Creating Schools That Are Successful In Teaching And Learning

Creating Schools That Are Successful In Teaching And Learning

Nationwide, low-performing schools are high on the agenda of urban school reform leaders. The current focus reverses the neglect that has plagued these schools for years. Many of them are situated in distressed communities that show the results of years of disinvestment, communities where a growing concentration of poverty and its consequences has taken a social and economic toll. These issues spill over into the schools. These schools, nevertheless, must teach all children to high standards of achievement and mastery, with no excuses.


Most urban schools are vulnerable to society’s preconceptions or biases regarding race and ethnicity, income, and class. But problems affecting academic achievement are just as likely to begin in the schools. Teachers’ low expectations for student performance, whether out of misplaced sympathy, burn-out or frustration, are self-fulfilling prophecies. Low expectations produce a correspondingly low level of curriculum that is taught in an unengaging manner, that results in low levels of student achievement.

We believe that reciprocal accountability is critical to creating schools that are successful in teaching and learning.


Urban schools, and public education in general, have been undergoing fundamental review. Broad and accelerating changes in society are demanding higher standards of performance than ever before from the nation’s public schools. In response, national, state and local leaders are developing academic standards for what children should know and be able to do at specific stages in their education. Almost every state has adopted or is in the final stages of adopting standards, and many states are aligning teacher certification, testing and accountability provisions to the standards. Within this context, school districts across the country have decided to intervene and take an active role in addressing low school performance. The educational interventions are long overdue and welcome, if done well. The high visibility, take-charge leadership of some urban superintendents has a broadly beneficial result of increasing public confidence in urban public education. It is important, however, to explore these interventions to see if they result in serious improvement in teaching and learning in schools. It would be unfortunate if the only results were slightly improved standardized test scores that provided a positive “spin” for political leaders.


As school districts across the country began aggressive interventions in low-performing schools, we decided to examine these interventions and, at the other end of the spectrum, initiatives that recognize school success. This report describes, analyzes and draws lessons and recommendations from the current interventions, which are primarily district-led. Our examination also provides an entry point into an inquiry into reciprocal accountability—strategies and systems where responsibility is shared among schools, communities, school districts, and the state. We believe that reciprocal accountability is critical to creating schools that are successful in teaching and learning. Thus, we are interested in whether, and how, current interventions can lead in the long run to practices where each stakeholder in the school system has a strong role to play and carries out his or her functions interdependently. The information and analyses in this report have been drawn from dozens of interviews; reviews of district documents and the literature on interventions in low-performing schools; and meetings and discussions among a wide range of participants from central offices, schools, and communities.


This collaborative approach has helped to shape the writing of this document.




Educational policymakers discuss accountability by asking: “Who is or should be accountable to whom? For what? How should the “what” be measured and assessed? What happens as a result?” Our response to these questions is that genuine systems of educational accountability promote high levels of achievement for all students. We believe that real accountability is schoolbased and includes strong roles for parents and community. Accountability pertains to all aspects of school life—school autonomy, standards, curriculum, instruction, professional development, assessment, schools organized as learning communities, school budgeting and school size.


Over the past five years, educators and community leaders have worked to develop principles that undergird a good, reciprocal system of accountability. They are organized under three goals: equity, reciprocity, and comprehensiveness and coherence.


Equity: All children—regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, economic circumstance, disability, and English language proficiency— receive the education they require in order to achieve to high academic standards.


Reciprocity: Principals, teachers, parents, students, community members, central office administrators, and the state share roles and responsibilities for student achievement. Each institutional level has full authority to carry out its roles and responsibilities. Parents, students, and community members are recognized as essential partners and accorded full respect.


Comprehensiveness and Coherence: Students learn in different ways and bring different strengths and cultural assets to the school. Thus, the school community organizes many resources and strategies to support the variety of ways in which students learn.


An ideal system of accountability would result in the achievement of these goals.


Our study focused on three major areas:


– What indicators are used to judge school success or failure? Are data disaggregated to reveal gaps in student achievement? Are the measures onetime snapshots or do they represent school trends over time?


