Navigating the state’s role in school improvement is a challenging conversation, which I wrestled with first-hand as the education commissioner in Tennessee. As state leaders, we have responsibility for every child in every school — but we have a limited ability to influence what happens in every classroom.
When a state puts out a list of lowest-performing schools and starts to create additional accountability, it typically is not the first time a school has tried to turn around. That leads us to ask: Why didn’t the first attempts work? What could make the state’s role more effective?
Here are some takeaways I have from my experiences both in Tennessee and now as a leader of a national nonprofit working with educators to turn around low-performing schools.
- Turnaround work too often looks like disconnected programs and trainings that happen on top of a school structure — such as starting a new reading program or reducing class size — without a comprehensive vision. States can ensure improvement plans show a cohesive approach that is tied to evidence on what is most important: the quality of the teacher in the classroom and the principal leading the school.
- Being designated as needing improvement can create collective urgency for change, but in school settings where there are huge amounts of need, it can be hard to appropriately channel that energy and target it to the factors that will leverage the most improvement for students. States can provide guidance on the types of support that will help schools put in place the right building blocks and maximize their investment.
- The biggest difference-maker in the schools that are successful — and those that are not — typically comes down to some version of this: a clear, sustained focus on effective teaching that is led by a visionary, effective principal who is fully supported by a district leader. States can help put in place the support structures to help build this essential capacity and alignment.
There is no silver bullet for improving schools — all of us know that. More often than not, leaders must maximize existing time and staffing to improve teaching and learning.
The most successful schools I have seen in Tennessee and while at NIET did not receive a big influx of funding. They did not completely rehire their staff. They did not dramatically lengthen the school day or year. Instead, they focused on using the money they had more effectively, supporting the teachers they had more intentionally and maximizing every hour and day of classroom instruction.
An example that comes to mind is Slaton Independent School District, a small, rural district outside of Lubbock, Texas. In 2014, leaders began to work with NIET to implement a new structure to equip teacher leaders and principals as instructional leads. The NIET system helped Slaton elevate their expert teachers, who then led faculty in developing effective instructional strategies. All teachers were regularly coached and received timely feedback. Professional learning communities became more structured, with clear learning goals and objectives. The results have been significant. For example, at Slaton Junior High, the percentage of students meeting or exceeding proficiency on the Texas state test rose from below 50 percent in 2013 to above 70 percent in 2017.
The more that states can help schools focus on these types of instructionally centered adjustments, the better chance schools have of improving. And the more effective local schools are in leveraging existing resources and showing progress, the better they’ll be able to advocate for students and teachers — which will only help advance their long-term success.