised? I am not, and if the people running the New York City school system had actually read a large body of existing research, they would never have wasted all this money in the first place.”

I am not arguing for or against the policies described above. After all, it turns out chocolate is good for you! I just think that “look before you leap” is good advice taken too infrequently in education policy making.

Reforming 100,000 Schools, One at a Time

I was at a meeting in London recently, and got into a friendly argument with a colleague about strategies for scaling up proven programs. I was arguing that teachers should have an opportunity to collectively learn about a variety of proven programs appropriate to their school and then vote to adopt one or more of them, or none at all. This way, I argued, teachers would feel committed to whatever they had chosen and implement it with spirit and care.

My colleague was appalled. She thought my way was too slow and would abandon kids who happened to be in schools that voted “No” to terrible fates. She gave as a positive example England’s National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies, implemented by Tony Blair’s government starting in the late 1990s. The NLS/NNS was imposed across every one of England’s 25,000 schools. Scores on a new set of tests went up for a few years, but then flattened out, as happens in every U.S. state that adopts a new test.

My colleague’s impatience was understandable. How long must struggling schools and children wait? But the consequence of impatience is all too often the boom-and-bust pendulum cycle of education reform. This is what happened to the NLS/NNS; teachers hated it, because of its meddlesome intrusion into professionalism. And the new conservative government is abandoning it.

I think a more gradual approach might be more likely to stick. If Title I schools had encouragement and funding to adopt proven programs, I think most of them would do so, and then the choice would have been their own professional judgment, not something imposed from above. Further, a more gradual expansion of proven programs would enable schools to find out what really works, and what it takes to make proven programs work at scale. It would allow providers of proven programs to scale up their operations in a planful, progressive way, and for research and development to identify new strategies and improve existing ones. As schools that originally voted “No” see schools around them happily and successfully using proven programs, they are likely to rethink their decisions.

Beyond the certainty of even further alienating teachers, who have already had it just about up to here, sweeping, mandatory prescriptions can’t demand anything very complex, both because such approaches would take a lot of PD all at once and because the teachers wouldn’t stand for it. So sweeping reforms sweep in and then get swept out, while kids get no benefits and the system gets no smarter.

I do share my English colleague’s impatience. In the U.S. there are 100,000 schools and 40 million kids. Can we really reform it all one school at a time?

I think we can. In five to ten years, for example, I’m certain that proven programs could be introduced in every one of the roughly 20,000 Title I schoolwide elementary schools. Getting these schools right would make a huge difference in reducing achievement gaps and getting disadvantaged kids off to a great start.

As the old riddle goes, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” One bite at a time may not be fast, but no one wants that elephant stuffed down his throat.

Parental Choice, Really?

NOTE: This is a guest post by Steve Fleischman, deputy executive officer at Education Northwest, a nonprofit headquartered in Portland, Ore., that conducts research, evaluation, technical assistance, training, and strategic communications activities to promote evidence-informed education policy and practice.

In the late 1990s, I once found myself in a social conversation with a member of President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers, a small agency of leading economists charged with providing the Executive Office with objective analysis and advice. When I asked about her views on education policy, she offered up a set of policy solutions largely based on the traditional economic viewpoint that a more market-based approach to education would lead to significant improvements in educational outcomes. She supported a menu of policy solutions that clustered around the concept of “school choice.”

I then inquired which Washington, D.C., schools her children attended. She replied that her kids had remained back in her hometown, attending a private school. When I shared that I happened to know the school because a friend had once taught there, she asked in an unsure voice, “Oh, is it a good school?” In return, I asked her, “With all the resources at your disposal you are still not sure whether you made the right choice for your kids. How do you expect that in a free market, with many less resources at their disposal, low-income parents will be able to confidently make a decision that you cannot?”

I remembered this conversation as I read the recent op-ed in The New York Times“Why School Choice Fails.” It chronicles the challenges faced by the author, Natalie Hopkinson, in finding a good middle school for her 11-year-old in Washington, D.C.–one of the hotbeds of the school choice movement. In Hopkinson’s view, the district’s policy that students in failing schools be allowed to “transfer schools, opt to attend a charter school or receive a voucher to attend a private school” is a failed one. She believes that as a result of these policies the educational outlook for D.C.’s working- and middle-class families is “bleak.”

Not surprisingly, there are those that disagree with Hopkinson’s analysis and her conclusion that there is “lack of proof that school-choice policies work.” Education Week Blogger Sara Mead addressed the fundamental attribution error in the Hopkinson op-ed, and later followed up with a thoughtful piece on why pure school choice cannot be left entirely up to parents.

As economists may tell you, consumers must be well-informed for market-driven education reform to succeed. As was clear from my conversation with the professor who was a member of the Council of Economic Advisers, even well-educated, highly trained professionals with time, access to all available information resources, and high-level decision-making skills have a hard time making choices in the education “marketplace.”

Market-driven education reform will continue to be challenged as an education improvement strategy until the average parent has more and better information, improved access to this information, and support to sort through the options. Only then will parental choice be real.

Do Struggling Charter Schools Deserve a Second Chance?

Last week, I wrote about the “Struggling Schools and the Problem with the ‘Shut It Down’ Mentality.” The post seemed to strike a chord, so I would like to encourage my readers to consider the same framework for struggling charter schools. Most people who follow research on charter schools would agree that there is little evidence that, on average, students in charter schools gain any more than similar children in non-charters. Charter advocates admit this to be true, but point to positive effects documented for outstanding charter networks, such as KIPP, and often vow to “weed out” failing charters from their ranks.

Opponents of closure of traditional public schools seem to accept this tough love approach for charters. I would like to suggest that their circumstances, and solutions, are more similar than some may think.

Unfortunately, “weeding out” (i.e., shutting down) ineffective charters is no easier than shutting down ineffective non-charters. In both cases, there may be a reasonable rationale for closing down the worst of the worst, but not only is closing any school financially and politically wrenching, a recent study of closing public schools found that students from the closed schools perform worse than similar children for a year or more and then end up doing no better. School closure (in charters as well as non-charters) must be an extreme solution in extreme circumstances to keep the system honest, but if other solutions exist, they should be tried first.

There are other proven solutions for failing schools. The Best Evidence Encyclopedia lists all sorts of reading, math, and whole-school reform programs with excellent evidence of effectiveness in both traditional public and public charter settings. The U.S. Department of Education’s Investing in Innovations (i3) program is funding the development, evaluation, and scaling up of proven programs of all kinds. All of these programs should work in charters as well as they do in any other schools, and there are already some charters (in addition to KIPP itself, which has a large i3 grant to scale up its leadership model) using the programs in partnership with i3 programs.

The charter movement has become increasingly courageous and open in admitting problems within its own membership, but weeding the charter garden is not the only way forward. Charters getting subpar outcomes need professional development and proven programs, and a renewed commitment to make a difference, just like traditional public schools that are struggling. Even a small part of the substantial private as well as government funding supporting the opening of new charters could be set aside to help all charters improve instruction, curriculum, and outcomes, and the entire charter movement, not to mention hundreds of thousands of kids, could greatly benefit.

Disclosure: Robert Slavin is the Director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education, which hosts the Best Evidence Encyclopedia, and the co-founder of Success for All, which received an i3 grant and operates in approximately 100 charter schools nationwide.