Fifty years after the Coleman Report highlighted vast achievement gaps between students from low-income and more affluent communities, those gaps remain nearly as large as when Coleman and his team first published their findings. Even our best attempts at improving student outcomes through increased academic rigor have not yielded results at scale, particularly for students with unmet social, emotional, and physical needs. With child poverty rates trending up (a majority of the nation’s public school students now come from low-income families) and achievement gaps persisting, it’s clearly time to broaden our focus and adopt a more comprehensive approach to addressing the essential needs of our students.
The new Every Student Succeed Act (ESSA), with its focus on a well-rounded education, provides an opportunity to significantly alter the way we think about and deliver a wide range of the supports and services—afterschool programs, health and mental health services, mentoring, etc.—that research shows are critical to educational success and to closing opportunity gaps between low-income students and their more affluent peers. ESSA’s focus on a more comprehensive approach is further buttressed by the inclusion of a non-academic indicator as part of state accountability systems.
What if states and districts took this opportunity to make every Title I school a community school?
Community school strategies, and their focus on bring a diverse set of supports and services into schools to improve educational outcomes, are well aligned with the new law’s vision for a well-rounded education. Making all Title I schools community schools would ensure that we are translating this vision into action for our students most in need of supports. And there is a growing base of research and practice related to community schools to build upon; lessons from states, districts and cities where community schools are gaining traction and showing results can guide this strategy.
While making good on the intent of the law, this approach would also help to satisfy several of its requirements, including conducting a needs assessment, something that community schools regularly do; strengthening partnerships with other public and private organizations to bring in more resources and expand opportunities, another feature of community schools; and engaging families, a community schools’ cornerstone.
So how might this work?
Language related to “a well-rounded education” is woven throughout the new legislation and appears in all of the major Title programs. ESSA also provides many options for using federal funding to support community schools. New flexibility in Title I from the recapture of SIG resources; the new Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant; and Title IV (Safe and Healthy Students Programs) can all contribute to a community school strategy and some of its associated services. State Education Agencies can also help to smooth the way with other state agencies—health, mental health, juvenile justice—to bring more programs, services and opportunities to schools, promoting a richer set of educational experiences and better outcomes for more students.
This is not to suggest that making every Title I school a community school would be an easy undertaking or a quick fix. According the National Center for Education Statistics, in school year 2010 (the most recent year for which data are available), there were just under 49,000 Title I schools. This represents about half of the almost 99,000 public school across the country. While it is unclear exactly how many community schools currently exist (NCES does not collect this data), a 2014 Child Trends study reported that there were less than 3,000 schools with programs that provide integrated student supports. This leaves more than 45,000 Title I schools where implementing a community schools model or approach would be new.
Additionally, if the education community has learned anything from recent reform experiences, it is that major changes—whether implementing a turnaround model or a new teacher evaluation system—require buy-in from those who will be involved in or affected by the change. The same holds true for becoming a community school; school leaders and staff, students, families and the community must embrace the shift. In addition to the need to garner stakeholder support, we have also learned that real reform takes planning, resources, time, patience, supports, and the adoption of a continuous improvement process that allows the reform to grow and improve as it adjusts to the needs and demands of particular communities.
With all of this in mind, I suggest a strategy that starts by engaging those districts and schools that are interested in making their Title I schools community schools and building from there. More specifically, states and districts could create new processes to identify districts and schools that will receive support to adopt a community schools’ strategy and hold them accountable for doing so by collecting a specified set of data and assessing progress. The districts could then build implementation plans that take full advantage of the new law and will sustain the strategy long into the future. This also creates opportunities to engage community partners—another requirement of the new law. States could further promote this process by developing frameworks that districts could adopt for establishing community schools and providing technical support, drawing from resources and lessons from community school pioneers like those in Tulsa, New York City and Oakland to name a few. Support organizations like the Coalition for Community Schools and the National Center for Community Schools and program models like Communities in Schools and Say Yes to Education can also inform this process.
From where I stand, when it comes to providing students with the range of supports and services that we know are necessary for success, the stars have just aligned. With ESSA we have the ability to make every Title I school a community school and make some real progress on closing opportunity and achievement gaps across the country. At C&J, we welcome the opportunity to support any state or district that is willing to take the leap.
In part one of this series, Systemic Approaches to School and District Transformation, I argued that we can avoid the Frankenstein’s Monster syndrome in school and district reform—parts may look ok but the whole is incoherent, producing inconsistent results—and that school transformation doesn’t occur in a vacuum. In this installment, I explain C&J’s Transformational Framework which, I believe, respects the complexity of the turnaround challenge while pushing for relentless execution of clear goals. Part 3 of this series will focus on the “black box” of district transformation; we’ll make explicit what is often tacit in practice.
At C&J, we believe that seven components are critical to every district transformation initiative; these are the foundation of our Theory of Action.
Leadership. Effective leadership is at the core of district transformation. We help leaders leverage their strengths and build their capacity to tackle the tough work of transformation. Student learning is the core business of schools. Because that learning is unlocked through interactions with teachers in schools, we need to pay special attention to coaching leaders—district administrators and principals—as they create cultures, structures, and practices that attract, place, and support great teachers.
