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Sustaining Improvement Efforts Over the Long Run (page 2)

By — The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement
Updated on Jul 9, 2010

Key Enablers: Five Strategies That Can Help Schools Sustain Improvement

School personnel who know that sustaining reform is a process—and who understand the key elements of that process—will fare better than those who do not. But the following general strategies also can help:

  1. Collect lots of information on the impact of new initiatives, including but not limited to annual student assessment results. Such information will be crucial to deciding what’s working and what’s not, and also can provide crucial evidence that sophisticated reforms are working when faced with pressure to replace them with quick and easy shortcuts. For example, the Hawthorne teachers note, “We did not gather data to validate our successes or provide insight for adjustments. [...] Because we had not gathered defined data on their efficacy, these programs were at risk” when a new principal was appointed from outside.20 Keeping monthly tabs on patterns in student behavior, student and teacher attendance, and classroom assessments and grades can provide early indications of forward momentum or problems. The quarterly benchmark assessments that many school districts are putting into place also can offer invaluable evidence about the impact of reforms.
  2. Ensure that partnerships with outside assistance providers extend beyond the initial stages of an improvement effort. One of the major lessons Johns Hopkins researchers learned in working with Baltimore’s Patterson High School is that “a leadership team in a reforming high school must be supported through its struggle by the district and other outside reform partners. [...] We argue that while intensive support is critical for the planning and initial implementation phases, assistance from external providers may need to be continued for an indefinite period to help negotiate inevitable changes in district leadership, and other potentially disruptive forces.”21 External providers can play a crucial role in helping schools accurately pinpoint what’s working and what’s not, as well as providing advice on how reforms can be adapted to work better.
  3. The staff at Hawthorne Academy learned the value of external providers can sometimes extend from the technical to the political. When a new principal put pressure on them to replace successful reforms, the school’s partnership with a local university proved critical. “When there was this crucial time, [university faculty members] talked to our superintendent and said if things don’t get better, there’s really going to be a problem,” recalls Guadalupe Rodriguez- Pollock, Hawthorne’s current principal and a special education teacher at the school when it began implementing the reforms. “So our superintendent made some leadership changes and began to promote from within.”22 Create a strategy for communicating the school’s vision and core values to new staff members so they understand not just how things are done, but why things are done the way they are. “One of our early failures was the lack of a mentoring plan for new staff members,” write Mentzer and Shaughnessy. “Mentorship was done informally at some grade levels. [...] We did not have a formal schoolwide plan to share the vision, mission, expectations, or traditions of Hawthorne. Things were told to new staff members, but the philosophy behind why these things were present in our school culture was not necessarily shared.”23 Rather than assuming that such important knowledge will automatically “be passed down through the generations,” schools can set up formal mentoring programs to ensure that it does.
  4. Create a strategy to develop leadership from within. One of the more surprising findings of research on organizations that sustain growth over long periods is that they tend to rely on homegrown leaders promoted from within. “Homegrown management rules at the visionary companies to a far greater degree than at the comparison companies (by a factor of six),” write Collins and Porras.24 “Simply put, our research leads us to conclude that it is extraordinarily difficult to become and remain a highly visionary company by hiring top management from outside the organization. Equally important, there is absolutely no inconsistency between promoting from within and stimulating significant change.”25  Center for Leadership in School Reform CEO Philip Schlechty argues that the issue of leadership succession is just as important for sustaining improvement in education. “Executive succession planning, which is virtually absent in most school districts, is [...] essential to the maintenance of direction,” he writes. “Indeed, it is the absence of such planning that leads teachers to the view that ‘this too shall pass,’ a view that not only decreases commitment but engenders cynicism as well. [...] People who are asked to make the sacrifices that really hard change requires need to be assured that there is a leadership structure in place that will sustain them.”26  Anecdotal evidence suggests that high- improving districts and schools are discovering the value of internal leadership development. For example, an administrator in Montgomery County, Maryland, recently told an Education Week reporter doing a story on the county’s progress in raising achievement and closing gaps, “It’s important in Montgomery County that when you go into a leadership position, you’re like the Cadillac—that all we need to do is polish you.” Last year, only four of the district’s 83 new school administrators were hired from outside the system.27  And Rodriguez-Pollock of the Hawthorne Academy says this is one of the biggest lessons she and her staff have learned during the school’s 15-year improvement effort: “We’re thinking the only way this campus can continue to be successful is to grow our own administrators. Some of us are getting near retirement and so we’re training the younger ones to follow through.”28
  5. Ensure that responsibility for leading reform efforts is distributed among staff members and not just concentrated in the administration. A recent study comparing California schools that sustained improvement with those that did not found that all the successful schools had strong teacher leadership.29 Strong teacher leadership can ensure that reforms last even when principals do not.