– What processes do school districts employ to engage the schools, parents and community in supporting improvement? Are the processes leading to stronger school-based authority and responsibility? To reciprocal accountability?


– What are the key characteristics of the interventions’ implementation? Do successful schools share their experiences with less successful schools? Are the interventions isolated or part of a larger, systemwide reform initiative? What funds and assistance are provided?


Ultimately, we wanted to know whether the interventions are quick political fixes or serious commitments to education, whether the actions being taken are likely to result in sustained and sustainable school improvement and whether they advance the cause of reciprocal accountability so that continuous school improvement becomes the norm.




Our examination of district and state interventions surfaced issues that were common across cities. In light of these issues, we posed the question to ourselves: “What would an intervention in a low performing school look like if it were meeting a standard of excellence?” Thus, to undergird our assessment of the initiatives, we developed a set of intervention standards that address indicators, process, and implementation. We then assessed the interventions in light of these standards.


The standard: Multiple indicators from multiple sources, reviewed over time, measure the success of teaching and learning and allow schools to evaluate their own performance and compare their performance with peer schools, the district as a whole, and schools in similar districts.


Key issue: There is an over-reliance on standardized test scores for measuring school and student performance.


Standardized test scores are carrying inordinate weight.


Rather than using a broader set of indicators of school performance over time, central administrations use standardized testing almost exclusively to identify low-performing schools and to measure school improvement. Increasingly, “school success” is being equated with higher test scores.


The heavy emphasis by central administrations on increasing standardized test scores is working at cross-purposes with the systemwide goal of teaching all children to high standards.


High-stakes standardized testing is diverting attention away from the importance of good instructional practice. Schools that spend months concentrating on test preparation do not have time to implement high standards.


The focus on standardized testing is also taking precedence over monitoring and tracking individual student performance.


Although each of our cities has recently adopted and begun to implement content standards describing what students should know and be able to do, we found less emphasis on assessing the learning of individual students.


Disaggregated data are not being provided to schools to facilitate their responses to achievement gaps associated with race, ethnicity, gender, disability, English language proficiency, and socioeconomic level.


Data should drive decisions at the school level, but we found little evidence of data being used to tailor solutions aimed at improving instruction for particular students or groups of students.


The standard: The intervention process is fair, mutually respectful, and public. It engages all stakeholders—principals, teachers, parents, students, community members, unions, site councils, and central office and state administrators.


Key issue: A low priority is placed on shaping relationships among stakeholders and on building ownership to improve student achievement at the school level.


Central administrations are exercising energetic and determined leadership to intervene in low-performing schools but are alienating school-level personnel with their tactics.


Driven by a strong commitment to improve student achievement and by mounting public intolerance of failing schools, central office leaders are using high visibility tactics in high stakes interventions. Their bold, decisive actions, which heavily involve the media, successfully communicate a sense of urgency and, thus, gain a measure of public support. These same actions, however, also are breeding misunderstanding, fear, cynicism, and mistrust among the school constituencies who must be involved in the work to make significant student achievement improvements.


Central administrations are stifling school-initiated accountability.


On the one hand, school districts and state agencies must set clear policies, develop sufficient structure, provide appropriate resources and oversight, and implement real consequences for low-performing schools that do not improve within prescribed time frames. It is equally important, however, to recognize that to achieve genuine accountability, school districts and state agencies must increase or preserve autonomy and enhance flexibility at the school level (including both budgets and programs) so that schools can actively engage in their own achievement of districtwide standards.


The interventions have not only been “top down,” they have been “inside.”


Generally, parents, community members, and school site councils have been on the sidelines of school change. Unions have slowly begun to participate as calls for school-level accountability have increased. Clear intervention roles have not been defined, nor have the requisite resources been made available for meaningful engagement. New patterns of participation among all stakeholders, focused on school quality, must emerge if there is going to be positive and sustained school change.


The standard: The intervention is undertaken in a manner that builds capacity at the local school level to strengthen teaching and learning and results in significant improvement in achievement for all students.


Key issue: Major investment is needed to build local school capacity to improve teaching and learning.


Although additional sums are being allocated, the investment in professional development at the school level remains woefully inadequate.