Know where you are. For a plan to be successful, it needs to be grounded in a careful assessment of current conditions. We need to conduct needs analyses to understand and document the current state of human capital, financial, instructional, and other systems and practices, including the extent to which they interact to support district goals.
Know where you’re going. We need to help districts with metrics that they will use to measure success and select the key levers that will drive progress towards their goals. We need to then work with districts to create blueprints for reconfiguring systems and practices to achieve results.
Build a culture of continuous improvement. We believe that district leadership will move from pockets of success to system-wide results by carefully deconstructing challenges and systematically developing solutions. By routinely analyzing what’s working, what’s not, and why, districts can end a culture of firefighting and create conditions for school success at scale. We need to help districts establish routines and protocols for doing just that.
Build reinforcing systems. Beyond planning, we need to work with district leaders to reengineer systems and practices with a focus on coherence and excellence, helping districts leverage their full capacity to execute plans and achieve goals.
Coordinate citywide and create the conditions for learning. We understand that closing the achievement gaps for students of color, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities while at the same time raising the bar for every student is vital to the success of a school district. We need to look beyond the school walls and take a deeper understanding of the community and its effects on the classroom. Looking at correlating factors such as poverty and low achievement, we need to guide systematic change for all students, regardless of economic standing, taking into account that stress and adversity often created by poverty—limited access to good nutrition, nurturing adults, good prenatal care, high-quality early-childhood programs, and housing, among others—have a strong impact on learning outcomes. We also know that these issues can be addressed through a well-coordinated system of early interventions—academic and cognitive, social-emotional learning —provided by schools, city agencies, and partners.
Measure results. Through frequent review of data, research, and analysis, we need to work shoulder-to-shoulder with district leaders to keep major system reforms on track for success. Transforming a school district requires political courage, fierce commitment, and strategic focus.
We believe that these seven components are critical and form the basis for sustainable district transformation. By focusing on these components, leveraging districts’ existing strengths and building capacity where needed, leaders can position themselves to achieve the enhanced educational outcomes that their students and communities deserve.
In 2014, I wrote for the Aspen Institute in the Huffington Post that there is a lot that can be done to accelerate student achievement in our school system if we focus on results rather than intentions and implement reform efforts systemically, thoroughly, and deliberately. Each city has one data point, one element that parents and community look to as an indicator of success. In Rochester, NY, it is the 4-year high school graduation rate. In Chicago, it is access to a good neighborhood school. In Washington, DC, it seems to be access to a good school in your neighborhood. In Washington, DC, working with the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, C&J is using the Learning Network to help improve many of the District of Columbia’s district and charter schools. Developed in 2008 in partnership with the Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE) to rethink the state’s approach to school reform, the DC Learning Network is an approach that engages school-level professionals directly in co-constructing improvement efforts that results in capacity building and bypasses less effective, top-down attempts at reform.
School district leaders need to focus on the key levers that will drive progress toward that data point and understand that these levers must be interrelated and mutually reinforcing. District leaders can move school systems from pockets of success to system-wide excellence by creating integrated district-wide improvement strategies that are supported by critical enablers, such as a synergistic focus on effective instruction together with operational excellence. High-achieving systems are driven by leaders focused on results and have teams disciplined at effective execution of core strategies.
There is nothing magical about these strategies. Lean Six Sigma principles are employed in industries where repeated failure is unacceptable, such as in the airline industry. We learn, change practice, and get safer after each airline accident or incident, yet we are too tolerant of failure in our school systems.
In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell reminds us “To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success…with a society that provides opportunities for all.” Through a responsive, disciplined, and coherent approach, I know that this can be done.
The Keys to Achieving Success in School and District Transformation, Part 1
What does it really take to turn around a struggling school or school district?
More than 15 years ago, Michael Fullan wrote in Phi Delta Kappan that “the main reason for the failure of these reforms to go to scale and to endure is that we have failed to understand that both local school development and the quality of the surrounding infrastructure are critical for lasting success.” In his The Three Stories of School Reform, Fullan contends that the most significant enemies of large-scale reform are overload and extreme fragmentation. He argues for coherence and maintains that the work of reform must occur both inside and outside the system—from the schoolhouse to the state house.
As a former school superintendent, I have always found it puzzling that so many push for school-level reforms without a parallel focus on the central office, state department of education and surrounding community. It’s no surprise that under these circumstances the money and effort allocated to reform have not yielded satisfactory results. A look at the schools under review in any state or district shows a repeated cycle of failure and a depressing trail of dollars spent.
The work of transformation is neither simple nor easy. It is no small task to educate ALL of the children in our nation’s schools. While we have experienced successes, our children still have unequal access to quality education across communities. Why? Because partial reforms have led to partial progress.
