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School Turnaround the Wright Way

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Wright Brothers 1 27 12.jpgIn 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright changed the world in the most American of ways, by tinkering in their bicycle shop and then testing their flying machine in the dunes of Kitty Hawk. The basic design principles they followed were the same as those being followed by optimistic airplane designers all over the world. Others used similar airframes, engines, and controls. The Wright brothers did make numerous innovations, but to an observer, there was little that differentiated their model from many others, with one exception: their airplane actually flew.

Now space forward 109 years, and consider school reform. In turning around persistently low-achieving schools, report after report tells us that we need to emphasize strong leadership, high expectations, extensive professional development, effective use of time, and data-based management. All of these are emphasized in School Improvement Grants (SIG), for example, and all are certainly sensible. But is emphasizing such a list of "design principles" enough to turn around failing schools?

In a recent post I wrote about the importance of developing and disseminating well-structured, well-integrated programs that have been rigorously evaluated and found to be effective. Disseminating proven programs is very different from disseminating lists of variables associated with effective schools. For one thing, proven programs are known to work across a variety of circumstances, and are not limited to a particular set of circumstances unlikely to exist elsewhere. The Wright biplane would have just been another curiosity if it had not turned out to work anywhere with an airfield. Second, proven programs depend on many more, and more specific, innovations than those captured by the lists. Third, proven programs are provided by organizations that build expertise in supporting their effective use, and are essentially held accountable for the success of their approach. If the Wright brothers had not been able to improve upon and scale up their model, their inventiveness would not have mattered.

Anyone who has tried to turn around a failing school armed with a list of variables and general good advice will know that the chances of takeoff are uncertain. No program guarantees success, but replicating and adapting proven programs offers the best chance of making a difference. It's better to do it the Wright way.

Image: John T. Daniels, 1903, available via public domain

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