When we think about school improvement efforts across the United States, it’s easy to tick off the spectacular, big-budget failures. New York City offers the most dismal recent example: its Renewal effort, launched in 2014, ultimately spent $773 million without showing results for students. Although 2018 research from FutureEd shed a more favorable light on the results of federal School Improvement Grants than had previously been demonstrated, the Obama administration’s effort to give the nation’s most challenged schools a significant resource boost also failed to produce lasting positive outcomes for students.
Yet, while these boondoggles made headlines and dominated air time among policy wonks, a smaller, quieter and more sustainable set of successes began teaching the field some guiding principles for improving schools. Schools and even whole districts are getting results for kids when they stick to basics like focusing on school leadership and building relationships among adults. Once an effective principal has established a school culture where adults trust each other, then teams of school staff can work together and use data to tackle the obstacles that get in the way of student success.
This approach is still in the early stages, but appears promising. It can also keep on trucking under the radar while local politics rage on—whether it’s Renewal in New York or school closings in Chicago. For evidence, witness the huge improvements over the past decade in high school graduation and college entrance in both cities.
So Much Reform, So Little Change
Before we dig in to how this approach is making a difference for districts, schools and kids, let’s talk about why failures like Renewal have long been the norm in school improvement. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, the school reform conversation was dominated by a focus on silver-bullet fixes: changes in governance, programs a school could adopt to improve instruction, the “replication” and “scaling” of models that showed effectiveness as pilot projects.
But all these fixes overlooked the problem of toxic school cultures impervious to change. In 2008, education scholar Charles Payne brilliantly illustrated the social and organizational barriers struggling schools face in his landmark book, "So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools."
Payne showed us exactly how and why efforts to provide struggling schools with resources and expertise were doomed to fail—largely because the adults in those schools were so deeply unaccustomed to success. “Reform after reform fails because of nothing more complicated than the sheer inability of adults to cooperate with one another,” he wrote.
Although Payne’s work focused on the most disadvantaged urban schools, educators in all kinds of settings could relate to his descriptions of jaded veterans’ resistance to new ideas after years of watching innovations fail, and of autocratic principals demoralizing teachers to the point where they wouldn’t speak to a researcher on school grounds for fear of retaliation.
Ultimately, Payne’s book made the case that improvement can’t happen in a school where the culture is ill-prepared to seize opportunity.
Two years later, a group of Payne’s colleagues at the University of Chicago published a book of lessons learned from the early years of school reform in Chicago. That’s the grassroots, site-based governance model adopted in the late 1980s, well before the advent of No Child Left Behind. When Chicago schools were handed resources, authority and a mandate to improve, about one-third of them found ways to do so.
The researchers unearthed “five essentials” in the cultures of schools that were able to improve. They had effective leaders, collaborative teachers, ambitious instruction, a supportive environment and involved families.
Change Happens School-by-School and Principals Lead It
“What Chicago has learned about school organization and the five essentials—principals organize that!” said Karin Chenoweth of the Education Trust. She shows us all how school improvement works through her ExtraOrdinary Districts podcast. Simply putting this “modest amount of learning” to work more broadly could improve many more schools, she noted.
Here’s why. While the quality of classroom instruction has the most direct effect on student achievement, principals count, too, because they create the working conditions in which teachers flourish or flounder. Great principals inspire and motivate teachers to give their best and make life difficult for teachers who resist their push for excellence.
In Chicago, many experts attribute the district’s long term improvement in part to the city’s sustained focus on building a cadre of skilled principals. Chicago’s drive to improve principal quality ultimately toughened preparation and licensure across Illinois. Nationally, the Wallace Foundation’s work to strengthen principal pipelines in six big-city districts resulted in student achievement gains.
But there’s still plenty of work to do to get these insights in the hands of policymakers. “I am struck by the number of people who are not aware of the Wallace research. These are associate urban superintendents,” said Payne. “People in one corner don’t seem to have any idea what people in other corners do.” Nonetheless, he expressed optimism that the word will continue to spread and that more districts and states will find ways to strengthen principals and help them build trust among school staff.
The Next Frontier: Teams, Problem-Solving and Data
For years, the education field has grappled with the disconnect between policymakers’ edicts and the actual practice of teaching—what Harvard professor Richard Elmore calls “the instructional core.” As Elmore put it, the only ways to improve student learning are: improve the quality of the content taught, increase the skill and knowledge of the teacher and increase the students’ active participation in learning. (The authors of “Organizing for School Improvement” add a fourth factor: increase the time available for learning.)
Historically, many school improvement efforts have never even touched the instructional core; when they did, the effects were short-lived and quickly replaced by a new approach. There was little time to reflect on or learn from failures and successes before the next wave of change arrived.
Over the last decade, the field of education has begun to learn from both health and manufacturing about more rigorous ways to test and analyze improvement efforts. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has led the way by distilling six principles of improvement from sources as disparate as Six Sigma and the Institute for Healthcare Improvement. In their 2015 book, “Learning to Improve,” Carnegie president Tony Bryk and colleagues detail how they developed the method they call improvement science.
When educators come together in a network to address a shared problem, improvement science offers them a process through which they can investigate its root causes and design and test small-scale changes they think could hold large payoffs. As a network, they can test more of these potential solutions quickly and spread successes to scale. For example,
- The Network for College Success, which works directly with 17 Chicago high schools, offering coaching in leadership, instructional improvement, keeping students on-track to graduate and college advising has borne remarkable results. NCS partner high schools led the way to dramatic increases in Chicago’s overall graduation rate (57% in 2006 to 79% in 2019) and overall college enrollment rate (54% in 2010 to 65% by 2017). For NCS partner high schools, the average graduation rate was 85% as of 2017, with 72% of the class of 2017 enrolled in college.
- The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently put a big bet on networks: $240 million to 30 networks in 23 states. (Grants range in duration from two to five years.) The larger, longer-term grantees include both Chicago’s Network for College Success and New York City’s New Visions for Public Schools, which has incubated and launched 134 district-operated schools and 10 charters.
Chenoweth warned that though this work is showing some promising initial results, the jury is still out. “It’s too soon to tell,” she cautioned. “We’re still learning how to put data to work so we’re data-informed, not data-driven-out-of-our-minds.”
“If you don’t have a strong organization, putting more data into it doesn’t do anything,” agreed Payne.
Chenoweth suggested the kind of organizational foundation that must be in place before schools can put data to work for improvement. “If you want teachers to look at their data, they have to be in agreement about what they are teaching when. You can’t compare data in real-time unless you are more or less teaching the same thing at the same time and assessing it the same way.”
To get to the point where a school has this much coherence, teachers need regular time to meet with their colleagues. If Chenoweth were a superintendent, she said, “I would put real money into getting teachers time to meet. It’s hugely important.”
Ironically, before New York City’s Renewal debacle, its school system had been at the forefront of this kind of leadership-centered, network-driven and data-oriented approach and had been hailed as a leader in urban school reform. Similarly, Chicago Public Schools continued to improve despite rapid churn in top leadership during former mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration and the disruptive closure of 49 elementary schools in 2013.
Perhaps by 2029, we’ll have more definitive evidence that this kind of attention to the culture and internal workings of schools can make positive change for kids, even while districts continue to be buffeted by shifting politics and priorities. “We know these are levers: improving reading instruction, improving principals’ ability to lead,” Chenoweth said. “If we could stop throwing money at things and just improve instruction, that might actually work.”