Questions a Superintendent Asks about Whole-School Reform

After an extensive and comprehensive review process, the US Department of Education (USDOE) expanded its approved School Improvement Grant (SIG) models to include evidence-based whole school reform approaches. The ISA whole school reform model was the only high school model that met the stringent criteria set by the What Works Clearinghouse’s evidence-based standards and is one of only four whole school reform models nationwide that made the cut. Previously the SIG application requirements permitted states and districts to use these funds in one of four specifically outlined ways: the turnaround model, the restart model, the school closure model and the transformation model. Below are highlights from a conversation between ISA President Gerry House and a district superintendent interested in partnering with ISA to implement its whole school reform model to increase and sustain student academic achievement levels, as well as improve promotion and graduation rates, and readiness for postsecondary education.

Superintendent: What is whole school reform?

GH: Whole school reform is a comprehensive, coordinated, integrated method of improving school and district academic performance, especially the achievement levels of traditionally underperforming students. It incorporates every aspect of the school: culture, curriculum, instruction, assessment, social/emotional support, professional development, operations, and family/community engagement. A foundational belief of the whole school approach is that piecemeal efforts are less effective and almost never deliver sustainable results. They rarely address the root causes of ongoing barriers to educational equity and excellence, and the issues caused by them continue to reappear and undermine program-based, isolated initiatives. The power of the whole school reform model is the synergy created among the strategies when they work together. It is synergistic action school wide that creates the possibility for transformative, sustainable change.

Superintendent: Is there a specific whole school reform model
GH: No. Whole school reform is an evidence-based approach based on the most rigorous research on effective teaching, learning and assessment, school culture, stakeholder engagement, leadership, and management. While these models have core principles and strategies, the implementation of these principles and strategies is designed to meet the needs, resources, and structures of individual schools. It is not a prescriptive model, but a capacity building process that meets schools where they are and helps them reach clearly established goals.

Superintendent: Is Whole School Reform an experimental approach?

GH: No. Whole or Comprehensive School Reform (CSR) emerged in the early 1990s. It was incorporated into the 1994 reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Act (ESEA). Over the years, studies have shown schools that implemented whole school reform models for five or more years showed considerable achievement gains. CSR was also found to be equally effective between high-and low-poverty schools.

Superintendent: Does data support that ISA’s whole school reform model is successful?

GH: Our data provide concrete evidence that a comprehensive whole school reform model can achieve and sustain impressive results. For example:

  • ISA students are 5 times more likely to be promoted to 10th and 11th grades than their peers in similar schools and 3 times more likely to be promoted to 12th grade.
  • ISA’s predominantly African American and Latino student population has a 4-year cohort graduation rate of nearly 80%. This dramatically exceeds the national high school graduation rate of 60% for African American students and 58% for Latino students.
  • 81% of ISA students graduate or are still enrolled after 4 years in college.
  • A sub-group study by IMPAQ International found that African American male students outperformed matched comparison students on significant high school outcome measures, including promotion, on track to graduation, and graduation.

Superintendent: Why did the USDOE select ISA as the only high school whole school reform model for which SIG funding can be used?

GH: Under the new SIG requirements, the USDOE established a set of criteria for what constitutes an evidence-based, whole-school reform model. First, a whole-school reform model must have demonstrated evidence of effectiveness for improving student outcomes that meets the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) rigorous evidence standards. Second, the model must be designed to improve student academic achievement or attainment; be implemented for all students in a school; and address, at a minimum, school leadership, teaching and learning in at least one content area; student non-academic support; and family and community engagement.

ISA demonstrated to the USDOE and WWC how:

  1. the ISA college-preparatory instructional program, the grade level multi-disciplinary faculty team structure and an extended day and school year support school improvement and student academic achievement and attainment;
  2. ISA job-embedded leadership coaching and the ISA Leadership Network build school leadership skills for implementing the organizational and instructional changes necessary for whole school reform;
  3. ISA’s Mathematics Program, job-embedded individual and team teacher coaching, and professional development Institutes support schools in improving teaching and learning in mathematics and literacy across content areas;
  4. ISA’s Distributed Counseling™, job-embedded counselor coaching and the Counselor Network support schools to provide students with the non-academic supports necessary for school success;
  5. ISA school/leadership coaching supports schools to implement effective strategies for fostering and sustaining family engagement in the education of their children;
  6. evidence from independent evaluations of the ISA whole school reform approach, which show positive and statistically significant impacts on student outcomes, met the WWC standards.

ISA was one of only three organizations that design and implement their own school-based reform approach whose whole-school reform models were found to have met the USDOE’s program requirements and WWC’s evidence standards. ISA was the only high school whole school reform model selected by the USDOE.

Superintendent: Can you describe one of ISA’s primary implementation strategies?

GH: Coaching is the cornerstone of the ISA approach and is concentrated in four areas: leadership development and strategic planning and implementation; content area coaching for individual teachers and teacher teams in literacy, mathematics, science, and social studies; grade level and content area coaching for teacher teams on using evidence-based protocols to improve classroom instructional practices and student work products; and coaching for counselors and teacher advisors to strengthen college counseling for students and families and provide social/emotional support to students when necessary. Coaching is also provided in ESL and Special Education.

Superintendent: Is the ISA model another “silver bullet” that will not result in meaningful, sustainable change?

GH: No, it really isn’t. The ISA evidence-based approach is not just a superficial restructuring of time, space and materials. ISA fully supports our partner districts and schools to completely re-culture their schools and build the entire staff’s capacity to increase and sustain student academic performance. This re-culturing includes addressing beliefs, expectations, values, school and classroom practices and processes, professional development, personalization and relationship building, leadership at every level, and continuous improvement. The ISA approach is based on seven research-based principles and five key strategies that are adapted and tailored to the school context. Our model is not guesswork. There are decades of solid research evidence and more than two decades of our own experience on the ground working with districts and schools to validate that the ISA whole school reform model works, especially with students who typically underperform on state, national, and international measures.