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February 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 5

How Do We Get There from Here?

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The general outline of "what works" to improve schools for all kids isn't a mystery. Research and experience have identified five practices that typically yield improvement:
  • Have a laser-like focus on what kids need to learn.
  • Collaborate on how to teach that content by unpacking standards, mapping curriculum, designing lessons, and constructing assessments that measure whether students master those lessons.
  • Use the results of classroom and district formative assessments to see which kids got it, and need enrichment, and which ones didn't, and need additional help.
  • Find patterns in data and use them to improve instruction (My students haven't learned as many sight words as yours. What do you do that I should try?).
  • Build personal relationships so that students trust teachers and so that parents, teachers, and administrators trust one another.
This particular formulation of "what works" comes from Molly Bensinger-Lacy, former principal of Graham Road Elementary School in Falls Church, Virginia, a high-poverty school. Graham Road was very low-performing when Bensinger-Lacy arrived and very high-performing when she left five years later.
Other people might use different words or include somewhat different ideas. But Bensinger-Lacy's list is consistent with both the research of Ronald Edmonds (1979); Michael Rutter (1982); Anthony Bryk (2010); Kenneth Leithwood and colleagues (2004); and Robert Marzano (2003)—to name just a few—and the craft knowledge of practicing educators. Bensinger-Lacy was drawing on both research and craft knowledge, as well as her conviction that all students have the capacity to learn at high levels.
Yet the United States' 100,000 schools haven't sufficiently carried out those five practices—or even some version thereof—to create the kind of dramatic improvements Bensinger-Lacy led.
It's worth asking why not?

Challenges in the Way

I believe one reason is that each of those five practices, simple as they seem, represents an organizational and intellectual challenge for schools and districts.
Take, for example, the practice of focusing on what kids need to learn. This requires, first, having a clear idea of, well, what kids need to learn—which is an intellectual challenge (witness the fight over the Common Core State Standards). Maintaining this focus also requires overcoming many organizational hurdles to align all the school's resources—including the master schedule, curriculum, textbooks, daily lessons, and assessments—with the standards students must master. In addition, a school's routines and traditions, and even its physical space, must reflect a focus on what students need to learn. Ensuring that kind of coherence sometimes means changing fundamental systems and even flying in the face of school traditions.
Or consider collaboration. Most educators know collaboration is important. Only by combining knowledge and expertise can educators hope to ensure that all students learn what they need to. However, finding the time for it remains an organizational challenge. And knowing how to collaborate in ways that build expertise and capacity and aggregate educators' individual efforts remains a daunting intellectual challenge. Many teachers still cringe when they're required to attend collaboration meetings because, too often, such meetings are a waste of time.
So we have a situation in which the general principles of what works are pretty well established, but the field still has difficulty consistently putting those principles into practice in a way that leads to improvement. Thus, the important question facing educators right now isn't "What works?" but "How do we get there from here?"
To better understand that question, I have observed seven expert school leaders as they entered new jobs, either as principals of struggling schools or as coaches of principals in struggling schools. Each educator I observed had previously led a high-performing or rapidly improving school serving substantial populations of students of color and students living in poverty. Each had participated in a study of highly effective principals that Christina Theokas and I conducted in 2011.Both Christina and I have visited these leaders periodically to get a sense for how they assessed the strengths and weaknesses of their new schools and decided on their first steps.
Needless to say, these school leaders are doing complex work that can't be captured in a short article. But two of their stories will, I think, illustrate the point that although what needs to be done to enhance school performance is fairly well established, many low-performing schools have fallen into intellectual and organizational patterns that impede them from taking those actions. Let's look at how these school leaders are facing down the organizational and intellectual challenges that threaten to stop them from putting key practices into effect.

Focusing on What Matters

An educator I'll call Cathy assumed the principalship of a large, chaotic, low-performing elementary school in the urban district where she'd spent her career. She knew what she was getting into. The school was notorious for angry parents and difficult staff and for the fact that students were regularly led away from the school in handcuffs. The school hadn't met any of the district or federal achievement targets in years. Almost all its students were black; most were from low-income families.
Unsurprisingly, teachers spent a great deal of time maintaining order. Underneath that, the principal found idiosyncratic instruction pegged to textbooks and teacher interests rather than to the current state standards or the newly adopted Common Core standards.

