Turning around failing schools – a recipe that works

Turning around failing schools is not rocket science, John Simmons told an overflow crowd in the basement of University Lutheran Church of Hope on April 16. Nor, he said, is it necessary to fire principals and teachers to turn around schools. He believes – and his organization’s record shows – that it’s possible to turn around school performance by empowering the teachers and principals, and the students and parents, who are already there. 

Simmons was in town in mid-April to talk about the nonprofit Strategic Learning Initiatives organization, which he heads, and the Focused Instruction Process, which turned around failing Chicago schools. Simmons, who comes from a business background, and SLI facilitator Terezka Jirasek, was invited by Don Fraser and the Committee on Closing the Achievement Gap. Fraser became interested in SLI after reading a January 6 Education Week article that described SLI’s success in Chicago.

Simmons and Jirasek spoke to five different groups during their whirlwind visit to the Twin Cities, including school district leadership in Minneapolis and St. Paul, a teachers’ union gathering, and an overflow crowd at the monthly Committee on Closing the Achievement Gap forum at University Lutheran Church of Hope. While Minnesota students rank high on national tests, Minnesota faces one of the nation’s most intractable achievement gaps.

For more about Strategic Learning Initiatives and Focused Instruction Process, see:

A Different Turnaround Vision: A Conversation with Turnaround Expert John Simmons by Claus von Zastrow in Public School Insights, 1/29/2010

Focus on Instruction Turns Around Chicago Schools by Dakarai I. Aarons in Education Week,

Turn-arounds: The work of teaching by Maisie McAdoo in New York Teacher, 3/4/2010

The ten Chicago schools that SLI agreed to work with in 2006 had 95 percent or greater poverty levels. Five of the schools had 95 percent or more of students coming from homes where English was not the first language. The schools turned around dramatically, and maintained that improvement.

Results of the first two years show strong improvement, with the average annual increase in reading scores for the ten schools improving five times faster than previously.  (See chart on left.)  The results may offer promise for school improvement efforts nationally. In the third year, improvement was sustained. (Making a Difference, report on SLI-CPS partnership)

Simmons explained:

These turnaround results were achieved without changing the principals, removing the teachers, revising the curriculum or buying new books.  Nor did the school communities go through substantial turmoil before, during or after FIP.

The cost of this approach per school is less than 20 percent of the cost of those models that made more drastic changes, saving taxpayers and donors $3 million per school over four years.

He reiterated: “This is not rocket science. This can happen in any school district with any school.”

The Focused Instruction Process model includes:

  • a shared leadership philosophy and practice within the schools;
  • professional development of teachers and principal through on- site coaching and workshops;
  • an eight-step process for focusing instruction on the Illinois Standards,
  • engaging the parents helping with homework on the Standards,
  • creating a learning culture based on trust, collaboration and continuous improvement,
  • sharing promising practices through a network of neighborhood schools.

Jirasek emphasized the importance of commitment on the part of the schools. At each school, the process was explained and teachers voted in a secret ballot. Unless 80 percent of the teachers voted to try the process, SLI would not work with the school.

“This is a ground-up operation, not a top-down piece,” said Jirasek. “Every single person has to be involved.” She said that it is essential to “honor all the stakeholders in the school and involve all of them – students, parents, teachers, cafeteria workers, principals.”

The process included SLI coaches, who spent time in the schools and classrooms at least weekly. Within each school, time for grade-level teacher teams to meet every week was a non-negotiable part of the process. Teachers shared best practices, and talked to other teachers who were succeeding. The process, said Jirasek, is designed to build on the strengths of the teachers who are already there, while breaking down the isolation of teachers within schools.

Parent involvement was also high, with parents trained to teach workshops to other parents, and attendance reaching 60-70 percent, in communities where a seven percent parent participation in conferences had previously been the norm.

Among the lessons learned, said Simmons, was that expectations were too low.

We have some schools that started at 13% on test and are at 79% – we’re going to get these schools to 90% – we know it’s possible.

When I look out over 200 schools in Chicago, I don’t see schools that have failed or teachers that have failed. I see creativity that until now has been totally untapped by the district.

Both Jirasek and Simmons emphasized that there is no “silver bullet” solution for closing the achievement gap. According to Jirasek:

This is a lot like baking a cake. What happens if you leave out one single ingredient? It doesn’t work. What happens in education – and in business, too – we try one thing and it doesn’t work. We try another thing. John calls it the flavor of the month.

There are no quick fixes in education. We’ve been with the school for four years. There aren’t a lot of board of education folk who are willing to wait four years for change. Our process can show change in six weeks. We can show change in 16 weeks. But the kind of progress that you want takes time. In Chicago, we have been with these schools for four years.

[Originally published in TC Daily Planet at http://www.tcdailyplanet.net/node/34496%5D

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