A New Federal Report Documents What Low-Performing are NOT Doing to Succeed

The Problem? The U.S. Department of Education's School Improvement Practices do not Guide Real Success

Moving Toward Solutions: 12 Questions that WILL Guide School Improvement Success

Over the past weeks, I have begun to consult in an inner-city high school that has been on the state's "Low Performing Schools" list for the past eight years. Three superintendents later. . . five building principals later. . . and after spending over $3 million from its School Improvement Grant (SIG), nothing has changed and, in fact, things have gotten worse.

District leaders are not helping the school leaders. . . who are not helping the instructional leaders. . . who are not helping the students. . . who - - approximately 40% of them - - are dropping out each year.

And the U.S. Department of Education continues to push its four (now five) "models" of school improvement on the State Department of Education. . . which employs School Improvement Leaders who don't have a real clue as to how to do school improvement in a functional, realistic, and sustained way.

Not that school improvement is easy to do successfully. But it seems like. . . after almost 14 years of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (originally "No Child Left Behind"), we should have better systems and better results. And yet we continue to leave far too many schools and too many students behind.

A New Federal Report Describes How Low-Performing Schools are Trying to Succeed

Late last month (October 28), the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Science (IES) published a report on "Are Low- Performing Schools Adopting Practices Promoted by School Improvement Grants?"

Based on Spring 2013 surveys from school administrators in 480 low- performing schools that were and were not implementing one of the four federal school turn-around models, the results indicated that:

  • Schools on average were using only 20 of 32 improvement practices promoted by the SIG transformation or turn-around models.
  • No schools reported adopting all practices required under the transformation or turn-around models.
  • More than 96% of schools reported adopting each of the 3 most commonly adopted individual practices:
  1. using data to inform and differentiate instruction;
  2. increasing technology access for teachers or using computer-assisted instruction; and
  3. providing ongoing professional development that involves teachers working collaboratively or isfacilitateby school leaders.
  • For 16 of the 32 practices examined, the SIG schools were more likely to be using those practices.

But How are the SIG Schools Performing?

But before we conclude that the SIG schools are having greater success because they are implementing more of the 32 improvement practices, let's remember that this now-$6 billion program has resulted in:

  • A third of the participating schools getting worse academic results for their students
  • Two-thirds of the participating schools showing improvement, but only marginal improvement
  • Schools with two years of SIG funding and interventions realizing only a three percentage point gain in reading proficiency - - just about the same gain as all other U.S. schools not receiving the grant money

What are these 32 Improvement Practices?

It is critical to recognize that the 32 improvement practices promoted by the SIG transformation or turn-around models are incredibly global in nature, and that they do not specify the implementation steps needed to guide effective practice.

Moreover, they do not "drill down" to the essential questions needed for school improvement.

These practices are described in the IES report (cited and linked to above) on Page 7, Table 2.

Here are some examples:

  • Use data to evaluate instructional programs
  • Use data to inform and differentiate instruction
  • Use benchmark or interim assessments at least annually
  • Implement strategies to ensure that ELL learners master academic content
  • Require student achievement growth as a component of teacher evaluations
  • Provide multiple-session professional development events
  • Replace the principal
  • Use financial incentives to recruit and retain effective principals
  • Change parent or community engagement strategies
  • Change discipline policies

Parenthetically, I had a recent conversation with a state department of education official who told me that "my approaches to school improvement were too complex." She proceeded to say that superintendents and school principals needed improvement practices that were easy to implement and that did not take a lot of time.

My response to her was that, "There is a different between a sophisticated practice that works, and a simple practice that does not work and that actually may make the 'problem' worse and more resistant to change."

My unstated thought was to reflect on the things in my life that require sophisticated systems - - the electrical grid in my community, the planes that I fly on, the medical doctors that I visit.

I surely hope that the pilot commanding my flight to New Mexico tomorrow does not do things the "simple" way. . . I need him or her to do things the right way ! ! !

What are 12 Essential Questions Needed for School Improvement?

Before presenting to the School Leadership Team at the low-performing inner-city high school that I began working with last week, I sat down and wrote out 12 Essential Questions that I consistently use for school improvement. Critically, my "ultimately" school improvement goal is to:

Maximize the academic and social, emotional, and behavioral learning, mastery, progress, and independent skill levels of all students

Moreover, I believe that every school should be working to improve to the next level of excellence.

Finally, I recognize that there are specific strategies and approaches that are needed to answer each of these questions (see the Project ACHIEVE website for many of these: www.projectachieve.net).

The 12 Essential Questions are:

  1. Do staff know the current functional skill level (mastery) of each student in literacy, math, oral expression, and written expression?
  2. Does each lesson, class, and course identify the expected results relative to the knowledge and content, and skills and application abilities expected of students? Does everyone know what mastery looks like?
  3. Do teachers and students assess learning and mastery accurately?
  4. Does each lesson, class, and course identify the prerequisite knowledge/content and skills/application needed in order to effectively teach (and have students learn) the expected outcomes?
  5. Do teachers have the curricular materials (direct and supplemental, course syllabi, class lessons) to effectively teach and differentiate?
  6. Are teachers working in cross-/trans-curricular ways and teams so that they are consistently teaching and reinforcing common literacy, math, oral expression, and written expression skills?
  7. Can teachers differentiate instruction given the number of different skill levels of students in their classrooms?
  8. Are students taking responsibility for their academic and social interactions and progress and that of their peers?
  9. Are students/staff taught and reinforced for interpersonal, social problem solving, conflict prevention/ resolution, and emotional coping skills?
  10. Are students/staff taught and reinforced for their skill in the areas of organization, time and stress management, and ways to prioritize their learning and social, emotional, and behavioral actions and activities?
  11. Do teachers understand that teaching is a performing art, that they need to constantly hone their craft, and they are all on-stage together?
  12. Are students and staff receiving the services, supports, strategies, and programs they need to be academically and interpersonally successful?


We are wasting time, effort, resources, and expertise on global school improvement approaches, that have not been adequately field-tested, and that do not have the implementation specificity needed for success.

And because of this, we continue to lose students, staff, schools, and communities who are "turned off" of the approaches that actually work.

We have got to work together-- effectively and efficiently-- to establish and institutionalize these effective system, school, staff, and student approaches--even if they involve sophisticated strategies and multiple layers.

And we cannot be swayed by messages- - or messengers - - who want to oversimplify "school improvement" to the degree that success can never be attained.

I hope that some of the ideas above resonate with you. Please accept my best wishes as you continue to provide the services and supports that all of your students need. Have a GREAT week !!!