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June 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 9

Turning Failure Into Opportunity

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Faculty and staff sat in stunned silence as the principal delivered the news: Alcester-Hudson Elementary School had been designated a school “in need of improvement.” After two years of declining test scores at the school, in 2001 the state of South Dakota was requiring the faculty to develop a school improvement plan for review and approval by the state. Failure to improve could lead to a series of increasingly severe consequences.
“Looking back, going on school improvement status was the best thing that ever happened to us,” said Kathy Johannsen, the school's test, technology, and school improvement coordinator. “But at the time, we were surprised, embarrassed, and humiliated.”

The McREL Approach

The small neighboring communities of Alcester and Hudson sit amid fertile farms in the southeast corner of South Dakota. The two communities consolidated their schools several years ago. The student population of Alcester-Hudson Elementary, a K–6 school with 150 students, is 95 percent white, with 26 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. In many ways, the school and community are characteristic of small farming communities in the upper Midwest. Along with a slowly declining student population and a degree of geographic isolation, the school embodies strong traditions and a high level of community support and pride. There is great continuity in this community: Looking through photographs of graduating classes of Alcester-Hudson dating back to the 1950s, one can see the parents and extended family members of many current students and faculty members.
When we first visited Alcester-Hudson, we were impressed by the pride that teachers showed in their school. However, they were clearly devastated by their new label of “underperforming,” and were unsure how to follow through on their desire to improve.
While staff members at Alcester-Hudson were considering their next course of action, our team at Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) was launching a project with the South Dakota Department of Education to build statewide capacity for helping local schools in need of improvement. Alcester-Hudson Elementary School became part of this project, and as project consultants, we became partners with the school in a school improvement process that would not only significantly raise test scores but also create lasting structural changes.
McREL's approach is to ground school change strategies in each school's local context. We aim to teach local school teams how to use data and research to solve their own problems. This strategy helps educators develop their own capacity for improvement, enabling them to target their particular needs and keep building on their progress long after McREL consultants leave.
Three years after beginning their improvement efforts, staff members at Alcester-Hudson have indeed developed their own capacity for continual improvement. Student achievement has risen dramatically: In 2004, 94 percent of students achieved “proficient” status on South Dakota's standardized math test and 100 percent tested as “proficient” on the state's reading test. In 2001—the year Alcester-Hudson was labeled as needing improvement—only 55 percent of students tested as proficient in reading and 45 percent as proficient in math. As a result of this jump in achievement, the school has received the state's highest rating of “distinguished.”
  • Distributing leadership.
  • Developing shared expectations for students.
  • Getting hooked on data.
  • Focusing on one problem at a time.
  • Building a professional learning community.
  • Turning a problem into an opportunity for growth.

Distributing Leadership

True school improvement requires widespread, shared commitment to the effort and a sizable group willing to make a plan and carry it out. One of McREL's first recommendations to Alcester-Hudson was to form a school leadership team that would manage the steps of the improvement process, beginning with writing the improvement plan. The principal chose a representative group of teachers, parents, paraprofessionals, and school board members. Forming this team proved to be an effective way to develop leadership capacity. In 2002, because of decreased funding, the school district eliminated the principal's position at Alcester-Hudson, combining the positions of elementary principal and district superintendent. The Alcester-Hudson leadership team became the source of continuity in school leadership.
After an initial awkward period during which teachers hesitated to take charge and act collectively, the group gelled and teachers began offering to lead in different ways. In one of the first such instances, a leadership team member enlisted several colleagues to plan and carry out a math games night to further the goal of increased parental involvement. Most teachers at the school are now comfortable taking the initiative to start new projects and invite other teachers to join them.
Team membership changed as the original members cycled off and new members joined. In the third year, the school reached a milestone in distributed leadership when team members realized that none of the original members remained on the team. At that point, the group formalized membership arrangements, creating a policy of staggered two-year terms of service.

Developing Shared Expectations

As is true in many public schools, teachers at Alcester-Hudson were initially almost entirely autonomous. They tended to close their classroom doors each morning and do their own thing during the day. We noticed right away that teachers were using the math program differently in each classroom and that teachers of the same grade level had differing levels of expectations for students' reading. We encouraged the staff to take a “balcony view”—to step back and look at their teaching practice as part of a group effort with shared goals and standards for students. With the benefit of an outside perspective, the faculty members began to see how many aspects of their school culture—including their autonomy as teachers—got in the way of working together to make a difference.
Teachers on the leadership team began to take a hard look at student achievement data to determine where they should focus their improvement efforts. The leadership team proposed a number of “shared agreements,” which various groups of teachers discussed and in most cases accepted, to be consistent across their classrooms. For example, all teachers in the school agreed to teach mathematics for one hour and 15 minutes each day; follow timelines for completing various portions of the math curriculum; implement a rigorous schedule of formative and summative assessments in reading and math; and use guided reading strategies in grades K–3. One challenge for faculty was figuring out how to handle situations in which a faculty member was not abiding by these shared agreements. The leadership team proposed—and all teachers agreed—to use regularly scheduled meetings to check in with one another about whether everyone was adhering to the shared agreements and how they could support one another in doing so.

