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The Common Elements of School Transformation

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By Bob Farrace, Senior Director for Communications and Development at the National Association of Secondary School Principals

The wide adoption of Common Core State Standards is prompting the education community to revisit what school transformation means. By all accounts, the Common Core will, for the vast majority of students, be quite a reach that will require big changes in schools (about which I'll say more in a later post). For now, we need to reassure ourselves that transformation is within the grasp of all schools that aspire to it. Despite the beliefs of some in policy circles, it's folly to think we can "reconstitute" our way to improved student performance. Or to "school-closure" our way to higher achievement. Or to "pink-slip-and-rehire" our way to better schools. Our best hope for pervasive, broad school transformation is to build the capacity of those who have stepped forward and committed to the hard work of advancing student learning. Unfortunately, if the results of the recent MetLife Survey of the American Teacher are any indication, we have a lot of work to do to improve the morale and perceived efficacy of those professionals.

Fortunately, models of successful transformation are available to us. Today, 16 teams from highly successful schools are gathering to present at the Breaking Ranks School Showcase in Tampa, Florida, a warm-up event for the 2012 NASSP Breaking Ranks K-12 Conference. The showcased schools were not always high-performing, but they committed to improving and are now testaments to the possibilities of school transformation with the right leadership, vision, and supports. In some cases, a new principal set a new long-term course for the school. In other cases, the existing leadership came face-to-face with the data and realized the school had to go about business differently. Regardless of where the school started, leaders of all these schools focused their energies on these core areas:

Collaborative leadership. NASSP has long held that school leadership is just too big a job for any one person to take on alone. A principal's primary duty is to build the capacity of others to participate in leading school change. Collaborative leadership requires a level of transparency and openness that prompts the principal to admit that she or he (gasp) doesn't have all the right answers. Instead, as the Breaking Ranks framework encourages, the principal leads an honest and deep exploration of the right questions, beginning with the foundational question, "How well does our school serve each student?"

That collaboration extends to other stakeholders as well. Leaders increased parent engagement and involved students in schoolwide decision making with such models as Raising Student Voice and Participation. Fundamentally, the principals strove to create an environment in which everyone invested in a school improvement process that was happening with them and not to them.

Professional learning communities. Much like leadership, teaching in high-performing schools is not an isolated profession. Teachers coordinate lessons and activities, but more important, they commit to their ongoing learning and count of their colleagues to do the same. This shared commitment contributes to a culture of professional development and establishes an environment in which new ideas spread virally and are applied in multiple contexts to be refined and reapplied to maximum benefit of students.

Personalization. Some students might be able to make it through school despite the lack of any personal connections, but all students require a supportive environment. Creating that environment is essential to bringing learning to fruition. Effective school leaders recognize that, quite appropriately, personalization means different things to different people. Yet all those meanings revolve around opportunities for students to develop a sense of belonging to the school, a sense of ownership of their learning, and the ability to recognize and make choices based on the student's own experiences and needs.

High expectations and rigor. There remains little debate about the impact of teacher expectations on student performance. In short, a teacher's setting clear expectations that a student will be successful is an essential condition for that success. High expectations for students and academic rigor are reflected in every dimension of a high-performing school's curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

The details will vary based on the context, but the consistency of focus on these core areas is hard to ignore as one listens to stories of school improvement. The good news is that the kind of transformation we need can and does happen in schools across the country. The better news is that we have reason to believe that such improvement can become viral with the right vision and supports.

Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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