Quickly And Substantially Improve Student Achievement
The primary goal of educators in every public school and district across the country has always been to provide a solid educational foundation for all students. Such a foundation is key to students’ eventual success in higher education, the workforce, and, in a broader sense, their adult lives as citizens and heads of their own families. In recent years, however, school success has increasingly come to be measured by results on standardized assessments, and the public expectation is that all children should meet state-established standards.
Thousands of schools and districts are grappling with the need to significantly, and rapidly, raise student achievement as measured by high stakes assessments. They are looking for answers— a roadmap — to guide their improvement efforts. Their efforts to improve might also go more smoothly if they are better prepared for “speed bumps” experienced by other districts. School districts can have a profound and positive impact on school improvement efforts. But many of them will have to make substantial changes in the way they do business.
A substantial number of studies have been conducted over nearly three decades to identify factors describing individual schools that have defied the odds by accomplishing high levels of achievement while serving significant numbers of children from low-income or minority families. But until recently little research has focused on school districts as the locus for improvement efforts.
For information about efforts to improve larger systems, educators often turned to research done in the corporate world. Perhaps the most famous of these studies was conducted by Peters and Waterman, who studied companies that ranked high on six measures of long-term financial health. The study contributed to a revolution in many American businesses that responded to the findings describing several characteristics of successful companies. Among Peters’ and Waterman’s key findings were that the high-performing corporations:
– were “close to their customers” and listened to what customers or clients said about their products and services;
– had a “bias for action”—they tried new ways of doing things, then tried other alternatives if necessary; and
– shifted responsibility for improving quality to the “workers” themselves — those dealing directly with clients and customers.
The Fifth Discipline, by Peter Senge, is another work that was originally written for the corporate world that has had substantial impact on education. In particular, his concept of the learning organization translated well to the understanding that schools had of themselves. However, the primary theme in his book — the importance of taking a systems view — was overlooked by many.
A more recent and also popular study by Jim Collins took another look at companies operating successfully in a competitive, global economy. In Collins’ view, a key element of the companies’ success was developing a culture that encouraged people to develop new ideas, test them, and then try something else if the first new approach didn’t pay off.
However helpful these studies about high-performing systems in the business world have been to educators, it has become increasingly clear that more direction is needed for districts focused on school improvement. Research studies on school districts seem to have their genesis in several common themes.
First was an increasing understanding that while not all the lessons learned from corporate studies might be directly applicable to education, there was one important key element: The corporate research focused on high-performing systems, complex organizations with many interrelated parts. School districts, and in particular large districts, could certainly be viewed as systems facing challenges similar to corporations. And if very large corporations could improve significantly through a system-wide initiative, logic said that school districts could as well.
Second, the pressure of state standards-based reform and accountability required, in some cases, substantial improvement by hundreds of schools statewide. Some of the state accountability systems brought with them a new resource. Trend data were also available so that progress — or the lack of it — could be tracked from year to year. These sets of data both jumpstarted improvement efforts and provided a way to identify schools and districts achieving rapid and substantial improvement.
Finally, it was quickly recognized — by both school districts and researchers —that more radical and intense efforts were needed than the typical school-by-school improvement. On a positive note, some school districts have taken a much more aggressive role in school improvement efforts. And as the state accountability programs identified districts in which improvement was evident across many schools, researchers began to ask if key factors could be identified in these high-performing systems. If the factors could be reliably identified and replicated, the process of improving student achievement on a broad scale could be accelerated.
This report represents an effort to synthesize the findings of four recent studies that focused on school districts as the locus for school improvement efforts. These studies do not present a picture of school systems that had been high performing on a long-term basis. Typically, such systems tend to be located in suburban America, monitored closely by their middle-class parents and school boards, better supported financially, focused on the college-prep mission, and serving a far less diverse student body than do many large districts. Instead, these recent studies looked for their data to districts serving high percentages of children who typically do less well than White, middle- or upper-class students— and were improving.
Although the standards established through each of the assessments used vary in terms of both content and rigor, it is clear that the districts profiled demonstrated their ability to improve learning opportunities for their students. One of the most important lessons learned from these districts is the power of collaboration among staff members and of involving all stakeholders in developing a vision and goals for the district. All of the districts profiled would agree: their improvement efforts were hard work. But their success stories also prove that, with district-level leadership and support, the magnitude of school improvement required is possible.
