(republished with permission from Urban Advocate)
Urban policymakers wondering why it’s so hard to turn around low-performing schools might find part of the answer at Markham Middle School in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. By one reckoning, 16 percent of its teachers were working under an emergency credential. Thirty percent of classes in core subjects were taught by teachers who were not “highly qualified” under the No Child Left Behind Act. And, while a third of the school’s students were English language learners, many teachers hadn’t received the specialized training to teach them to read.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that only 3 percent of students scored proficient in math in 2009, and only 11 percent met that goal in Englishrates even worse than in 1997, when California first labeled the school as low performing.
The story of Markham, cited in a report released this spring by Education Sector, a Washington, D.C.-based policy think tank, stands in stark contrast to that of eight schools in Chattanooga, Tenn. There, high-needs students had some of the least-experienced teachers in the district, but a new initiative involved teachers in school-improvement planning, boosted professional development, created a pool of qualified substitute teachers, and provided the tools and technical assistance to help staff use data better to make instructional decisions.
The result? In five years, the percentage of students scoring proficient or above in reading rose from 53 to 80 percent. The project was so successful another eight schools were added to the project in 2007. Last year, 72 percent of students scored at proficient levels in reading.
The demographics and challenges facing these schools are not exact. And, given the multitude of factors that go into turning around a troubled school, it’s impossible to determine with any certainty why one school responds to school-reform efforts and another doesn’t. But many urban school leaders have noticed one commonality when schools stubbornly resist improvement: The district leadership has failed to provide the school staff with the training, experienced personnel, and long-term support necessary to make reform happen.
That sounds harsh. After all, it’s not as if urban school leaders ignore the challenges confronting principals and teachers at a high-needs school. Many school districts work hard to recruit good teachers for these schools. They invest sizable sums of money in professional development. They work with colleges of education to train new teachers specifically to work in an urban setting. Some have turned to recruitment bonuses and incentive pay to ensure that the best teachers they can find end up in these struggling schools.
But a good-faith effort does not always equate with success. Study after study has shown that high-poverty, low-achieving schools are staffed by less-experienced teachers, more classes are taught by teachers with neither a major nor certification in the subject being taught, teacher turnover is high, and there often are too many long-term substitutes in the classroom.
These realities need more attention if future school turnaround efforts are to succeed, says Baltimore City Public Schools Superintendent Andrés Alonso. “Sometimes what’s not part of the discussion, but should be, is whether we’ve looked at the question of how teachers are distributed in the school system.”
That’s particularly true today, for struggling schools are vulnerable in fiscally troubled times. It’s not unheard-of, say school administrators, for a school to lose a quarter or more of its staff to layoffs, as younger teachers are forced out by colleagues elsewhere in the district with more seniority.
All of this leaves the staff at a low-performing school with a weakened capacity to enact school-improvement effortsand helps explain why such schools are resistant to educational gains. In Hartford, Conn., Superintendent Steven Adamowski recalls how the school system invested in professional development training at one schoolonly to have many of those trained teachers “bumped” by older teachers wielding their seniority rights. The result: the impact of that training on the school’s improvement was undermined.
“We ended up,” he says, “with a situation that’s very unstable.”
The impact on student academic success isn’t hard to imagine. In a Brookings Institution study, Identifying Effective Teachers Using Performance on the Job, researchers found that students assigned a teacher judged in the top quartile in effectiveness increased student test scores by 10 percentile points more than students who had a teacher from the bottom quartile. In theory, low-income students taught by a top teacher for four years effectively could overcome the achievement gap that separates these students from their more affluent peers.
Clearly there are interventionsfrom a longer school day to more parental involvement to increased student access to social workers, school nurses, and counselorsthat a school board can put in place to help its low-performing schools. But, says Jack Jennings, president and CEO of the Center on Education Policy, one of the most important is to work toward the goal that “the lowest-performing schools have the best teachers.”
Who goes where?
To accomplish this goal, start with the recruitment and assignment practices of the school district. Most urban school leaders already are familiar with the various strategies that have been used in recent years to attract high-quality teachers to urban settings: aggressively recruiting nationwide, reaching out to historically black colleges, developing partnerships with colleges of education to create programs to train would-be teachers to work in an urban setting. A few years ago, Los Angeles officials spoke at a CUBE conference about the revamping of its recruitment and hiring practices, which included such simple but logical measures as red-flagging the applications of math, science, and bilingual teachers for immediate action so these teachers could be hired for hard-to-fill positions before they were snatched up by other school systems.
Examples of smart recruitment, hiring, and assignment practices can be found across the nation. In Chattanooga, the Hamilton County school system put eightnow 16low-performing schools in what it calls the Benwood Initiative, a partnership between the school system and local education foundations.
