Together, Educators Can Improve Struggling Schools - ASCD
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December 3, 2021

Together, Educators Can Improve Struggling Schools

Leaders cannot expect to improve and transform their schools without collective efficacy.


Note: All names and places in this article are pseudonyms.

When a school is struggling, it’s often not obvious what’s wrong. Is it the principal’s lack of resolve, the teachers’ inexperience or ineffectiveness, an incoherent curriculum, a disorderly environment, or all the above? And, more importantly, what can be done about it?

Stowe Middle School, serving a high-poverty urban community, was such a school when I studied it in 2010. In the 1990s, Stowe reportedly had dedicated teachers, enthusiastic students, a vibrant school culture, and rich extracurricular experiences. By 2010, however, Stowe had poor attendance, scant discipline, plummeting test scores, and many unhappy teachers. In response to low test scores, Stowe’s principal had doubled down on student performance, requiring teachers to use extra time for instruction in basic skills. As a result, extracurricular opportunities dwindled.

The principal conducted classroom walkthroughs to pinpoint teachers’ shortcomings and hired consultants to analyze performance data and prescribe instructional improvements. By all accounts, the principal was intensely dedicated to her students’ success, yet Stowe continued its steady decline. 

No simple diagnosis could explain Stowe’s failure. Overall, the school lacked the capacity to make good use of all its resources on behalf of students—that is, to achieve the reality of collective efficacy. Most efforts to build collective efficacy focus on developing teachers’ skills and confidence, with little attention to the schools where they work (Goddard et al, 2015).

But organizational problems at Stowe were legion. Rather than engaging Stowe’s teachers as partners, the principal expected them to implement her consultants’ plan. One exasperated teacher explained that when administrators truly listen to teachers, “You buy into it. You want to be part of it.”

In response to this lack of inclusion, teachers retreated to their classrooms, deciding on their own what and how to teach and how to handle student behavior. As Stowe’s students moved from grade to grade, their educational experience was patchy and paltry (Johnson et al, 2014).

What Goes Right in Successful Urban Schools?

Recently, in an effort to better understand what goes right in schools that effectively serve students from high-poverty, marginalized communities, my colleagues and I studied six successful urban schools all located in one large Massachusetts city. Several years earlier, state officials had judged three of these schools to be failing and placed them under state control, appointing new principals who then replaced many teachers. By the time we studied these schools, from 2015 to 2016, all six—three traditional district schools and three charters—had achieved the state’s highest accountability rating, based on measures of student growth and the school’s progress in narrowing achievement gaps.  Each school also had built a valued reputation within the community. We wanted to learn how these schools organized teachers’ work--and what lessons they might offer for other schools seeking to increase their educators’ collective efficacy.

Although these six schools differed in many ways, they had notable similarities. Their principals were responsive, inclusive leaders who encouraged teachers to work with them in diagnosing problems, proposing solutions, and implementing coherent systems together. Teachers were not expected to go it alone in the isolation of their classroom.

Instead, their schools had organizational systems that integrated their combined skills and effort. These included teams of teachers who collaborated regularly about curriculum, instruction, and their students’ progress and needs; a multi-step hiring process designed to achieve a good match between new teachers and their school; a teacher evaluation system that focused first on developing teachers’ instructional skill with ongoing observations and feedback; and a system of student discipline and support that established clear expectations and consistent responses schoolwide.

These were not bureaucratic systems imposed by the principal, consultants, or the central office, but rather social systems adopted and refined by the educators within the school. What’s more, these systems reinforced one another, thus enhancing the collective efficacy of the school’s educators by improving their school as an organization (Johnson et al, 2017).

Let’s take a closer look at how educators in these schools achieved success through the systems they created.

Teachers and principals who seek to improve their school cannot reasonably expect to transform everything all at once.

Susan Moore Johnson

Teacher Teams Support Collaboration

Five of the six schools made grade-level and subject teams the central feature of their improvement strategy (Johnson et al, 2018). Whereas Stowe’s consultants decided which teachers should meet together and prescribed their learning activities, teachers in these successful schools met regularly with colleagues who taught the same students or subject. Each principal had built a schedule that provided daily planning time for grade-level teachers and time for teams to meet at least weekly. Teachers prized that time and protected it from interruption. Together, the teachers selected curriculum, planned and assessed their own instruction, and reviewed their students’ academic performance and well-being, both as individuals and as a cohort.