In general, the interventions have brought three sources of support to schools: new central office structures, extra funds, and external help. The latter two elements, however, have varied tremendously. School districts and state agencies are reluctant to publicly address the scope and cost of the support that must be provided to help schools improve. Current actions follow years of fragmented activity or inattention to improving teachers’ and principals’ knowledge and skills.


We found little evidence that the interventions were organized around a research base of successful instructional practices or around connections to successful models of interventions in low-performing schools. Moreover, the interventions varied in terms of whether they were implemented as a strategy encompassed in a comprehensive systemwide effort or as an isolated, non-systemic initiative.


At the end of “round one” of school interventions, political considerations and timelines are taking precedence over educational requirements.


There is considerable distance between the stated goals of the interventions and the reality of the supports and measures in place to improve low performing schools.




There are essential roles that school districts can and must play to ensure school-level success. Only top leadership in the school district can send a systemwide message on equity—that low performance will no longer be tolerated in any school or with any group of students. Only central office leaders can adopt districtwide standards and hold all schools accountable for meeting these standards. The district negotiates and agrees to contracts with all employees’ agreements that are critical for planning and implementing effective interventions and school improvement strategies. Only school districts can reconstitute a school, removing or replacing all staff—an action that is sometimes necessary to break a culture of failure at a school.


It is school districts and school boards that must ensure that all schools have the support and the authority they need to transform practice. Only the school board can review, revise, or eliminate district policies that contribute to poor school performance—policies governing principal, teacher, and student assignments; teacher hiring; budget authority; and data collection and dissemination. The district must make certain that every school has adequate funding and that resources are distributed equitably. The school district can most effectively send a consistent message to the public about the importance of all students achieving to high standards. And the superintendent can lead the effort to build a broad base of public support for the investment necessary to improve low-performing schools.


If, however, one was designing an ideal system of intervening in low-performing schools—a system that had as its goal significant improvement in teaching and learning—central office interventions would not be the starting point. They would be an important last resort, after careful investment in other approaches. School districts can catalyze action, but they cannot improve educational practice. That work must happen at the school, with active parent and community participation.


The very nature of a large organization works against the carefully tailored, school-based work that serious educational change requires. By and large, central administrations as primary actors have tended to use generalized and one-size-fits all reform programs or approaches rather than a particular approach that is designed for a specific school and that draws on its strengths. While schools may have had years of low performance, most interventions expect schools to make major gains in very short periods of time. We agree that the work is urgent—students’ futures are at stake. But if serious educational change is desired, it will not occur in one school year. The initiatives have resulted in some test score gains, but that is not the same as improved schools.


When examined against standards for an effective intervention aimed at better teaching and learning, these initiatives fall far short. We offer the following recommendations for improving district-led interventions.


Develop multiple indicators of school performance and review them over time.


Any high stakes intervention should be based on a series of indicators of school and student performance, the trends of which are reviewed over time. These indicators should include—but not be limited to—scores on standardized tests that have been aligned to a district’s standards; other methods of assessing student performance (direct teacher observation, teacher-designed tests, student portfolios, exhibits, and so on); student attendance; student suspension/expulsion rates; dropout and mobility rates; course offerings; numbers of students taking college preparation courses; success at the next level; graduation rates; teacher attendance; level of teacher education and percentage of teachers who are teaching in their areas of certification; and measures of parental engagement.


Disaggregate data for every school by race, ethnicity, gender, primary language, socioeconomic status, and disabilities.


In order to thoughtfully judge school and student performance, data needs to be differentiated so that the parts, as well as the whole, are visible. Various groups of students at a school may be performing very differently. In fact, increasing a school’s average test scores may mask the failure rates among some students.


Use disaggregated data to close the performance gap among students.


Improving performance in low-performing schools must include all students, especially those scoring in the lowest quartiles on standardized tests and doing least well on other measures. Improving performance for all students will require close attention to disaggregated data. Tailor specific strategies for different students to ensure their progress.


Make the use of data the norm for school improvement planning and decision-making.