Conclusion

Clearly, sustaining reform is as complicated a process as organizing for, planning for, and implementing an improvement effort, requiring just as much intellectual honesty, creativity, and unflinching courage. But there is plentiful evidence that sustaining improvement is possible, even over very long periods, and that the benefits for students are great indeed. Consider, one last time, the example of Hawthorne Academy. “In 1987, Hawthorne Elementary School battled all of the problems common to inner- city schools: low achievement, inconsistent attendance, and a transient population with student behaviors ranging from apathetic to disruptive. We could see that if we did not dosomething to break the cycle of failure, our students would end up on the streets or dead,” write Mentzer and Shaughnessy.30 But by 2004, the school’s overall passing rate on the state assessment exceeded its district’s average by nearly 30 points and the state average by a comfortable margin. Even more impressive, the results revealed that Hawthorne’s Hispanic seventh graders (who also are mostly low- income) had closed the achievement gap, outscoring white seventh graders statewide in every subject and by about 10 percentage points overall.31 Asked about the most important thing a school can do to sustain reform, not just over a few years but over decades, Hawthorne’s principal sums up, “We follow our philosophy and vision and we work together as a team.”32 When all is said and done, it turns out that sustaining improvement is just that simple—and just that challenging.

Endnotes

1 Borman, G. D., Hewes, G. M., Overman, L. T., & Brown, S. (2002, November). Comprehensive school reform and student achievement: A meta-analysis. Baltimore: Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed At Risk. (page 27) Retrieved September 30, 2005, from www.csos. jhu.edu/CRESPAR/techReports/Report59.pdf
2  This example comes from Legters, N. E., Balfanz, R., Jordan, W. J., & McPartland, J. M. (2002). Comprehensive reform for urban high schools: A Talent Development approach. New York: Teachers College Press. (pages 43–100)
3  The proportion of Patterson ninth graders who were “repeaters” dropped from about 50 percent before implementation to about 15 percent in subsequent years. Legters, N. E., Balfanz, R., Jordan, W. J., & McPartland, J. M. (2002). Comprehensive reform for urban high schools: A Talent Development approach. New York: Teachers College Press. (page 70)
4  Indeed, the plan eventually evolved into a widely recognized whole-school reform model, Talent Development, currently being implemented in more than 33 high schools across 12 states. For what the model looks like now, visit the Web site http://www.csos.jhu.edu/tdhs/
5  Legters, N. E., Balfanz, R., Jordan, W. J., & McPartland, J. M. (2002). Comprehensive reform for urban high schools: A
Talent Development approach. New York: Teachers College Press. (pages 88–89)
6  Kotter, J. P. (1998). Leading change: Why transformation efforts fail. In Harvard business review on change. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. (page 17)
7  Collins, J. C., & Porras, J. I. (1994). Built to last: Successful habits of visionary companies. New York: HarperCollins. (pages 185–186)
8  Lake, R., McCarthy, M., Taggart, S., & Celio, M. B. (2000). Making standards stick: A follow-up look at Washington state’s school improvement efforts in 1999–2000. Seattle: Center on Reinventing Public Education. (pages 25–27) Retrieved September 30, 2005, from http://www.crpe.org/pubs/pdf/MakingStandardsStick.pdf
9  Kotter, J. P. (1996). Leading change. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. (page 133)
10  Mentzer, D., & Shaughnessy, T. (2005). Hawthorne Academy: The teachers’ perspective. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 10(2), 157–164.
11  The curriculum was called Core Knowledge, which, like the early reforms at Patterson, later became the basis for a
comprehensive school reform model. For more information, visit the Core Knowledge Foundation Web site at www.coreknowledge.org
12  Mentzer, D., & Shaughnessy, T. (2005). Hawthorne Academy: The teachers’ perspective. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 10(2), 159.