Teams also supported new teachers’ induction. Rather than relying on a single, assigned mentor to teach them what they needed to know, novice teachers quickly became engaged with peers who had varying levels of experience and types of expertise to share.  As part of their team’s routines, they could observe colleagues’ classes and receive feedback on their own instruction. 

Teacher leaders usually facilitated team meetings, while administrators remained well-informed about their work without micromanaging it.  At Hurston K-8 School, which had moved from state control to a Level 1 rating in three years, teams used Google Docs to record and  support their progress—and also  to share their efforts and accomplishments schoolwide.

“I would say a lot of our success is because we really work at teams,” said one principal. “The primary unit is the grade-level team. . . . It’s really like you are married to your team.”

Making a Good Hiring Match

Although hiring is normally the principal’s responsibility and often based on a single interview,  teachers at these successful schools were active participants in a two-way, information-rich process (Liu & Johnson, 2006). They helped to recruit a diverse pool of candidates, welcomed prospective colleagues to sit in on their classes, and participated in team interviews with finalists.

As schools recruited teachers, they sought to achieve a match between a candidate and their school’s mission, students, program, and needs. For example, Kincaid Charter Middle School, a self-described “no excuses school,” sought teachers who would uphold strict discipline. In contrast, Ms. Rowland, head of Rodriguez 5-8 Charter School said, “We’re not a ‘no excuses’ charter school. . . . [Y]ou’re here to serve all the kids who walk through the door and you need to believe that they can and will succeed.. . . [S]ome are great teachers, but we are not perfect for them and they are not perfect for us.”

Finalists for positions did teaching demonstrations, either with their current students or with a class in the hiring school. Afterward, administrators debriefed the lesson with the candidate. Several principals said that this debrief was more important than the lesson itself because they could assess a prospective teacher’s readiness to hear and respond to feedback.

Teachers and administrators reported that investing in careful hiring paid off.  An early-career teacher at Naylor said that he “loved the process,” because it provided a “preview of what it would be like to teach here.” Mr. Ryan, the principal of grades 5-8 at Rodriguez Charter explained, “If you hire well and you’re explicit beforehand, you don’t need to fire people.  And, if candidates understand ‘the kind of teacher’ who is satisfied and successful in that school, they’ll just know whether the environment is right for them.” Current teachers expressed confidence that a thorough hiring process yielded teammates who were, as one said, “rock solid.”

Evaluation Focused on Development

In many schools, evaluation is a perfunctory, bureaucratic process that occurs in the spring. However, teachers at these six successful schools experienced cycles of observation and feedback throughout the year (Reinhorn et al, 2017). Approximately 40 percent of the teachers we interviewed said they were observed and received suggestions for improvement at least twice each month.

Strong norms of self-improvement pervaded every school’s professional culture. In fact, 92 of the 97 teachers we interviewed confirmed their administrators’ beliefs that evaluation was designed to help them become better teachers. Because these principals were known to have been strong teachers before entering administration, teachers viewed them as having the knowledge and skill to help them improve. An experienced teacher at Rodriguez said that her principal “knows me better than I know myself as a teacher.” Teachers had confidence in their final rating because it was informed by frequent observations with feedback from their evaluator, rather than being based on one or two classroom visits. 

Evaluation was linked with other professional learning opportunities, such as instructional coaching, teacher teams, peer observations, and whole-school professional development. Because expectations for continuous improvement had been established during the hiring process through interviews, teaching demonstrations, and debriefs, teachers welcomed opportunities for learning, whether they came from classroom observations or discussions with team members.

Clear Expectations and Supports for Students

Many of the students enrolled in the successful schools had been shortchanged by their previous experiences with disorderly school environments and fragmented instruction. Some lived in economic poverty and lacked stable housing and sufficient food and clothing. Often, students had witnessed violence or experienced deep personal loss. Educators in these schools sought to address their many needs (Kraft et al, 2015).

The six schools approached these challenges differently. Kincaid and Naylor Charter Schools concentrated on students’ in-school conduct and participation. All teachers were expected to enforce the rules uniformly and hold their students to high standards. They also sought to strengthen students’ allegiance to the school’s values by sponsoring activities that promoted positive norms and high aspirations. However, these two schools had few social workers or psychologists to address students’ personal needs. Instead, the school handbook spelled out parents’ responsibilities—ensuring that their children attend school regularly and punctually, wear the school uniform, complete their homework, and give their best effort to behave and learn.