Parents, site councils, community leaders, teachers, and principals should be sophisticated data users. This will allow them to make wise judgments about school progress and share in planning and implementing strategies for improvement. Achieving this, however, will require that data be organized and user-friendly. Central administrators, principals and teachers, site council members, parents, and community leaders need to work together to identify which data are needed, how they will be prepared, and when they will be made available to schools. Data review and reflection should be built into the regular school schedule, and there also must be time allowed for public discussion of the data. Then, the information that is acquired through data can be incorporated into the school improvement plan.


Work with schools to develop multiple, alternative methods of assessing student progress; work to make those assessment methods educationally credible and publicly understood and accepted.


Standardized, norm-referenced test scores carry enormous political weight. Although they were designed for narrow purposes and do not measure student progress over time, they are, in fact, widely used for many purposes, including high stakes decision-making. At the same time, educators and community leaders are developing new educational methods of assessing student work that are not standardized. Student portfolios and public demonstrations of student mastery are only two of many examples. These approaches need to be fully developed and shared across sites. Once these measures have become sound and reliable, education and community leaders will need to create and implement careful strategies to enhance these assessments’ political and educational acceptance.


Help schools develop a process for regular self-diagnosis.


In order to help schools take responsibility for their own improvement—before a district intervenes— schools, districts, and states should work together to develop and implement a regular process for school self-study and planning. When this kind of rigorous self-diagnosis exposes problems and issues, schools and the district should design and agree on the type of assistance and support that will be available.


Notify and interview schools identified for intervention before there is a public announcement.


In some cities, a punitive climate was created because school staff, students, and parents first learned about the impending intervention when they saw their school named in the newspaper. This is not a good way to begin the partnership that will be required if schools are to improve. Before schools are identified for intervention, they should be notified and given a chance to discuss the data on their performance. Before the public is notified, schools should have time to inform teachers and parents and begin to enlist them in an improvement process.


Engage principals and teachers.


In the relatively small number of reconstituted schools, teachers and principals are removed from their jobs and have to reapply if they wish to return to that school. In most low-performing schools involved in interventions, however, the same principal and teachers will remain at the school and will be the primary leaders of the improvement. School district administrators, therefore, must walk a line between directives and encouragement, between tough love and support, between no excuses and respect, and between central office dictates and local diagnosis and action.


Enlist school site councils, parents, and community members as major allies in the intervention and improvement process.


Most of the interventions to date have been “insider” operations, with little attention to, or support for, the critical role that parents, site councils, and other members of the school community can and should play. Parent and community participation occurs most effectively at the school level, but the central administration has an important role to fulfill in encouraging and promoting this participation. Make data publicly available, create improvement plans that involve strong roles for these leaders, and enlist the community resources to which they have access.


Adopt a timeline for improvement that communicates both urgency and the time needed to make substantial educational improvements.


Some of the interventions have signaled their superficiality by demanding major changes in a few months. But serious school change takes time. If interventions are comprehensive and use a coherent instructional improvement framework, they will, by necessity, require more than one year to implement. Improvements should be measurable every year, but a serious and sustainable turnaround of a low-performing school is a multiyear effort.


Make a major investment in supporting the professional growth of teachers and principals.


Teaching all children to high standards and expecting high levels of achievement for all students requires excellent teaching by all teachers. Although teaching transformation should be viewed as the single most important intervention in improving low-performing schools, it has not been a focus. The work required to transform teaching should be school-based and employ multiple strategies within and across schools. To be done well, transforming teaching practices requires both a significant infusion of new funds and a redeployment of current funds.


Provide high-quality external help that has a “track record” of improving low-performing schools.


Low-performing schools need help to change what is often a culture of failure. That help should be substantive, sustained, and of proven quality. It can be provided by an educational organization, colleges and universities, a successful school, or a community group—whoever the entities are, they should be able to demonstrate their successful results in other, similar circumstances. School communities should play a leading role in designing the help needed and in choosing among potential support providers.


Engage successful schools as mentors for their low-performing peers.


Schools that have succeeded in educating students well in urban communities are essential sources of help to their less successful peers. In most urban school districts, however, there is no culture of cross-school exchange and support. Such a culture is needed in order to tap the peer-to-peer mentoring that could provide one of the most productive sources of support.


