Allen Odden is a professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who claims to know how to turn around low achieving schools. In fact he wrote a book about the topic called “Ten Strategies for Doubling Student Performance”. He doesn’t work in schools, he studies those of us who do. So his premise is that school turnarounds are not a new phenomenon and that “we” know how to fix them, and “we know how to literally double student performance in low income schools, and in the process take huge chunks out of the achievement gaps that separate students along racial and socioeconomic lines.”
In a recent article in Education Week entitled We Know How to Turn Schools Around, Odden identifies 10 core elements he picked up from studying schools just like El Milagro. Here is Odden’s checklist:
TWO: Set ambitious goals: (e.g.; to double student performance on state tests, to double the percentage of students scoring at advanced levels, to make sure that no student performs below the basic level at the end of 3rd grade, and that all students leave that grade reading on level.)
THREE: Throw out the old curriculum and adopt new textbooks, create new curriculum programs, and start to build, over time, a common understanding of effective instruction.
FOUR. Move beyond a concentration on state tests and use a battery of assessments, including formative and diagnostic assessments, common end-of-curriculum-unit assessments, and benchmark assessments. All of these enable teachers to make midcourse corrections and to get students into interventions earlier.
FIVE: Create and implement an intensive and ongoing professional-development program. (The best schools form collaborative teacher teams— aka, professional learning communities—that meet often, make use of student data, and work with school-based coaches to improve curriculum and instruction.)
SIX: Provide extended learning time and extra help for all students to attain proficiency. (e.g., Some combination of one-on-one or small-group tutoring for struggling students, together with extended-day and summer programs that emphasize providing academic help.)
SEVEN: Use time effectively. (Core instructional time for reading, math, and increasingly science is protected from intrusions; each minute is devoted to teaching the class. Literacy time often is extended to 90 to 120 minutes a day.)
EIGHT: Teachers lead grade- and subject-based professional learning communities. Most of the instructional coaches are the school’s best teachers, and they orchestrate the overall professional-development system. And principals provide real instructional leadership.
NINE: Staff members read the most recent research, reach out to experts in the field, look for and use best practices, and take responsibility for assessing the impact on student learning of what they do, improving instructional practices when student results are not what’s desired.
TEN: Recruit the talent needed to accomplish lofty goals and implement the collaborative and powerful educational strategies discussed here.
Ok. So that is his list. It just so happens that at El Milagro we have been down the path on all 10 core elements. They are in place. Maybe that is why we have never missed an AYP goal, never missed a year of positive gains on the API, and recently been named a Title I Academic Award Winning School in the state of California. Or maybe our success has come from going even deeper when initiating school reforms.
There are three problems with the good professor’s premise:
First, it assumes that a “turn around school” is one that is getting better test scores. But perhaps the bigger challenge in school leadership is protecting kids from the craziness of schools obsessed with higher test scores– while still getting higher test scores! It is harder to get results when you refuse to become a test prep academy or when your school still values the meaningful extracurricular activities that don’t always directly tie in to testing (like athletics, theater, the arts, and music).
Secondly, this article (and the publication of his book!) assumes a college professor has some authority on an issue he has “studied”… as opposed to a having actively engaged in the work of really turning a school around! It is much like hiring a sports writer to coach an NFL team to the Superbowl or a film critic to create an academy award winning movie.
Finally, in concentrating on these broader, more obvious initiatives that we already stumbled across years ago… Odden’s list misses (at least )10 core elements that run even deeper into the DNA of a successful school. For example, we have found that to turn a school around and sustain long term, continuous improvement, you must:
• Strike a BALANCE between raising students and raising test scores
• ENGAGE CHILDREN in their own learning and growth; help them to be experts in analyzing their own test data and set goals accordingly
• Lead parents in a community transition from parent involvement to PARENT ENGAGEMENT— where parents’ energy is first and foremost directed toward helping their child be a successful learner
• Integrate successful TECHNOLOGY solutions that bridge the digital divide and simultaneously accelerate learning
• Create systems that support STUDENT WELLNESS (academic, social, emotional, mental, medical, dental), especially for students who are otherwise at high risk
• Promote healthy NUTRITIONAL HABITS and a climate that promotes daily exercise
• Maintain a BEHAVIOR POLICY that is clear, democratic, humane, and prudently applied (as opposed to “zero tolerance”)
• Promote COMMUNITY SERVICE and each students’ capacity for contributing to others
• Create a sense of individual EFFICACY among staff and students
• Foster RESILIENCY in individuals and in the school organization as a whole.
Those are my ten. For now. There will be more innovations for professors to study in how we turn our schools around.