Establishing a Strong Foundation for School Improvement
A New Challenge for a New Century
Three years ago, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act instituted a fundamental change in the emphasis and aims of federal education policy. The stated purpose of the decades-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act became “closing the achievement gap between high- and low-performing children, especially the achievement gaps between minority and non-minority students, and between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers.”1 For the first time, states were required to hold schools and districts accountable not simply for making some progress, but rather for making sufficient progress so that all students can achieve proficiency on state assessments by an established date—the year 2014.
Of course, states have used the flexibility in the NCLB Act to set up different kinds of time lines with different rates of progress required in these early years. And the law includes a kind of safety net called “safe harbor,” which establishes a minimum benchmark under which schools and districts can be judged as making adequate progress if they reduce the proportion of students not yet reaching proficiency by 10 percent a year.
But make no mistake: This shift in goals and accountability is a historic and unprecedented one. Even the minimum amount of progress demanded under the safe harbor provision is more than many states required before 2002.
Because of NCLB, schools and systems are under pressure to improve at much faster rates than ever before. And because assessment results must now be reported for separate groups of students, the achievement gaps that have long plagued American education can no longer be ignored. Low levels of achievement among poor, minority, and special education students can no longer be hidden behind average test scores, and all of those groups must be making adequate progress if a school or district is to be judged as doing so.
Such goals are unprecedented on a national scale, and the challenge facing America’s schools and districts is a considerable one. There has been very little progress in closing achievement gaps over the past 15 years. The reading gap between African-American and white 17-year-olds, for example, actually increased from 21 to 31 points on the National Assessment of Educational Progress between 1988 and 1999.
Part of the challenge has to do with beliefs. While many educators have publicly supported NCLB and professionally pursued its goals, many others have proclaimed its ideals to be inspiring but impractical, and its concrete goals for student achievement to be unattainable. Six months after the law was signed, one Connecticut educator told The Hartford Courantthat meeting the goal would be “like asking every kid to jump the Grand Canyon.”2
Such sentiments are not surprising. Think about how early and how often educators are given the message that achievement gaps are the result of forces “outside their control.” Many educators begin hearing it during their professional training, and its relentless repetition acts as a drumbeat in the background as they develop professionally. They are told about the Coleman report. They hear about the social correlates of student achievement.They learn the shape of the relationship between student poverty, race, and test scores until they can draw trend lines with their eyes closed.
In short, they are taught to believe that the achievement gap is as immutable a feature of our nation’s educational landscape as the Grand Canyon is of our physical landscape. Of course, many teachers refuse to succumb to the mantra of powerlessness, but, like a persistent undertow, it exerts a relentless pull on our collective educational will.
Yet consider a less-known fact about the black- white reading gap: Between 1971 and 1988, that gap shrank by more than half, from 51 points to 21.3 Similar progress occurred in math. Clearly the achievement gap is not an immutable fact of nature, and this nation and its public schools are capable of making great strides over relatively short time periods.
If we are to make any substantial progress toward achieving the new aims NCLB has established for American education, we must, to quote Irish poet Seamus Heaney, “Believe that a further shore is reachable from here.”4 But, more importantly, we will have to act as if it is reachable as well.
First and foremost, we need to build new ways of planning for and carrying out school reform and improvement to address the educational needs of all students. During the period in which achievement gaps were closing over the ’70s and ’80s, federal dollars were used to target gaps in the most basic educational needs of disadvantaged students, primarily by implementing remedial teaching outside the classroom and add- on programs to provide limited amounts of extra support. Those remedial programs served their purpose. The vast majority of all 17-year-olds now meet minimum levels of basic literacy and numeracy on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
But such approaches have clearly begun to offer only diminishing returns when it comes to meeting the new challenge of educating all students to the high academic goals established in state standards over the 1990s. At this point, the achievement gap is not defined by gaps in basic literacy and numeracy, but rather in the levels of proficiency that put students on track to successfully pursue education past high school.
Instead of add-on programs, what are needed now are whole-school reforms that greatly build the instructional capacity of schools to educate all students to much higher levels, focusing primarily on teachers and their ability to deliver high-quality, effective instruction inside the class- room. Yet planning along those lines is difficult. Just as ideas about achievement have evolved to place blame—and responsibility—on factors outside of the classroom, traditions have evolved that protect classroom instruction from scrutiny and interference. Teachers innovate and improve instruction in isolation, while schoolwide planning is seen as an unconnected administrative process, and efforts to diagnose schoolwide or ditrictwide outcomes focus on the hundreds of social factors that schools do not control and on which they can have little effect.5
Anyone who doubts this description needs to look no further than the nearest school planning meeting. Few phrases in the education lexicon are as generally recognized, yet commonly loathed, as “needs assessment,” “comprehensive plan,” and “school improvement plan.” To many educators, those terms represent onerous bureaucratic requirements rather than useful tools, activities,and products that exist in a parallel track related to the “real work” of daily classroom teaching. The same teacher who proudly shows off a school’s new fourth-grade math program or after-school tutoring center will most likely roll her eyes and issue a private groan when asked how her school’s needs assessment and comprehensive planning process led to the efforts in question.
Of course, there are exceptions. Many schools engage in thoughtful and considered planning, often aided by the plethora of tools and assistance providers (commercial or otherwise) that have multiplied in the wake of federal requirements for program planning. Yet how, at a time when demands for improvement have risen dramatically, can many educators still view the institutional activities related to improvement as perfunctory bureaucratic exercises?
Unless educators can find ways to make “official” improvement efforts attend to classroom instruction, student achievement will not improve substantially. And unless the “real” efforts to improve classroom instruction move beyond isolated and random volunteerism and become much more integrated, systemic, and sustained— in other words, centralized—many schools will be unable to fully meet the important new goals advanced by NCLB. The challenge is not simply technical, but cultural and political as well. Educators and administrators will need help and encouragement to work in ways that seem fundamentally— and uncomfortably—different from what they are used to doing.
To begin with, we must begin to view improvement as a continuous institutional process rather than as a sporadic set of activities or isolated projects. The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement believes that effective reform is a collaborative schoolwide process that involves four distinct stages: (1) organizing for improvement; (2) planning for improvement; (3) implementing improvement plans; and(4) sustaining improvement efforts.
Unfortunately, many schools and school systems simply skip the first stage, leading to wasted time and resources, failure to improve, and staff exhaustion and cynicism about reform. If improvement is to mean more than simply writing a plan, the improvement process must begin earlier, more thoughtfully, and more vigorously. The rest of this brief focuses exclusively on the organization stage by offering suggestions for getting the process off to a strong start.
Reprinted with the permission of the Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement. © 2008 Learning Point Associates. All rights reserved.
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