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Failing schools can turn around without Opportunity School District. Here's how.

Since retiring in 2014 as superintendent of the Gainesville, Ga., schools, Merrianne Dyer has been consulting in other states through the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson and the Scholastic Education Group.

In this essay, she discusses what we know about successfully turning around schools with persistent failure and little hope in light of the push for state takeover.

By Merrianne Dyer

As the proposed Opportunity School District is hotly debated, a topic that is generally agreed upon is that solutions for chronically low-performing schools do need to be found. However, the details on how to accomplish that, and the track records of those who are trying to do so, remain in question.

At a time when states are making decisions on how to use their autonomy provided in the new Every Student Succeeds Act, it is helpful to consider what is happening in places that do “turn around” schools.

At the 2015 National Forum on Education Policy at the Education Commission of the States in Denver, I attended a panel discussion on the topic of school improvement.  Dr. Pedro Noguera, distinguished professor of education at UCLA, was a member of the panel. Dr. Noguera has extensively researched and published on ways in which schools are influenced by social and economic conditions.

Dr. Noguera was asked why, after 20-plus years of school turnaround and improvement work, why all or most schools were not successful. He replied that, from his experience, successful school reform has taken place only in specific local scenarios, with inspired leadership and has been difficult to replicate and sustain when leadership changes.

His thoughts led me to think about the school districts in which I now work toward school improvement and, in particular, those 14 in which I am working with in a three-year project and have come to know well. Where have I seen the factors he identified that are resulting in sustained school improvement for challenging schools? From Dr. Noguera’s description and my own experience, successful school improvement results from a synthesis of the following variables.

•First, the leadership and school community view the children and families they serve as assets instead of deficits. Regardless of the level of poverty or other challenges, they collectively view the children as future contributing members of their work force and leaders in their community. This is an example of a growth mind-set; they see the possibilities and then connect with opportunities.

These schools do not regard their test achievement scores as the determining factor in how they approach their relationships or as the identity of their school. Instead, they realize that children of poverty historically do not post the highest scores on standardized tests.

They continually put their focus on what children and families can do, and offer instruction and experiences to motivate them to do more. They have school-wide discipline supports, don’t use grading in the traditional punitive manner, and offer opportunities for students to practice in a non-threatening environment. These schools know that their students will be hired in the future for having skills and being responsible people, so all of their efforts are directed toward this end.

With this belief system, the school develops relational trust with not only the community but with one another. This also results in a nurturing school culture that remains when leaders change.

•Secondly, the leadership first identifies and then uses an organizational process that creates conditions for success before they decide on programs, strategies, and initiatives. I find this to be the most often overlooked variable, and research indicates that this lack of coherence and organization is likely the root cause of school failure. A successful organizational process includes setting instructional goals, putting strategies for learning supports that students will need in order to achieve those goals, and then managing the resources to make it happen.

Schools that successfully “turn around” eliminate the myriad of programs and initiatives that encumber school staff. Instead, they identify the root causes of their underachievement and then collaboratively decide on three to five strategies that everyone will implement. I have learned that schools that need improvement seek to find solutions in doing more -- more programs, initiatives, workshops, meetings -- when, in fact, they need to do less with more focus.

•Finally, the schools that achieve sustained improvement are supported by a district office that serves their needs and reinforces the organizational conditions for success.  A district office that is driven by compliance and top-down decisions never succeeds. In fact, regardless of how research-based a practice is, if the teachers and staff in a school don’t believe it will work, it won’t. Districts that successfully improve and sustain positive growth are supported by state departments who serve them by unifying their programs and services to reduce the number of   requirements and time spent on compliance reporting.

As I have explored this, I realize how rare it is for these variables to come together. It would surely benefit Georgians to consider doing so for all schools.




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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.