With a teacher-centered focus on reform, the initiative moved quickly to seek out enthusiastic and experienced teachers, offering a financial incentives plan that included mortgage loans, a tuition-free master’s degree, and pay bonuses of up to $5,000 for teachers who demonstrated student gains.
Elsewhere, other districts are exploring the potential of incentive pay and recruitment bonuses, and urban school systems are making significant use of Teach For America and other nontraditional teacher certification and recruitment sources for hard-to-staff schools. In Baltimore, a teacher residency program offers would-be teachers opportunities to receive training, tuition assistance, access to student loan deferral and forgiveness and home ownership programs.
One new multi-district initiative also seeks to expand research on the impact of effective teachers on students in low-income, high-needs communities. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, the Talent Transfer Initiativewhich includes participating schools in Charlotte, N.C.; Knoxville, Tenn.; and Houston, among otherswill offer teachers $10,000 a year for up to two years to transfer to low-performing schoolsand then study the academic progress of their students.
Holding onto teachers
It’s one thing to put good teachers in a struggling school; it’s another to keep them there. High staff turnover is a perpetual problem, as some collective bargaining agreements enshrine the right of teachersusually based on seniorityto transfer to a more favorable school environment.
“We’ve schools where, every single year, we divert teachers to that school, and then they leave, and we end up with high concentrations of novice teachers or teachers who have been in many other places,” says Alonso. “The conversation about teacher quality always ends up with the question of experience” in low-performing schools.
While some districts are exploring the usefulness of bonus pay to encourage teachers to stay in struggling schools, much of the research suggests that a good principal, practical professional development, and on-site support for teachers can create a school climate that is the most effective encouragement for teachers to stay put.
Still, even when teachers want to stay in their schools, they might not have the option. As noted earlier, layoffs can have a very disruptive effect on the stability of a teaching staff. It’s happened with such regularity during the current economic downturn that there are unprecedented efforts under way to change teacher seniority rights.
In Washington, D. C., for example, schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee recently won concessions in the latest teachers contract weakening the role of seniority in teacher assignments, and Hartford’s Adamowski has held talks with his district’s union leaders about seniority rights during layoffs. Several state legislatures and education agencies also are looking at changes in tenure and seniority rules that stymie school leaders from ensuring the best possible teacher assignments.
Wiping the slate clean
A quick and dramatic strategy for dealing with a weak school staff is simply to replace it. That’s the concept behind recent school restructuring efforts undertaken across the nation, where a school’s principal and a sizable percentage of the faculty are forced to reapply for their jobs. The optimum conclusion, some educators suggest, is that the principal and at least half of the school’s teachers should be replaced.
When Chicago school officials targeted six campuses for restructuring in 1998, the measure was vehemently opposed by the teachers union and parents of the targeted schools. And, although the schools ultimately were restructured, the controversy proved great enough to dissuade officials from the strategy for several years.
The political winds, however, have changed in recent years. Today, numerous schools are being pushed into restructuring as part of No Child Left Behind-mandated sanctions against campuses that consistently fail to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals. At the same time, school officials in urban districts from Baltimore to Chicago, and New York City to Memphis, increasingly are turning to restructuring as one of many accepted intervention models.
Its acceptance can only increase as U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan champions “bold action” as part of his focus on the nation’s 5,000 worst-performing schools.
Proponents of restructuring point to the advantages of cleaning house. Persistently low-performing schools often have very poor teacher moraleand an entrenched sense of cynicism and fatalismthat can be a significant obstacle to reform efforts.
It’s an obstacle that a new principal and extra district support can overcome, Hartford’s Adamowski says. But sometimes it’s clear that the district needs to start anew.
“In every one of these [restructuring] situations, we’ve found very good teachers at these schools,” he says. “But we’ve also found some people who are terrible, and what we’re looking at in these situations is a very bad school culture, and people tend to respond to the culture they’re in … that’s why a redesign is so important.”
If it were that easy, of course, the nation would have its proverbial silver bullet for fixing low-achieving schools. But there’s no guarantee that a new staff will not lose heart as it confronts the challenges of educating students who, for the most part, come from low-income homes or are English language learners.
“There’s no evidence that firing a principal will bring about improvement and [changing] the staff is no guarantee that a school will get better,” Jennings says. As for Education Secretary Duncan’s suggesting that some troubled schools can be replaced with charters, Jennings notes that, in Chicago, “38 percent of the worst-performing schools are charter schools.”
One unanswered question is how many school boards are willing to embrace the approach. According to an Education Sector study, Restructuring Restructuring: Improving Interventions for Low-Performing Schools and Districts, the majority of school districts, when given discretion under NCLB and state laws to restructure troubled schools, “would rather not change people.”