13  Collins, J. C., & Porras, J. I. (1994). Built to last: Successful habits of visionary companies. New York: HarperCollins. (page 9) Of course, the point is not that strategy doesn’t matter at all. As we explained in the second brief of this series, getting a successful improvement effort off the ground requires a great deal of collaborative, strategic problem solving. The point here is that not even
the most intelligent corporate leaders—or for that matter, school administrators and teachers—can see far enough into the future to craft a successful strategy spanning decades, nor can they anticipate problems that will need to be solved seven, 10, or 12 years hence.
14  Collins, J. C., & Porras, J. I. (1994). Built to last: Successful habits of visionary companies. New York: HarperCollins. (page 8)
15  Century, J. R., & Levy, A. J. (2002, Summer). Sustaining your reform: Five lessons from research. Benchmarks, 3(3), 2–3.
16  Collins, J. C., & Porras, J. I. (1994). Built to last: Successful habits of visionary companies. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. (pages 140–141)
17  Quoted in NewSchools Venture Fund. (2004, May). NewSchools Venture Fund summit 2004. (page 26) Available at http://www.newschools.org/network/Summit2004.pdf.
18  Chrisman, V. (2005). How schools sustain success. Educational Leadership, 62(5), 16–21.
19  Mentzer, D., & Shaughnessy, T. (2005). Hawthorne Academy: The teachers’ perspective. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 10(2), 161–162.
20  Mentzer, D., & Shaughnessy, T. (2005). Hawthorne Academy: The teachers’ perspective. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 10(2), 159.
21  Legters, N. E., Balfanz, R., Jordan, W. J., & McPartland, J. M. (2002). Comprehensive reform for urban high schools: A Talent Development approach. New York, NY: Teachers College Press. (pages 94–95).
22  Personal interview, June 15, 2005.
23  Mentzer, D., & Shaughnessy, T. (2005). Hawthorne Academy: The teachers’ perspective. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 10(2), 163–164.
24  Collins, J. C., & Porras, J. I. (1994). Built to last: Successful habits of visionary companies. New York: HarperCollins. (page 10)
25  Collins, J. C., & Porras, J. I. (1994). Built to last: Successful habits of visionary companies. New York: HarperCollins. (page 183)
26  Schlechty, P. C. Creating the capacity to support innovations: Occasional paper #2. Louisville, KY: Schlechty Center for Leadership in School Reform. (pages 13–14) Retrieved September 30, 2005, from http://www.schlechtycenter.org/pdfs/supportinn.pdf
27  Gewertz, C. (2005). Staff investment pays dividends in Md. district. Education Week, 24(44), 16.
28  Personal interview, June 15, 2005.
29  Chrisman, V. (2005). How schools sustain success. Educational Leadership, 62(5), 16–21.
30  Mentzer, D., & Shaughnessy, T. (2005). Hawthorne Academy: The teachers’ perspective. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 10(2), 157.
31  Core Knowledge Foundation. (2005.) Nathaniel Hawthorne Academy. Charlottesville, VA: Author. Retrieved September 30, 2005, from http://www.coreknowledge.org/CK/about/research/Hawthorne.pdf
32  Personal interview, June 15, 2005.

About the Center’s Policy Briefs

This is the last in a series of four policy briefs to be published by The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement in 2005. The briefs are intended to provide fresh insights and useful advice to policymakers and school assistance providers.
This year’s four-part series is structured around The Center’s emphasis on school improvement and reform as a collaborative, schoolwide cycle of activities: (1) organizing for improvement, (2) planning for improvement, (3) implementing improvement plans, and (4) sustaining improvement efforts. Each publication addresses one of those areas and builds upon the ideas and strategies
discussed in the preceding briefs. Therefore, we recommend reading them in order and using them in concert. All four publications are available on our Web site (www.centerforcsri.org).

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