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Turnaround School Principal Says Efforts Are 'Replicable'

Live from the Celebration of Teaching and Learning Conference in New York

One school that's come up again and again here at the Celebration is Brockton High School in Massachusetts. The school gained nationwide attention in September, when The New York Times published an article about its remarkable turnaround.

Susan Szachowicz, the school's principal, explained at an early session today that Brockton had a 75% failure rate on state tests 10 years ago. She and a group of other teachers who were dissatisfied with those results began to work on a restructuring plan. "Leadership isn't about a position," said Szachowicz, who was a history teacher at that time.

At first, she said, the plan involved trying to "outguess the test." Noting that students had done poorly on Shakespearean sonnets, they launched a "Shakespearean sonnet initiative," she said. "Guess what wasn't on [the test] next year?"

They decided to aim their efforts at literacy instead, defining the term as "reading, writing, speaking, and reasoning." The teachers pushed the new initiative schoolwide. They began focusing "on literacy all day, all the time, in every class," Szachowicz said. For example, the music teacher had students write essays on the French Revolution as they were learning Les Miserable. Faculty meetings, previously "a grand waste of time" full of announcements about fire drills, she said, were turned into literacy workshops. The school did not extend the school day or hire outside consultants to help with the restructuring, but rather leveraged the resources it already had.

Brockton is now among the highest performing schools in the state.

In the closing plenary session—which featured big hitters like Stanford professor of education Linda Darling Hammond, the presidents of both major national teachers' unions, and the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, Gene Wilhoit, discussing yesterday's International Summit—the moderator called Szachowicz to the stage to issue a final comment about changes needed to the U.S. education system. The turnaround at Brockton "started with a team of teachers" who were dedicated to the cause and "monitored like crazy," said the principal. "And that's replicable and sustainable."

The New York Times reported that "Brockton outperformed 90 percent of Massachusetts high schools" in 2009 and 2010, the report "How High Schools Become Exemplary," by Harvard economist Ronald Ferguson, clarifies that the finding is based on value-added achievement gains rather than proficiency. That is, students' test scores showed more improvement over two years at Brockton than at 90 percent of other schools in the state. (Hat tip, Joanne Jacobs.)

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