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Turning Around Low-Performing Schools

Essentials on education data and analysis from research authority AEL

Wouldn't it be great if researchers discovered the holy grail of school improvement--a single approach that could be readily applied to improve all schools labeled low performing? Don't get your hopes up. After all, even Einstein failed in his efforts to discover an all-inclusive theory that explained everything. Because the definition of "low performing" varies from state to state, and the reasons for low performance vary from school to school, a "unified field theory" in education is unlikely.

However, when performance is measured by achievement on standardized tests, low-performing schools share some common conditions. One of these is a correlation between poverty and stress on the school organization. Many low-performing schools are located in impoverished communities where circumstances conspire to make it difficult for students to come to school prepared to learn. This challenge can stretch school resources.

But a substantial body of literature indicates that schools can succeed despite adverse conditions. Those that do so share three characteristics: a strongly focused instructional program, an emphasis on student achievement, and a culture of collaboration among teaching staff.

Creating these conditions takes time. Research indicates that it takes an average of three years for an elementary school to implement change that will significantly improve student achievement. Secondary schools take an average of six years. Improvement strategies depend more on the culture of the school than the grade levels or community setting. State and local policies and practices can support or hinder interventions. External facilitation can assist school personnel in assessing needs and developing strategic improvement plans.

Schools can improve student achievement in the short run if they: align teaching with the standards measured by the state accountability system; align classroom assessments with curriculum and use results to monitor student performance and adjust instruction; analyze student achievement to determine where instructional change and interventions are most needed.

To sustain school improvements, however, schools need to address reform at a deeper, structural level that addresses both organizational and cultural aspects: develop faculty readiness to embrace school change; develop a cohesive vision of reform throughout the school; and foster distributed leadership (accountability) within the school.

District leaders can take the following actions to support both short- and long-term improvements:

Provide appropriate pressure Work to ensure that accountability is based on clear and measurable standards that can serve as a framework for improvement efforts.

Provide sufficient support Provide the support necessary to meet site-specific needs. The district's capacity for providing professional development, external facilitators, time and additional resources may require improved coordination and collaboration with state and regional educational agencies.

Foster strong school leadership The professional growth of school leaders is crucial. If principals are to direct and sustain improvements, they must receive professional development that helps them understand and develop shared leadership skills.

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Related Information

Governors' Guiding Principles

Not all low-performing schools are the same.

Capacity building must be part of the solution.

Districts are essential collaborators in efforts to turn around schools. (The NGA acknowledges that "most state technical assistance efforts have tended to ignore the role of districts.")

Be prepared for the long haul.

Assistance to low-performing schools should be part of a larger strategy of school improvement.

Source: National Governors Association, Reaching New Heights, 2003

Lessons Learned About Accountability

In 2003, researchers examined seven accountability systems structured prior to NCLB in five states, one district, and one program within a state system. Each system takes a different approach as it identifies low-performing schools, motivates them to improve, and leverages resources and support. Lessons learned from this study:

Less ambitious accountability systems are more stable.

Sanctions are not the fallback solution (support and intervention are key).

Districts need to be centrally involved (district policies and interventions may be more influential than those of states).

Even small intervention burdens require a developed capacity building structure.

Capacity building is key, can take many forms, but should be clearly focused.

The need for effective instructional programs ought to be balanced with work on professional norms and teacher commitment.

Source: Mintrop & Papazian, CRESST, 2003