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Finding the Most Powerful Levers for Fixing Struggling Schools

Last Friday, I attended the unveiling of a Center for American Progress report titled “Turning Around the Nation’s Lowest-Performing Schools.” Karen Baroody, of Educational Resource Strategies, Inc. (ERS), authored and presented the report. ERS consults with districts on how to efficiently turn around poor performance—they’re experts on school improvement. This was going to be great!

I arrived early and grabbed a copy of the report. I thought I’d scan it before the event started. When I reached page 2, my heart sank. The report’s subtitle is “Five Steps Districts Can Take to Improve Their Chances of Success,” but these looked useless:

  1. Understand what each school needs
  2. Quantify what each school gets and how it is used
  3. Invest in the most important changes first
  4. Customize the strategy to the school
  5. Change the district, not just the schools

Are any of these recommendations helpful? They read like common knowledge. See, as a general rule: if no one would ever intentionally do the opposite of your recommendation, they aren’t helpful. Imagine Mr. District Superintendent walking into his office: “You know, today I’m going to fix Reagan Elementary. I’d better not understand what it needs, ignore any quantitative data I have, invest in unimportant changes, use a one-size-fits-all approach, and assume that the district’s own policies have nothing to do with the school’s problems!” No one intentionally approaches school reform this way (although they sometimes do so unknowingly). At least, I hope no one does. Otherwise our educational system is beyond saving.

Suddenly I had low hopes for this talk. I thought about leaving, but the introductions were already starting.

Fortunately, the report is not as platitudinous as it seemed as first blush. Behind each of these not-too-promising headers, Baroody has more useful recommendations. Take the key point—“Invest in the most important changes first.” Baroody writes:

Key priorities, in order of importance, are to ensure each school has a strong school leader and teachers who collectively have the skills to meet student needs; to make sure that at-risk students receive basic health, social, and emotional support; to implement school designs that organize teaching expertise, time, and attention to match student needs; and to provide each school with the necessary central office support.

See, there’s something to sink your teeth into: a priority list for approaching low-performing schools. Later in the report, Baroody calls it “mission critical” for schools to have a strong school leader, effective teachers, and “basic social, emotional, and health support for at-risk students to ensure that they come to school able to learn.”

In her presentation of the report, she got even more specific, citing evidence that students in high-performing schools average 20 more minutes of Math and Language Arts instruction per day than students in low-performing schools. She rubbished trendy fixes—apparently ERS finds that class size reductions or after-school tutoring programs do less to turn around a school than improving instructional quality or building a school-wide academic vision. Want to turn around a failing school? Maximize instructional time with great teachers.

This echoes my column in the Washington Post on Saturday—maybe instructional quality is a primary lever for improving schools, but districts also need to understand how the non-classroom needs of low-income students may affect them at school. Both sides of the education reform wars are right.

The two discussants at the report’s unveiling—Knox County Schools Superintendent James McIntyre, Jr. and Stockton Unified School District CFO Jason Willis—echoed Baroody’s recommendations. As Willis put it, the report’s key message is that we should “fundamentally rethink how schools are run.” Everything must be on the table: from teacher tenure to the sources and quantities of school funding (locally and nationally). It’s time to cast a critical eye on the sacred cows on both sides of the education wars.

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