Revise or eliminate school district policies that contribute to low performance.


Just as they demand improvements at the school level, school districts have important work to do to put their own houses in order. Working with principals, site councils, teachers, and parents, they must make a commitment to identify and then revise (or eliminate) their own policies and practices that stymie school improvement. Policies that might need change include, but are not limited to, teacher hiring and assignment, principal tenure, student assignment, resource allocation, and data preparation and reporting.




We propose moving beyond the current interventions to a system of reciprocal accountability—a school-centered approach focused on success for all students. An equitable, comprehensive, and reciprocal system of accountability requires all participants to take active roles, in contrast to having a system imposed by the central office or the state. It strives for intrinsic accountability in which members of the school community— teachers, principals, site council members, parents, and students—are the primary designers, with strong support from the central office and the state. Reciprocal accountability means that everyone accepts responsibility for results.


Reciprocal accountability assumes high expectations, assessment, continuous improvement, and mutually supportive relationships among all those who play a role in education, both inside and outside the system. In a reciprocal system, all participants actively work to ensure that all students experience success in school. Authority and responsibility are clearly located at the school, with strong support provided by the school district and the state.


Implicit in both our critique and the approach we advocate are many unanswered questions— questions that represent discussions to be had and work to be done. A few of them follow.


  1. What is needed at all levels to close the systemwide achievement gap?


  1. In a system of reciprocal accountability, what steps are necessary to ensure that issues of equity do not get separated from issues of excellence?


  1. To what extent should teachers and principals be held accountable for student performance? What supports and consequences are appropriate for teachers whose classes are consistently low-performing? What role can unions play in ensuring that teachers who should no longer be teaching find other jobs?


  1. In what ways can we hold central office and state administrators accountable for student performance? Is it possible to raise the standards of achievement for students without financial investment in opportunities to learn to high standards? Should schools be held accountable if the state and district have failed to invest in implementing standards well?


  1. Who initiates standards in a system of reciprocal accountability? The school? The district? The state? How do we ensure that parents and community members are active participants in discussions of standards and the resources needed to implement them?


  1. Can we avoid the “blame syndrome” for parents and communities and move to solutions that include support, respectful partnerships, and fair accountability?


  1. Are we willing to provide the needed time, resources, and rigor to make substantive improvement in schools and school districts? How long is long enough?


  1. What constitutes meaningful progress? For parents? Schools? Districts? How can progress over time be demonstrated? What methods should be devised to compare progress across schools when alternative forms of assessment are used?


  1. How should political pressures for prompt action be honored? How can a school district or a school honestly report low performance and limited progress in a politically charged environment?


  1. If schools need autonomy and authority to be accountable, what steps should precede district-led interventions? Can interventions be designed to increase autonomy?


  1. In a system of reciprocal accountability, how do we ensure rigor and high expectations at all levels of the educational system? What happens when schools and districts disagree? When parents and educators disagree?


  1. Will reciprocal accountability improve public confidence in public schools? Will it increase the public will to provide adequate resources and support?




The work on educational interventions is new in every city. Administrators charged with the responsibility of designing and implementing those interventions have already begun to seek ways to improve their current initiatives. Closing the gap in student performance across schools must be part of this improvement. The work required to close the gap among all students (with no exceptions) makes it essential to develop a broader policy of reciprocal accountability among schools, parents and community members, school districts, and state education departments.


There are, as yet, only a limited number of good models of strong support across system levels— ample state support for standards-based reform; district support for curriculum redesign; school based professional development and support for multiple, shared instructional strategies that give teachers many ways to teach; school time for reflection and data-based school improvement planning that places student work at its center; leadership development for parents and community members; and a strong investment in capacity building across the system levels.


Still, practices are in place that reflect some elements of the system we advocate. Building these practices into an equitable, comprehensive, and reciprocal system of accountability requires thoughtful leaders who can integrate the elements into a strong whole. When we hold urban schools accountable for teaching all students to high standards, it is not just an academic exercise; it is an educational and civic imperative. We believe that shared accountability at all levels holds the greatest promise for school and student success.


Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.



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