It’s all about capacity
As several successful school-improvement initiatives have found, it’s not enough to staff a low-achieving school with good people. Students at these schools usually come from low-income households, and they deal with social, medical, and intellectual challenges that are serious barriers to learningbarriers that can prove beyond the capacity of teachers to help students overcome.
This is where the school systemnot the schoolcan fall short, say reform experts. The district leadership isn’t paying enough attention, and it provides teachers at troubled schools with generic professional development opportunities rather than training targeted to the unique educational challenges at the school. Or leaders fail to maintain the additional resources or technical assistance that is needed to complete a school turnaround.
It’s a phenomenon that’s been observed by John Simmons, president of the Strategic Learning Initiatives (SLI), a nonprofit group working with a number of low-performing Chicago schools. “The district central office rolls out a major initiative, gives money to provide positions, does all kinds of things to the schoolsthen a year or two later, they say, well, if you want to continue, you’ve got to fund it yourself.'”
Steady fundingand constant attentionhas been the key to the turnaround of Chicago schools that SLI has worked with. At each school, professional development and coaching has helped the principal, teachers, and parents to build a leadership team that developed a school-improvement plan targeting the special challenges of the school.
It is a plan developed by the staffnot dictated from aboveand that makes all the difference, Simmons says. “It’s important to energize people, to get them motivated. You need to get them to buy into what they’re doing, then all of a sudden all this energy and creativity goes up, and they are able on their own to implement this stuff. They take ownership.”
Of course, enthusiasm has to be backed up with practical help, as well. In Hamilton County’s Benwood Initiative, “lead teachers” work in struggling schools to coach and mentor their colleagues. This not only improves the capacity of teachers to meet educational challenges, but it is the kind of support that lowers turnover among new teachers and helps older teachers modernize classroom instruction.
In both school systems, a community partner helped provide the long-term oversight needed for a turnaround effort to succeed. But many school systems have recognized that someone needs to be keeping atop such efforts, and they’re assigning a central office administrator specifically to that task.
That’s the case in Charleston County, S.C., where school board Chair Ruth Jordan says, “We’re creating what we call a turnaround zonewhere a particular subcommittee of community members and other administrators will become partners with the schools.” This zone also will have its own associate superintendent with direct responsibility for the schools’ turnaround efforts, she says.
It’s all about teachers
No one is discounting the importance of a strong principal, the advantages of a sound curriculum, the value of a longer school year, or the potential of dozens of other interventions that a school system can make on behalf of a low-performing school.
But it’s obvious that the heart of any effort to turn around a troubled school lies with the quality, stability, and capacity of the teachers working in that school. But while obvious, urban school leaders canand mustdevote even greater energies to ensuring the best teachers possible are working in their high-needs schools.
“We’ve been talking about effective schools and what’s needed for years and years,” says Susan Swanson, director of urban education for the Charleston County schools and a coordinator with the Benwood Initiative. “But what doesn’t really change, I think, are the ingredients that a lot of people miss … that’s the will and courage to make hard decisions about people.”
IDEAS FOR KEEPING GOOD TEACHERS IN HIGH-NEEDS SCHOOLS
Look at the timing of district hiring. Some urban school districts delay hiring until mid-summer or later, meaning that many of the best teachersand those certified in high-demand fields such as math and sciencealready have been hired by surrounding districts.
Teach For America and other nontraditional teacher recruitment, training, and certification programs are a great source for new teachers.
Read carefully the teachers contract. A few years ago, it was accepted wisdom in Washington, D.C., that seniority ruled all teacher transfer decisions. A closer look at the teachers contract proved that wasn’t the case. It’s always possible you have more authority over teacher assignments than believed.
It’s not clear whether paying teachers more to work in high-needs schools will ease high staff turnover in the long run. A better guarantee is to put a good principal in the school, make sure he or she stays put for several years, and provide extra classroom support for your teachers.
Your teachers want a nice place to work, and the above model also is likely to work better than recruitment bonuses in attracting teachers to your high-needs schools.
New teachers struggle in a high-needs school. Providing lots of on-site supportmentors, coaches, extra trainingcoupled with the reputation of the principal will boost the chance that they’ll stay put.
Restructuring is an option when the school culture is so poisonous the staff is apathetic to reform efforts. But, many times, recruiting teachers into the school’s leadership teamand involving them heavily in school-improvement plansis a better option.
When schools repeatedly resist school-improvement efforts, it might be that the principal and staff simply don’t have the capacity to do all that needs to be done. A school board needs to take a harder look to see if the school actually has received the additional staff, outside consultants, or other forms of support it was promised.