Schools Prove They Can Make Dramatic Improvements With Their Own Teachers: No Sanctions Necessary

Last Updated: June 25, 2013

This article appeared in the June 2013 Rural Policy Matters.

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“Teachers want to be successful,” says Sabrina Greiten, principal at Coalinga Middle School in California.

In struggling schools, however, teachers often don’t have the resources or supports that make it possible to succeed. The Schools to Watch: School Transformation Network, which, in 2010, won a federal Investing in Innovation (i3) grant with matching support from the Rural Trust, is proving that formerly low-performing schools can create for themselves the healthy cultures that prioritize students and lead to rich learning experiences for everyone.

Coalinga Middle, located on the edge of Coalinga, California (pop. 13,543) is a member of the Network. After three years the school has seen remarkable changes. “This process puts tools in teachers’ hands and supports them in their every day experience,” says Greiten.

That runs counter to prevailing education policy over the past 30 years. During the last several decades, U.S. education policy has focused on identifying “failing” schools, those where students don’t score well on standardized tests, and on prodding improvement using competition and punitive sanctions. Schools are typically subjected to a succession of top-down reform interventions, most of which have failed to produced sustainable long-term results. Teachers are increasingly blamed for low test scores and, in some states, penalized in pay systems and job protections.

The School Transformation Network uses a process that is both deceptively simple and richly complex to focus on improving school culture and climate through teacher collaboration and shared leadership. With a healthy culture in place and good learning opportunities for everyone, teacher commitment and enthusiasm surge, instructional practice improves, parental involvement escalates, and student test scores soar.

The Network is an effort of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform (The National Forum) through its Schools to Watch® (STW) initiative. The National Forum works to “promote the academic performance and healthy development of young adolescents,” with a focus on students in grades five through eight, regardless of the grade configuration of the school.

The Forum has identified four domains of high-performing middle-grades schools: academic excellence, developmental responsiveness, social equity, and organizational structures and norms to “support and sustain [the school’s] trajectory toward excellence.”

Through its Schools to Watch initiative, the Forum identifies middle-grades schools that excel in all four domains. State STW Networks in 19 states help identify schools and implement Schools to Watch programs.

Deborah Kasak is Executive Director of the National Forum’s Schools to Watch initiative. “We can show that we can turn around a school by creating the culture and climate to promote excellence in the education of young adolescents,” she says.

The School Transformation Network includes 18 schools, six of which are in rural areas or small towns and all of which were persistently low performing when they joined the Network. The effort aims to build capacity in the schools, improve academic performance, and close achievement gaps.

A process toward a positive school culture

“This is not a program, it’s a process,” says Jim Butler, principal at Hamlet Middle School in Hamlet, North Carolina (pop 6,494), one of the small town schools participating in the Network. “Every school will be different. It’s not like the programs that force everyone to do A, B, C, and D with the promise that you will get X result. In this process, you get a lot of support, but this is something you do yourself, you make it your own.”

That process is focused on building the trust, knowledge, quality relationships, leadership skills, and positive school culture and climate that empower teachers to focus on instruction and student needs. These qualities undergird academic excellence, developmental appropriateness, and social equity — corresponding with the qualities identified by the National Forum as essential for high-performing middle-grades schools.

The process is implemented through structures designed to support collaboration and shared leadership and by the STW Self Study and Rating Rubric, which guides best practices and helps school faculties know where to focus their energies. It is unified through a constant focus on students and on improving instructional practice.

Structures for Collaboration and Shared Leadership

“We start by asking how each student can be known personally and how communications can be strengthened,” explains Kasak. “We often establish teams or small schools-within-schools that make it possible for teachers to collaborate for a year or longer with the same group of students. Those structures help people get to know each other more easily, creating a more intimate experience for everyone.”

Team teachers share a common planning time. “The common planning time makes it possible for teachers to discuss and collaborate on all aspects of their practice, especially curriculum and instruction and student needs and issues,” says Kasak. “They can easily track where each student is in terms of grades, attendance, behavior.” Teachers also participate in Professional Learning Communities.

In addition to structures for collaboration, schools in the Network also create structures of shared leadership that give all teachers meaningful input in key decisions related to instruction, school policy, and governance. These leadership structures make it possible for teachers to implement their ideas and to make necessary changes as they move forward.

A rubric for self-study and teacher empowerment

The STW Self Study and Rating Rubric includes questions related to each of the four domains and provides the school faculty a way to think about its practices and structures and how to improve them. Teachers complete the questionnaire at the beginning of the process and periodically thereafter.

“The rubric is a unified tool to help schools look at themselves,” says Kasak. “It helps teachers develop a vision and pathways for achieving that vision and gives them much more input and say-so in the school.”

Greiten says the rubric helps a school, especially a school with many challenges, “know where to start.” And, she adds, because teachers complete the rubric themselves and decide together where to focus their energies they know their input is valued.

Coaching and school visits

The i3 grant provides funds for two additional supports that are especially valuable to struggling rural schools. The first is coaching. Each school in the Network gets a school coach and a principal coach. Coaches each spend a lot of time in the school observing, listening, and supporting the faculty as it carries out the work of self-transformation. The fact that the coaches go to the rural school and get to know it well helps overcome the isolation that characterizes many rural schools. More importantly, coaches tailor support and guidance to the unique circumstances of the particular school. Both Butler and Greiten credit the coaches with providing collegial interaction that have strengthened their schools’ outcomes.

The grant also provides funds for teachers to visit STW schools and to attend high quality conferences focused on issues the school is addressing. It’s another way to overcome isolation and provide teachers with exposure to what instruction rooted in best practices looks like in a well-functioning school. All the teachers at both Hamlet and Coalinga have visited a STW school at least once. Greiten calls the opportunity “revolutionary.” Both she and Butler say the visits have given teachers ideas for their practice and confidence that they can achieve similar results.

Happier teachers, stronger schools

“The process helps teachers feel and be more efficacious,” says Kasak. “They can take care of things quickly and focus on students and student needs.”

Both Hamlet and Coalinga have made impressive improvements in student test scores since joining the School Transformation Network. At Hamlet proficiency rates jumped twenty percent. Coalinga made Safe Harbor last year and is on track to make Safe Harbor for the second time this year, which would move the school out of Program Improvement status. Hamlet has won designation as a Schools to Watch.

“Our teachers feel so much pride,” says Butler. “They know they are doing something important.”

Greiten adds that teachers at Coalinga can’t wait to show off successes in their classrooms and are preparing to present at conferences in California, something they have never done. “It’s a completely different school,” she says.

Kasak says that teachers routinely report that they work harder because of the STW process, “But they also say that they have more energy and are a lot happier because they have so much more control, good support, and are effective with their students.”

The process has demonstrated that the majority of teachers, even in so-called failing schools are anxious to be successful and are committed to student learning. With strong collaborative structures, targeted learning opportunities directed to their needs, and meaningful voice in school decisions, teachers can and will turn a struggling school into a thriving one. No punitive sanctions allowed.

Big turnarounds: Two schools share their stories

Both Butler and Coalinga Middle Schools house grades six through eight; both are three years into the process; both had been identified as persistently low-performing; both have diverse student populations and free/reduced lunch rates over 70%. At Coalinga, half the students are English Language Learners. Throughout the transformation process both schools have retained most of their faculty.

In “Building a Great School: No Punitive Sanctions Allowed,” Butler and Greiten offer down-to-earth, often-humorous descriptions of how their schools have made significant changes in structure, instruction, and culture and what their inspiring results have been.

Click here to read their stories.

Read more from the June 2013 Rural Policy Matters.