The good news is that a number of states and districts are implementing or considering a much more cogent strategy of school improvement. Say Yes to Education (SYTE), for example, posits that we are often focusing on the wrong levers and has demonstrated that the city or county is the unit of change. SYTE leverages a complex network of schools, higher education, governmental systems, service providers, and community organizations to create a comprehensive strategy—with a unique data approach—to improve student educational outcomes and post-secondary success. Through our work advising SYTE and providing strategic support to its districts, we have been fortunate to witness firsthand the success of this approach.
At the state level, Massachusetts has a bold and well-thought-out plan for district and school turnaround. In 2014, the Massachusetts Department of Education commissioned the Institute for Strategic Leadership and Learning to conduct a three-year analysis of school and district practices, systems, and policies and use of resources contributing to successful turnaround efforts. The levers identified reinforce the argument that the effort must be comprehensive and coherent. They include:
- Employing strategic human capital;
- Getting the right leaders and teachers in place;
- Organizing the district for successful turnaround;
- Organizing district offices, policies, and resources to support, monitor, and expand turnaround efforts;
- Targeting resources on instruction and professional practice; and
- Understanding how districts and schools used funding to drive turnaround efforts.
Though specific approaches vary, no matter how it is sliced, reforms, strategies and initiatives must be integrated into a system-wide improvement strategy to avoid the Frankenstein’s Monster syndrome—parts may look ok but the whole is incoherent, producing inconsistent results. School transformation doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Engaging a broad array of partners in the work is essential to ensuring the success of any school or district transformation effort.
Opportunity in ESSA
With the latest iteration of ESEA, state and local education agencies will see significant autonomy and decision-making authority returned to them. School Improvement Grants in their current form are ended and states are being given the power to redefine school success. This provides a tremendous new opportunity for a coherent, systemic approach to reform and lift many systems and schools out of their current underperformance.
This post is the first in a three-part series examining the key components of successful school and district transformation.
“Trying to walk down an escalator going up.” This is how an 18-year old Washington, DC student described his high school career that culminated this past spring—despite the odds—with him receiving his diploma. His was one of 29 high school seniors who spoke to C&J’s Marian Robinson (also an assistant professor at The George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development).
These 29 graduating seniors had one thing in common—they entered ninth grade looking statistically identical to students who would ultimately drop out but ended up “recovering” and graduating from high school on time. With support from Raise DC, C&J conducted focus groups with these students to learn about their stories. The results are contained in the new report From Off Track to Diploma: Understanding the Educational Path of Washington, DC, Recovery Students (the report can be downloaded for free from Raise DC’s website here).
The stories told by these remarkable young people were funny, heartbreaking, heartfelt, and inspiring. Students told about patterns of low academic engagement—reflected in poor grades, disengagement during class, and excessive absences—tracing back to their middle school years. Many were promoted despite failing grades. Negative social activities and difficult family dynamics dominated student attention both in and out of school.
For many, the situation worsened as they entered high school: They reported that the academic expectations and increased responsibilities of high school were disorienting and acknowledged that they entered high school without understanding the gatekeeping roles of course credits, GPA, and attendance. The subject orientation, high standards, and fast pace of high schools added to their difficulties. Finally, social distractions expanded and intensified in high school, now resulting in real consequences that stood in the way of graduation.
The report presents six key reasons recovery students got back on track to graduation. Students pinpointed tipping-point events that sparked their commitment to change, including undergoing self-reflection triggered by seeing failing grades, experiencing concrete consequences of negative behavior, and becoming increasingly sensitive to family members’ concerns for their futures.
Thanks to DC’s comprehensive school choice program (which also results in student mobility and school tumult as they accommodate students in the middle of the year), students—many of whom changed schools more than once during their four years—found their “right” schools that met their needs or offered “fresh starts.” At their graduating schools, students felt anchored by the development of positive adult relationships and school cultures that offered the structures to help students imagine, plan for, and work toward a future. They thrived in schools that embraced a practice of multiple chances for success through encouragement to revise class work, to frequently monitor their grades, and to utilize credit recovery resources.
Once on the path to graduation, students felt—and were—transformed. As one student told C&J’s Dr. Robinson:
I remember the moment when I knew like I was actually going to make it. It was like when I first came here, and I got my first honor roll for my whole high school career. I was just like shocked. I was so surprised by myself that I didn’t even … I was so used to just barely making it. So when I made that I was just like, “Well, I could do anything now.” Now I just kept on getting honor roll. So, yeah … That’s when I knew I was going to make it.
How do we help more students at risk of dropping out to recover? We do know a lot about works (see here, for example, for improved transitions to ninth grade). But we wanted to maintain student voices, and they made it clear that there is no secret sauce. What is clear, however, is that some students just need time to mature with the supports of caring (and very patient) adults in the school. Ideally, these adults should have a lot of information and data about students and ways to easily access services such as health, legal, counseling, and economic services. It helps if schools empower disengaged students to track their own academic progress, revise assignments, and access needed credits. It’s also clear that middle schools are not serving these students well and need to change by becoming more engaging, rigorous, supportive, and aligned with the high school (or schools) that most of their students will attend.
None of these findings are unique. What is unique is the way in which Dr. Robinson gives voice to those who are too frequently ignored in Washington, DC’s policy circles—the students themselves.