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Turning Schools Around: Myth or Reality?

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Can we really turn around chronically low-performing schools? I have heard some people say that kids who come from low-income homes simply cannot learn at high levels. Much blame is placed on parents for "sending their kids to school unprepared." I agree that kids from low-income homes do not come to school with the same experiences as kids from high-income homes, but that doesn't mean they can't learn at high levels. Does it help when there is good parenting taking place at home? Absolutely, it does matter. However, schools must also accept the responsibility for this learning. There are examples all across our country that dispels the myth that poor kids cannot learn at high levels.

When we have people whose minds are made up that poor children cannot learn, it is no wonder that many of our kids are not learning at high levels. So much relies on expectations. When folks believe all kids can learn at high levels and communicate those expectations, achievement escalates.

"It's not just particular programs or practices, but the interplay of school implementation with district policies and support, according to the Institute of Education Sciences' Turning Around Low-Performing Schools project--the most comprehensive federal research on such schools to date."

Out of this study came a Practice Guide that shares best practices for turning around chronically low performing schools. Four major recommendations, listed below, are particularly noteworthy for those of us who are committed to significant reform efforts:

1. Signal the need for dramatic change with strong leadership. Schools should make a clear commitment to dramatic changes from the status quo, and the leader should signal the magnitude and urgency of that change. A low-performing school that fails to make adequate yearly progress must improve student achievement within a short timeframe--it does not have the luxury of years to implement incremental reforms.

2. Maintain a consistent focus on improving instruction. Chronically low-performing schools need to maintain a sharp focus on improving instruction at every step of the reform process. To improve instruction, schools should use data to set goals for instructional improvement, make changes to immediately and directly affect instruction, and continually reassess student learning and instructional practices to refocus the goals.

3. Make visible improvements early in the school turnaround process (quick wins). These can rally staff around the effort and overcome resistance and inertia.

4. Build a committed staff. The school leader must build a staff that is committed to the school's improvement goals and qualified to carry out school improvement. This goal may require changes in staff, such as releasing, replacing, or redeploying staff who are not fully committed to turning around student performance and bringing in new staff who are committed.

Strong leadership has been clearly in evidence in the schools where I have seen successful turnaround efforts. I am convinced that the principal is key to the turnaround effort. He or she sets the tone for change, provides the support needed to make it happen, and holds people accountable for the results. The principal sets expectation levels for everything that happens in the building. That doesn't mean there should not be collaboration and stakeholder involvement, but in the end it is the principal who is the determining factor.

In addition to the need for high quality, sustained professional development for teachers, there is such a strong case for leadership development for principals. In Kentucky, the state Chamber of Commerce provides this needed development knowing this is one of the keys to our future success.

John Maxwell, one our nation's leadership gurus, writes about The Law of the Lid in his book, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. Maxwell says that an organization can only rise to the lid of its leader. In other words, a school can only achieve to the level of the capacity of its principal. I highly recommend this book for those interested in growing the capacity of leaders in our schools.

The bottom line is that chronically low-performing schools are being turned around right now all across our country. If this is happening in these communities, why shouldn't it happen everywhere? We must advocate for high levels of learning for ALL kids and let folks know that it can be done!

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