To improve schools, stop guessing and start using research

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The data are clear: Unless Chicago and the nation can find a better way to accelerate improvement in the quality of education and implement it in the next 10 years, we will lose our competitive edge against other nations and another generation of children will be lost.

80 percent of Illinois high school graduates are not capable of doing the college-level work essential to getting the well-paying jobs that the economy already has to offer, but which are not being filled.

Thanks to 40 years of systemic research on schools and companies, some of it done right here in Chicago, we know how to change that. The challenge is to put into practice a new model using what research has revealed about what makes a high-performance school.

Putting research into practice: What a straight-forward concept.  Yet for decades, education leaders have ignored the rigorous, systemic research that is available. Instead, they put one silver-bullet solution after another into place, based on inadequate or missing research, hoping for the best. 

There’s another proven model, a solution that offers more children access to a better education for a small fraction of the cost of more widely-publicized strategies, something that is especially important during a budget crisis.

Transforming schools by applying research rather than guesswork is not a pipe dream. It is working in eight elementary schools in Garfield Park and Little Village.

Four years ago, the eight schools were failing. They joined together into a network as a demonstration project in a partnership led by Barbara Eason Watkins, then the Chief Education Officer of the Chicago Public Schools; and our organization, Strategic Learning Initiatives.

In the first year, three of the schools turned around, which we defined as making at least three times the rate of progress on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) in reading, compared to the school’s experience before using the model.  Three more turned around the next year. The last two turned around the third year.

Two of the “failed” schools qualified as the most improved school in the city in 2007 and 2008, out of a pool of 473 K-8 elementary schools.

By June of the fourth year, 2010, the eight schools were improving at a rate almost 5 times faster than average: 3.4 percentage points compared to 0.7 points citywide for K-8 schools.

The schools have had visitors from around the world, were featured in Education Week and at a Congressional hearing last May on turnaround schools.

To achieve these results, consider that:

  • No teachers or principals were removed when the work started.
  • The curriculum was not fundamentally changed, nor textbooks replaced.
  • Neither the school day, nor the school year, was lengthened.
  • There was no lottery for students to gain admission.
  • The cost was less than one-fifth of the money spent on other turnaround models in the district, saving taxpayers and private donors more than $3 million per school over four years, or $24 million in total.

Instead of the strategies common to more drastic ‘turnaround’ models, the schools followed a model based on 40 years of systemic research on high- performance schools and companies. It integrates the Essential Supports model of the Consortium for Chicago School Research and the Continuous Quality Improvement model adopted by organizations around the world to reach and sustain high performance.

The result is a powerful strategy for improving a school. It is built around how well it ensures that those qualities—called the essential supports– will be established in the school. 

Any idea about school improvement will have to stand up to the questions: How does this advance one more of the essential supports? What is the systemic research that proves it? 
 
Using this approach would move the field of school reform from one that is in constant search of silver-bullet solutions to one that is grounded in evidence-based practice.  It would be a revolutionary transformation, long overdue in education.
 
The strategies used to transform the eight schools included:

  • Shared leadership among principals, administrators and grade-level teams of teachers.
  • On-site professional development and coaching for both teachers and principals,  emphasizing instruction and teamwork.
  • Use of an eight-step instructional model that aims for mastery learning, with weekly no-stakes assessments based on the Illinois Achievement Standards.
  • Engaging parents to learn the Illinois Standards and provide better help for their children with homework. 
  • Networking among the staff and parents of the schools to jointly plan and apply a continuous improvement process, including a common instructional calendar.
  • Building trust and collaboration among the stakeholders within and across schools to accelerate learning and sharing among staff, students and parents, and create a high-performing learning community.
  •  Solving problems that the schools could not solve themselves by using a team from across the system: teachers, principals, chief area officers and the Office of the Chief Education Officer.

The process of implementing this new turnaround – transformation model is like baking a cake. If you leave out one of the essential ingredients, you won’t have a cake.

One key strategy is drawn from the Continuous Quality Improvement model. The eight- step Focused Instruction Process is continuously improved by the teachers as they look at the results and determine what worked and what needed improvement. The process focuses on each student, each day.

What are the lessons learned from this experience?  The most important one is:  Existing staff and parents, who had been told for years that they were failing, discovered they had an untapped reservoir of creativity, energy and commitment essential to achieving the results that they wanted. This lesson reveals a fundamental principle of individual and organizational behavior that is at odds with the drastic turnaround models now in vogue: Deep, sustained change comes from the inside out, empowered and supported by the top of the organization, not mandated. Mandated change can work, but is neither likely to be as cost-efffective nor be able to avoid the human resource and community costs.

Other lessons include:

  • Teachers and principals need to have input into the selection of their transformation/turnaround partner and the improvement process. Empowering those closest to the problem creates ownership, which is essential for sustaining continuous improvement.
  • All stakeholders must have high expectations that all children can and will learn.
  • New knowledge about how to lead change is key to helping organizations transform after years of ineffective strategies.
  • Having a team of experienced coaches, who support the leadership team’s work in designing and implementing change, is vital.
  • A three- to four-year commitment to the process is essential, and depends on the readiness of the school and district for transformative change.
  • Schools should drop ancillary programs and focus on what works best.
  • Focused goals and priorities, with regular check-in points, are important for each grade and subject.
  • Data must continuously inform decisions about instruction.
  • The rigorous cycle of planning, implementing, studying the results and adjusting strategies so that improvement is continuous, must be frequently repeated.

The results from these schools demonstrate that it’s not only possible to quickly turn around schools, at low cost, but also that the results are scalable and sustainable.
   
Some people ask, “Why do we need to follow the research? There are a lot of good ideas out there. Let’s try them and see what works.” Would you risk your children’s’ lives with medicine that has not been approved by rigorous research? Such an ineffective policy for education already wastes taxpayers and private donors tens of billions of dollars annually.

Rigorous research has revealed how to improve public education. Through research, we have come to understand why some schools succeed and others fail. Those lessons can be put to work quickly across Chicago and throughout the nation.

It’s time to stop guessing and replace hope with research. Do it from the inside out.


John Simmons, President of the nonprofit Strategic Learning Initiatives, testified before Congress last May on turnaround schools. He has worked with public schools in Chicago and abroad. His most recent book is Breaking Through: Transforming Urban School Districts. See www.strategiclearning.org for the data and references.