Tackling the Organizational Challenge

Although Cathy knew she needed to tackle the intellectual challenge of making sure instruction focused on what kids needed to know, she began with the more foundational organizational challenge: The master schedule didn't allow for grade-level collaboration, and classrooms weren't clustered by grade level. For one 4th grade teacher to talk to another required a hike down several halls of the sprawling building.
This new principal reorganized the master schedule so that all the teachers in a grade level shared a planning time, and she reassigned classrooms so grade levels were clustered together. This unsettled the teachers who had to move, but Cathy knew that the need for collaboration overrode the school's traditional ways of allocating classroom space. She also hoped it would help begin to build relationships among teachers who had operated in isolated, autonomous classrooms.
Knowing that many teachers define administrative support as help with discipline, Cathy and her assistant principal patrolled the hallways to maintain order while the faculty developed schoolwide expectations for behavior. They devised respectful consequences kids could understand (if students couldn't walk to the cafeteria in an orderly way, they had to eat in their classrooms for a week) and emphasized consequences that didn't interrupt instruction. Cathy didn't stop suspending students, but she considered suspension the last resort rather than the first line of defense, as it seemed to have been in the past, judging from the sky-high suspension numbers.

Addressing the Intellectual Challenge

Cathy considered one root cause of the discipline problem to be that students were bored with textbook-heavy instruction and worksheets. Some teachers were excited about the new Common Core standards, so Cathy ensured that they went to district and
state trainings and brought back what they learned.
Teachers began gathering evidence of where the district-mandated curriculum mapped to the standards and where it needed to be supplemented or supplanted. That information became part of the agenda of teacher collaboration meetings. When teachers worried that their students were incapable of meeting even their current, rather low-level standards—much less more complex demands—Cathy took them to a high-performing school with similar demographics to see what could be accomplished when all elements of success were in place. She encouraged teachers to substitute books, writing assignments, and math games for worksheets; and lessons slowly became more engaging.
The first year of these changes, the school made adequate yearly progress. Three years into the process of systematically putting into place the elements of what works, about 90 percent of students met state standards. The principal doesn't consider that good enough; she expects that the new, Common Core–aligned test results will reflect how much work remains. But by reorganizing systems that work together—use of time and space, collaboration linked to standards, and positive discipline—the school has become calm and orderly. Students are engaged. This school is now in a position to steadily ratchet up its instruction.

Doing Data Right

Daniel became principal of an elementary school in a medium-size suburban district that gives its schools much autonomy over curriculum and management. Over the previous decade, the school had shifted from a primarily white middle-class school to one with a substantial population of the children of Spanish-speaking immigrants; many of these parents were low-income workers.
The school's data showed a wide gap in reading and math achievement between white and Hispanic students in 3rd grade; it looked like an insurmountable chasm at 5th grade. Discipline data reflected a problem with student misbehavior. The longer low-income Hispanic students were in school, the more disengaged and disruptive they appeared to become.

