Achieving School Turnaround

Over the years I’ve seen repeated calls for school reform, closing gaps, and raising achievement.  Each time the calls for reform seem more urgent, acknowledging that despite our best efforts, too many students are failing to meet standards.  For persistently low-performing schools, attention is focused on school turnaround, meaning changing the organization, context and academic factors sufficiently to boost student achievement to acceptable turnaround

The concept of school turnaround has currency because educators, parents and community leaders are increasingly desperate in their search to improve learning for students.  In Kentucky, only 56% of all public schools met NCLB targets for making Adequate Yearly Progress, based on 2010 state assessment data.  And that number is down from two years ago, where 70% of the schools in Kentucky made AYP.

Research on school turnaround is synthesized by the Institute for Education Sciences (IES), part of the U.S. Department of Education in its 2008 Practice Guide: Turning Around Chronically Low Performing Schools (Practice Guide on Doing What Works Site). The Practice Guide cites four categories of recommendations:

Recommendation #1 Signal the need for dramatic change with strong leadership

School leaders signal the need for immediate and significant change and convey a sense of urgency.  School commits to shift from acceptance of status quo to implementing new practices that will increase student achievement.

Recommendation #2 Maintain a consistent focus on instruction

School leaders devote significant time to improving instruction and organize school activities around improvement efforts. School engages in examination of student data, making decisions based on those data, and continually monitoring progress and making needed adjustments in classroom instruction to increase student learning. School uses professional development effectively to meet instructional goals.

Recommendation #3 Achieve quick wins

School leaders, teachers and key constituents identify areas in which they can make immediate improvements, to begin to build a culture for success.  These are short rather than long-term goals, using authority and resources the school already has, such as changing use of time, distributing leadership for departmental decisions among teachers, or reducing class tardies.

Recommendation #4 Build a committed staff

School leaders seek and obtain enrollment in a new vision for the school and in accomplishing significant improvement goals.  This is a critical leadership functions and includes anything from re-assignment of staff, to replacing staff not willing to commit to improving practice, to recruiting new staff.

It is important to note that these four recommendations work in tandem.  When school leaders and staff take a comprehensive approach to improvement, each of the recommendations supports and leverages the others.  These are not a magic bullet, as there is no such thing, but a purposeful way of moving from low to high performance.

At CTL we believe that research can provide an important source of ideas for helping schools improve student achievement, and to that end are leading a school turnaround “bridging event” linking research to practice, later this month (Bridging Event Contact Information).  We also believe that practitioners themselves have much to offer in the way of ideas, shared experiences and insights, and support, and so as a follow-up to the bridging event are initiating a school leaders’ online network, offering ongoing learning and the opportunity to share progress and challenges with a larger community.

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