The other four schools had less rigid rules and dedicated more resources to directly supporting students and families. For example, Dickinson PreK-5 School expected students to attend school regularly, respect others, and move quietly through the corridors, but those expectations were reinforced with personal interactions rather than penalties. Dickinson’s Student Support Team  met regularly with individual teachers to review every student’s progress and to consider referrals from teachers who sought immediate intervention. 

Each of the four schools had a full-time family coordinator and maintained close working relationships with community-based social service agencies. Dickinson welcomed families at weekly breakfasts, where teachers from different grades explained part of their program.  Their school nurse, widely viewed as the linchpin of Dickinson's support system, credited working with family caregivers as the key to her school’s success.

Despite these schools’ differences, all of them had an explicit and deliberate system that teachers could rely on to support their day-to-day interactions with students and address their concerns. No teacher was expected to go it alone.

Extraordinary Performance by Ordinary Schools

Descriptions of effective schools often single them out as extraordinary, but somewhat mysterious and beyond replication. That’s a mistake.  Educators in any school can increase collective efficacy by developing such aligned systems for doing their work.   

The schools’ key systems were social—they reinforced one another in overall purpose, structure, and day-to-day practice, and the educators using them had chosen and continued to refine them. Teacher teams engaged in joint learning to improve their practice. A robust multi-step hiring process involved current teachers in selecting their future colleagues. Ongoing observations and feedback supplemented teachers’ learning and development as team members. And the schools’ approaches to student discipline and support ensured that expectations and assistance were consistent schoolwide. The payoff of having such integrated social systems is that they together become the professional culture of the school. One teacher explained it simply as “the way we do things here.” 

However, teachers and principals who seek to improve their school cannot reasonably expect to transform everything all at once, especially if they face organizational shortcomings like those at Stowe. Importantly, principals must first engage teachers as partners in a joint effort to identify a problem and develop a system to deal with it. For example, they might begin to address an incoherent curriculum by formalizing teacher teams.  Or they might focus on attracting teachers who support their mission and practices by mounting a more comprehensive recruitment and hiring process. Success with one problem can inform action on others.

Because these systems have many parts, it’s important to test not only how well each component works, but also how well they work together, and to track progress over time. Only then can students benefit from their teachers’ true potential. 

This essay is adapted from Susan Moore Johnson’s Where Teachers Thrive: Organizing Schools for Success, Harvard Education Press, (2019).


Goddard, R., Goddard, Y, Kim, E, and Miller R. (August 2015). “A theoretical and empirical analysis of the roles of instructional leadership, teacher collaboration, and collective efficacy beliefs in support of student learning.” American Journal of Education, 121.

Johnson, S.M., Reinhorn, S.K., Charner-Laird, M., Kraft, M.A., Ng, M., & Papay, J. (2014). “Ready to lead, but how? Teachers’ experiences in high-poverty urban schools.” Teachers College Record 116(10), 1-50.

Johnson, S.M., Reinhorn, S.K. & Simon, N.S. (2017). “Reaping rewards for students: How successful schools systematically invest in teachers,” in Teaching in Context: The Social Side of Education Reform, ed. Esther Quintero (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2017).

Johnson, S.M., Reinhorn, S.K., Simon, N.S. (2018). “Ending isolation: The payoff of teacher teams in successful high-poverty urban schools.” Teachers College Record 120 (5), 1-46.

Liu, E. & Johnson, S.M. (2006). “New teachers’ experiences of hiring: Late, rushed, and information-poor.”  Educational Administration Quarterly 42(3), 324-60.

Reinhorn, S.K., Johnson, S.M., & Simon, N.S. (2017), “Investing in development: Six high-performing, high-poverty schools implement the Massachusetts teacher evaluation policy.” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 39(3), 383-406. 

Kraft, M.A., Papay, J., Johnson, S.M., Charner-Laird, M., Ng, M, & Reinhorn, S.K. (2015). “Educating amid uncertainty: The organizational supports teachers need to serve students in high-poverty schools.” Educational Administration Quarterly 51(5), 753-790.

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