Recent research on effective districts — those that have substantially improved the achievement of students who typically have not done well in school — provides a road map for districts. The emphasis the successful districts placed on curriculum, instruction, and curricular alignment is identified as a key element of this road map. In addition, the successful districts recognized the importance of using the knowledge base to improve teaching. Efforts to improve instruction must focus on the existing knowledge base about effective teaching and learning in order to succeed. The practices included here can help teachers to expand their instructional repertoire to successfully address the wide range of interests and aptitudes of students found in most classrooms.
Many schools have an urgent need to develop plans directed toward significantly improving the achievement of these students. However, in a thorough analysis of programs designed specifically for at-risk children at the preschool and elementary level and for special education students, we stress the qualities of effective teachers for disadvantaged students in these programs tended to be similar to the qualities of effective teachers for all students.
However, this does not mean the research supports “one size fits all” instruction. Teacher attention to the strengths, background knowledge, and needs of individual students supports high levels of achievement for all students within the context of assessment based accountability. For example, teachers need to be knowledgeable about cultural differences that may affect learning and be able to respond to them in meeting the child’s instructional needs. While much of the scholarly research over the years has relied on standardized test results in cognitive areas of knowledge and skills, this is not the only outcome expected of schools. If a particular classroom practice in science, for example, results in students liking science better and taking more classes, this is also an important achievement, as is an approach enabling students to understand and value diversity in people. A goal of a school district might be to raise minority students’ academic performance, but an equally important type of achievement would be to increase minority students’ access to social networks and institutions of higher education. The preponderance of studies reported here rely on more traditional kinds of testing of knowledge and skills. This is not to say that other kinds of achievement are not important, but rather that less research has been done in associating classroom practices with the highly important kinds of nontraditional achievement measures just described.
A final issue involved the decision to present these effective practices by subject area. This may appear to disregard the trend toward greater integration of the separate subjects in the curriculum. Interdisciplinary approaches to organizing the curriculum can help students make connections between ideas and knowledge in different subject fields. In addition, it has become increasingly apparent that the newly emerging voluntary curriculum standards stand little chance of being implemented through a separate-subjects curriculum, because of the large body of knowledge they represent and the limited time available in a given school day.
The key elements of the current educational system, such as teacher training, schedules, textbooks, and assessment, tend to be discipline based. Despite this, teachers themselves have increasingly come to recognize that students need to be helped to see the relationships among important concepts, and have forged ahead in developing more interdisciplinary approaches, or what has come to be called an integrated curriculum. Elementary teachers have a natural setting for such instruction in their self-contained classrooms. At the secondary level, the organization and schedule changes required for such curriculum integration have made the practice less prevalent, yet significant numbers of high schools are changing to block schedules, teaming arrangements, and interdisciplinary teaching
While there is much advocacy for curriculum integration, however, its very nature has tended to limit reliable research on its efficacy, and the vast body of research on effective instructional practices has typically been reported by broad subject fields. Carefully conceived longitudinal research on the effects of curriculum integration is needed, and no doubt will be forthcoming.
Researchers visiting some districts heard that the need to improve quickly generated systemic responses that were powerful in their impact. The importance of focusing on curriculum and instruction was paramount. Teachers were more likely to be provided with time to collaborate. They were encouraged to observe and learn from other teachers whose “best practices” had been identified as having significant positive effects on student learning. The importance of using the knowledge base about effective practices was recognized. Finally, improvement came from implementation of several initiatives carefully planned to reinforce, not compete with, each other. Such an organizational context is ideally suited for broad-based and effective use to improve teaching.
Putting the knowledge base on improving student achievement to work in classrooms is a complex business. Within such a culture, much of the best staff development occurs on a daily basis. Teachers report observing their peers’ classrooms and participating in discussion groups with other teachers provide powerful learning experiences and generate excitement for expanding their own repertoires to include new practices.
Teachers and school leaders inevitably will need time for further study of, discussion of, and exposure to what a particular practice entails before deciding to include it in their school’s plans. Time, and particularly the lack of it for reflection on practice, has been identified repeatedly as a barrier to school improvement efforts. Although many teachers report how helpful it is to them to be able to see a particular practice applied in the classroom, limited time for sharing and professional conversation often leaves them unaware that another teacher in the building is already using the practice. This fellow-teacher resource is important as a person who can both demonstrate the practice and provide support until the teacher newly using the practice gains facility and confidence.
While much staff development typically will occur in content area based settings, teachers also should be encouraged to talk about what their experiences in their subject field or grade level bring to the profession as a whole. Through such discussions, an important goal will be served — to ensure the adoption of effective instructional practices is not limited by barriers between content areas.
Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of https://Ebookschoice.com. Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.