THE BLOG
12/22/2015 12:02 pm ET Updated Dec 22, 2016

School Turnaround - Where Is That Magic Formula Again?

The way some people talk about "turning around" a high-poverty, low-performing school you might think there was some kind of magical formula. If we could just master a special "innovation" or "disruption" incantation or combine just the right incentives and policy formulas, then schools would be turned around.

But that isn't the way educators who have led improvement talk about it -- at least in my experience.

Over the course of the last decade I have visited quite a few schools that, by any definition, have "turned around." They have gone from what everyone in them described as dysfunctional places where little learning was taking place to well-functioning, pleasant places where students perform toward the top of their respective states. My co-author, Christina Theokas, and I talk about those and other schools that have vastly improved in Getting It Done: Leading Academic Success in Unexpected Schools, Harvard Education Press, 2011.

I knew none of those turnarounds had happened by magic, though, and I became interested in what some of the early steps of a turnaround look like.

So a little more than four years ago, I began following a few highly successful principals who took on the challenge of school turnaround. Part of the deal was that I wouldn't name them unless and until the principals felt their schools could withstand public scrutiny, but I drop in as often as I can manage and try to get a sense of how the school is doing.

Today I want to describe one about which I had grave doubts. Not at the beginning -- the principal is experienced, smart, passionate, and hardworking, and I had a lot of confidence that he knew what he was doing when he walked into one of the lowest performing secondary schools in his state.

But a couple of years ago things were looking bad -- for him and for the school.

He looked ragged and worn down and sounded discouraged. I worried he would walk away. Although he didn't tell me at the time, he now says that I was right to worry. He considered declaring defeat and taking up an entirely different career in a field in which he has some certifications.

He had spent two years working to improve the school culture and the professional development teachers received. There were some positive indicators -- suspensions and other disciplinary actions were down; attendance among both students and teachers was up. But large numbers of students still wandered the halls aimlessly, and I saw many classes where not a lot of learning was going on.

When the test scores came in for that second year, they confirmed that far too few students were reading and doing math at anything like state standards. For an educator dedicated to ensuring that all his students had good postsecondary options with college or career, this was a blow.

The principal had assumed that as students felt more connection to the school and teachers were given opportunities to improve their instruction, test scores would take care of themselves. He had spent little time worried about the state's annual tests -- even though they were a big part of how his performance would be judged. When the first year showed no improvement in test scores, he was relatively unconcerned. But when the second set of annual test scores came in, he knew his entire strategy was being called into question.

After all, as much as he knows that test scores are not the only measure of a school, he also knows that students who can't succeed on tests and grow up in poverty have much more limited life choices than those who do well on tests. And his school was mostly children living in poverty, many of them brand-new immigrants to the country.

But he held onto what his knowledge of the research and his decades of experience told him. He continued to do what he knew should work -- demonstrating a belief in the capacity of kids to learn and teachers to teach and setting up the systems that would support both.

That sounds a little vague, but there was no vagueness about the systems he put in place early on and continued to refine and intensify through that third year.

For example, one of the first things he did was intended to make an immediate impression on students that they were expected to be good citizens of the school. He opened the school to them before and after school so that they could play basketball in the gym, and he eliminated their need to have bathroom passes. Both moves were enormously controversial with the faculty who knew large numbers of students had a practice of continually roaming the school looking for trouble -- and often enough finding it.

The principal made the point -- and repeated it endlessly -- that students needed to feel trusted and respected. He talked endlessly to students about what their ambitions were and whether the way they were acting was helping them meet those ambitions.

He also wanted to demonstrate to teachers his respect for them and their expertise, and so didn't require specific kinds of lesson plans or that their daily objectives be posted on the board or any of the other requirements many other principals would have put in place. Rather, he encouraged teachers to think about what kinds of powerful learning experiences they could set up for their students and hoped they would collaborate deeply on lessons and assessments.

At the time, I worried that too many of the teachers were not taking the opportunity he was offering. When I walked into classrooms, I saw lessons so far from powerful learning that it made me edgy. I saw vague art projects in English, algebra, biology, and chemistry classes and could hear little actual subject matter being discussed. Students spent a lot of time gossiping, goofing around, and annoying each other and their teachers.

But the principal continued to believe in the capacity of teachers and intensified the professional learning available to them. He encouraged them to share problems of practice; he scheduled time for teachers to visit each other's classrooms in order to expose and share expertise; he arranged for more model lessons to be taught.

None of this was a quick-fix solution, but the problems that had made the school the lowest performing school in the state were not quick problems. And building the capacity of adults was something he knew should help.

So you've probably already guessed the punch line of this story: Recently, the test results came out for the principal's third year in the job, and test scores are up. Significantly. The school still doesn't match the state yet, but if it keeps this pace up it should be there soon.

When I visited I saw serious work being done in most classes. History and civics. Algebra. Literature discussions. I don't want to exaggerate, but students were reading, writing, and discussing in academic ways -- a far cry from when the principal began four years ago. I saw a couple of students wandering but not the hordes of students I had seen before. And teachers are starting to say things like, "It was really rough there for a while, but things are definitely better now."

The principal is almost ebullient. He thinks this year is the turning point for teachers being able to trust him. They had seen a parade of principals in the previous decade, none of them lasting more than a couple of years. "When I started this fourth year," he said, "I could see that they began to think I was here for the long haul."

He believes his essential strategy was a good one. "We worked hard on adult culture. We worked hard on kid culture," the principal said. "It took some time for it to trickle down to student achievement."
The principal told me he asked the current sophomores what percentage of their class should score at proficient and advanced at the end of the year on the state assessments. "They said 90 percent. I think that's doable," he said.

(If you're interested in reading more about the principals I've been following for a few years as they have been turning around schools, see "How Do We Get There From Here?" in Educational Leadership.)