Helping Persistently Failing Schools

By Dr. Stephanie Wood-Garnett

ISA President


This article originally appeared in SEEN Magazine and online here.

Throughout my years as an educator — English teacher, counselor, principal, superintendent, and for the last 13 years, president of the Institute for Student Achievement (ISA), a non-profit high school redesign organization — persistently failing schools have often appeared to be an intractable problem, impervious to any number of reform efforts.

Such schools are captured by a culture of failure. All of the components that constitute the school culture — the human, social, intellectual, and financial capital and the organizational, instructional, curricular, and pedagogical structures and practices — interact to create a dynamic of dysfunction that is greater than the sum of the parts. Therefore, reform efforts that address one or only a few areas of dysfunction are destined to fail. Only a comprehensive approach to reform that seeks to change the culture of the school has a chance to succeed.

Teenage girl writing on chalkboardAt this time, when a high school diploma is no longer sufficient for a well-paying job and a good life, schools, particularly high schools, need to prepare all students for success at the college level, otherwise we are limiting their life choices, life expectancy, income, health and satisfaction. Achieving this goal would be a challenge under any circumstances, but it is a particularly daunting challenge for schools that have a track record of persistent failure, where the entire school culture needs to change. Over the years, I have learned that a five-pronged approach can be effective in achieving a culture change, so that persistently failing high schools can reinvent and transform themselves into educational communities that prepare their students for success in their next level of education.

The five-pronged approach is:

  1. Restructuring the school
  2. Laser focus on teaching and learning
  3. Personalization and building relationships
  4. Commitment to continuous improvement
  5. District policy and fiscal support
Restructuring the School

African American StudentsHigh schools need to be structured as small learning communities of 100 students per grade or small autonomous schools of 400 students because small size creates the conditions for the school to be a safety net to protect students from falling through the cracks, thus preventing failure rather than remedying it. Major content area teachers can all teach a grade level cohort of students and be scheduled, along with a counselor, for regular common planning time during which they can discuss their students and address problems early in their manifestation. Grade level cohorts of teacher teams also develop a professional learning community that meets regularly to develop curricula, plan instructional foci and share effective practices. The school day and year need to be extended to include after-school and even Saturday school enrichment and acceleration experiences, as well as opportunities for remediation and test-preparation.

Laser Focus on Teaching and Learning

A laser focus on powerful teaching and learning can build the school’s capacity to become a high performing organization. To ensure that students are engaged in their learning and prepared for post-secondary success, instruction needs to emphasize inquiry and higher order thinking skills, problem solving, and project-based learning and integration of technology. coachingLiteracy needs to be integral to instruction in the content areas so that students learn, understand, and use the specialized vocabulary of the disciplines and comprehension strategies to help them navigate texts as well as grasp the organizing ideas of the disciplines. Students also need to have opportunities to write in the disciplines so that they are using writing to learn — to make meaning — and to demonstrate their thinking and learning. The content areas also need to provide opportunities for students to acquire numerical literacy so that they can interpret, as well as use, data in science and social studies. Teachers need to use multiple forms of assessment, including tests, curriculum embedded assessments, performance assessments, and products to enable students to demonstrate their learning in multiple ways.

Personalization and Building Relationships

Personalization and close, caring relationships between students and their teachers can support students’ ownership of their school’s goals and their bonding with their school community, resulting in more successful learning.Harvest Collegiate By personalization, I mean organizing students’ experiences to provide opportunities for them to be known by their teachers so that their teachers can successfully address their learning issues and construct curriculum that builds on their strengths and integrates their interests. In addition, programs such as restorative justice and peer mediation can create student ownership of their school by giving them a voice and involving them in solving problems and implementing solutions, which help them, understand how they contribute to the school culture. A student advocacy system supports the development of strong, caring student-teacher relationships by providing every student with a faculty advisor who is that student’s go-to person, who gets to know him/her well, and is the primary family contact. Faculty advisor-advocates can leverage their relationships with students for higher levels of achievement and improved behavior. Because they also get to know families well, they can collaborate with them to support student success. This system ensures easy parent access to school, establishes school responsiveness to families, and generates family ownership in the school.

Another component of personalization is a four-year post-secondary program that focuses on preparing students and their families for post-secondary options. I recommend a three-part program: pre-post secondary, transition to post-secondary, and in-post secondary institutions. The pre-post secondary component provides students and families with comprehensive information about and experiences with post-secondary options. The transition component supports and monitors students’ transition from high school graduation to actual enrollment in post-secondary institutions. The third component provides support for students to make connections at their post-secondary institutions so that they remain through graduation.

Commitment to Continuous Improvement

Commitment to continuous improvement ensures that the school is a learning community. This means that the obstacles to the achievement of its goals. Structures such as distributed leadership, regular grade level team and content area department meetings, and opportunities for professional development all promote continuous improvement. Mechanisms such as school quality reviews that involve school self-studies and external visits by critical friends; monitoring systems that inform the staff and students about who is on track to graduate or not; and activities such as the use of multiple forms of data — tests, authentic student work, classroom observation, surveys, etc. — to assess the accomplishment of school goals and the quality of students’ achievement inform organizational and instructional decisions and support continuous improvement.

District Policy and Fiscal Support

Districts need to review their organizational, instructional, human capital and fiscal policies and practices to ensure that they are not unwittingly creating obstacles to the transformation of chronically failing schools. They should ask such questions as: To what extent are district policies and practices rewarding procedural compliance rather than supporting and rewarding schools for taking responsibility and accountability for initiating and implementing change? What supports are in place for innovation and transformation? Persistently failing schools are more likely to experience success when district policies and practices are aligned to the outcomes schools need to achieve.

In my work as superintendent and with ISA, I have found that persistently failing schools cannot enact this transformation alone. They need a supportive district, but they also benefit from an external partner with experience, expertise, and a proven track record who can collaborate with them to imagine new possibilities and provide the on-the-ground guidance, support, and professional development to create those policies and practices that ensure successful implementation. Districts willing to embrace this five-pronged approach are more likely to break the culture of failure and create a mission-driven rather than compliance-driven school that has a caring and intellectually rigorous culture and the capacity to make and implement the decisions, policies, and practices that will help their students achieve success.