Facing the Organizational Challenge

Before even observing instruction, Daniel saw that the building itself demonstrated a lack of focus on what kids needed to know. It had a 1970s-era open classroom plan, with pods of classrooms built around a centrally located library. The idea behind the original design was to make reading the center of the building, but over the years the library had been taken over by different specialists and carved up into little offices so that there was hardly any library left. Ironically, there was space available elsewhere in the building occupied only by broken, outdated furniture. The building as a whole had the feeling of an overgrown garden where plants had been added but never pruned.
Over the summer, the new principal tore down what he called the "shanty town"; relocated the Title I, special education, and English as a second language teachers and aides; and bought shelving, computers, and kid-size furniture for the library. Over time, staff members unearthed cartons of books that had been sitting unused in storage closets for years—books that they put back into the library organized by reading level.
By making the library once again welcoming and well-stocked, Daniel made clear that reading was a central focus of the school. He demonstrated the idea that every resource, including space, should reflect what students need to learn and be able to do.
Daniel met with each teacher individually before school opened. Many staff members were defensive about their state assessment results, saying that the relative success of their white middle-class students demonstrated that they were doing their job properly. Some were quick to blame low-income Hispanic families for the poor results of their children.
Teachers had no systems in place to assess how students were progressing through the year and no process for developing formative assessments and studying the resulting data. Prep time was used almost exclusively for individual planning rather than collaboration. When collaboration did occur, it focused primarily on individual lessons rather than on unpacking standards, mapping curriculum, constructing assessments, and looking for patterns in data to see what was working and what wasn't.
The principal reorganized the schedule so grade-level teachers had common planning times. But his insistence on using planning times for collaboration, data analysis, and professional development initially rankled the staff, some of whom openly refused his requests to change.

Meeting the Intellectual Challenge

Understanding that, even in the absence of collaboratively developed assessments, teachers still needed data to know whether their students were making progress, Daniel purchased a computerized reading and math monitoring system that was reasonably well correlated with what students needed to do on the state's assessments.
Goals were set for words read and math problems solved. Daniel emphasized schoolwide the idea that practice helps strengthen the fluency and automaticity that, in time, builds comprehension and mastery. He organized the data from the monitoring system so teachers could see how their students were progressing in comparison to others in the same grade. The hope was that teachers would collaborate to discuss what practices were—and weren't—effective.
At the end of Daniel's first year, the school still had many deficiencies. Some teachers were still unwilling to collaborate with colleagues, and quite a lot of classroom instruction was unfocused and boring. But teachers now had much more data on students' learning. They were slowly beginning to use this information to ensure that their instruction was more targeted to learners' needs.
That year, the school showed the most progress of any school in its district in student growth, which gave Daniel more credibility among the faculty. In his second year, the school showed improvement not only in growth, but also in proficiency rates and was raised a level in the state's ranking system. More telling, students were more actively engaged in their learning. Even initially resistant teachers were beginning to see the value in focusing closely on what students needed to know, collaborating, and monitoring progress.

Principal as Catalyst

These vignettes demonstrate how easy it is for schools to allow the exigencies of the moment—behavior problems, scheduling and space issues, the list goes on and on—to pull them away from doing the things we know work to improve schools. Schools may not even realize that entrenched structures and practices are a problem. Tackling the resulting intellectual and organizational challenges takes a deep understanding of the research and craft knowledge that have been built over the past few decades.
The two principals described here each believe deeply—as do I—that the principal should not be the locus of all decisions. They reject the idea of "principal as hero." However, at least in the initial stages of school improvement, it appears schools may need the focused efforts of a leader who believes in the capacity of all students. Such a leader can establish systems that allow teachers to focus on the things that work—and model how to evaluate every decision through a "what works" filter.

Bryk, A. (2010). Organizing schools for improvement: Lessons from Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago Research.

Edmonds, R. (1979). Effective schools for the urban poor. Educational Leadership, 37(1), 18–24.

Leithwood, K., Seashore Louis, K., Anderson, S., & Wahlstrom, K. (2004). How leadership influences student learning. St. Paul, MN, and Toronto: Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement and Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at University of Toronto.

Marzano, R. (2003). What works in schools: Translating research into action. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Rutter, M. (1982). Fifteen thousand hours: Secondary schools and their effects on children. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

End Notes

1 This study led to our book, Getting It Done: Leading Academic Success in Unexpected Schools (Harvard Education Press, 2011).

2 Because the schools these principals lead remain works in progress, I am using pseudonyms rather than naming the principals.

Karin Chenoweth is a long-time reporter and education writer. Her latest book is Districts that Succeed: Breaking the Correlation Between Race, Poverty, and Achievement (Harvard Education Press, 2021). Chenoweth is writer-in-residence at The Education Trust, a national education advocacy organization that works to improve the academic achievement of all children, particularly children of color and children from low-income backgrounds.

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