Getting Hooked on Data

Early on in the improvement process, the staff at Alcester-Hudson learned the cycle of school improvement: Study data, form hypotheses, plan and implement changes in instruction, reallocate resources, and remeasure to determine changes in student learning. Data also became a vehicle for noting success and celebrating the achievements of the staff. Today, instruction in the school revolves around data.
Teachers grew so adept at using data that they were able to use formative assessments to monitor each student's learning in relation to state and district content standards. Midway through the 2003–2004 school year, the McREL consultants asked the staff to use formative assessment data to predict performance on the upcoming state test. The teachers predicted that student scores would decline; they believed that as teachers they may have let up on some of the efforts that had led to their initial success in 2002. This prediction energized the teachers to recommit to their shared agreements, and in 2004, student scores on the state math and reading tests again showed improvement.

Focusing On One Problem at a Time

Too often, data—far from empowering schools—leave schools and teachers feeling overwhelmed, realizing that they need to make drastic improvements but unsure where to begin. As a result, schools often try to make too many improvements at once, drafting comprehensive improvement plans that change instructional programs, alter scheduling, and revamp organizational and support structures. Such plans throw everything but the kitchen sink at the problem; in trying to do everything at once, they often do nothing well and bring little or no gains in student achievement.
The leadership team at Alcester-Hudson used data to focus on one problem at a time. For example, teachers in the primary grades jointly agreed on specific minimum test scores in reading comprehension (using the Developmental Reading Assessment to measure reading) as achievement targets for all students at each grade level. After a year of consistently focusing on instructional goals and discussing student achievement, the teachers were gratified (but not surprised) to see scores on the state standardized tests rise significantly. With these “quick wins” under their belts, the teachers consulted the data again, derived a new focus for their improvement efforts, and consulted the research for guidance about next steps.

Building a Professional Learning Community

During initial discussions about reallocating resources to support their improvement goals, the teachers developed a scheduling strategy that allowed them to meet monthly in instructional teams (K–3 and 4–6) on what they called “Working Wednesdays.” During this uninterrupted two-hour block of time, classroom, special education, and Title I teachers met as a whole group to discuss instructional strategies and the needs of individual students who were not meeting the standards. They drew up lists of students who needed help to meet standards, which they posted on the walls of their meeting room to consult together from time to time. The teachers also used Working Wednesdays for just-in-time professional development—short learning opportunities that arose from discussions about student needs. At one meeting, a teacher asked for advice about assessing a student with ADHD who seemed to understand the math concepts but had problems demonstrating that competency on a paper-and-pencil test. Colleagues offered ideas for making accommodations to testing, but many teachers felt a need to learn more about teaching students with attention problems. The special education teacher offered to provide instructional strategies for teachers to help them meet the needs of these students.
Working Wednesdays played a significant role in making teachers aware of their own attitudes about student learning. As teachers saw how others used strategies successfully, they became more aware of the learning potential of all students. At the beginning of the work, we often heard teachers attribute student achievement to factors in the home environment or participation in special programs. As teachers shared strategies and proposed new ideas to get students “off the list,” such comments became less frequent. Instead, conversations focused on changes that teachers could make in their instruction. Staff members also celebrated together when formative assessment data allowed them to remove a student from the list.
With a structure that guided discussion, the teachers made great progress in learning new strategies and became a cohesive professional learning community. But creating and maintaining that structure was challenging at times. At first, teachers were not used to publicly discussing their students' progress or speaking openly about challenges in the classroom. They also had little experience engaging in structured and focused discussions as a group, and early meetings did not go well. As time went on, the Alcester-Hudson teachers realized that assigning roles (such as facilitator and note taker) and setting an agenda in advance helped them use their time effectively. They established a format of spending the first half of the meeting talking about individual student progress and suggesting strategies and the other half engaged in professional development activities tied to student learning issues that had surfaced in previous meetings.

Turning a Problem Into a Chance for Growth

To be effective and sustainable, school improvement needs to focus on specific problems at the beginning of the process but be broad and systemic by the end. The Alcester-Hudson staff's original perception of the improvement process as a way to get off the “needing improvement” list quickly evolved into a comprehensive, systemic effort to forge a stronger learning environment. As Kathy Johannsen observed,I knew we were a school marked for improvement by the state and that we needed to improve our standardized test scores. But it's much more than that. The school improvement process . . . improves a lot more than just your test scores. It improves literally every aspect of the school—how we interact with each other as staff members, how we work with kids, what we're teaching those kids, and the climate of our school.
At the beginning of the process, Alcester-Hudson relied heavily on McREL's expertise; the leadership team and the consultants typically met for a half-day each month to work on whichever aspect of the improvement plan needed the most attention. As the work progressed, the leadership team gained expertise in curriculum and instruction and in working together as a team. Over time, the team became more self-directed in making decisions and scheduling group work. Gradually, members of the leadership team took over coordinating Working Wednesdays.
As we end our active involvement in Alcester-Hudson's improvement process, the school leaders are focusing on the future—and so are we. From the beginning, our goals went beyond helping the school make its required adequate yearly progress to helping it become a true learning organization that could sustain changes and make new ones. Because of its hard work, the Alcester-Hudson community now has the skills to tackle any kind of challenge that might come its way.

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