School Reform Challenge

By Del Stover

Five years ago, in a bid to boost achievement at Glades Central Community High School in Palm Beach County, Fla., officials promised smaller classes, more professional development for teachers, and curriculum changes. Two years ago, with student achievement still lagging, officials promised even more support and greater oversight, and again assured the community that they knew how to fix Glades Central’s problems.

But saying you know what it takes to fix the problem and actually doing it are very different things.

Over the past two-plus decades, billions of dollars have been spent on research to identify effective educational practices -- and reform efforts successfully have raised achievement levels in thousands of schools nationwide. But in Glades Central’s case, those efforts haven’t met their promise: The school received an “F” on Florida’s school report card in 2007-08, the same grade it has earned, off and on, for a decade.

Why?

Research shows that raising achievement and turning around low-performing schools requires a long-range plan, stable leadership to move things along, community and staff buy-in, adequate resources, and a sustained focus that lasts year after year. Not all of those ingredients have been available at Glades Central. It’s had a tough time attracting qualified teachers to the poor, isolated rural community that it serves, and the school has had four principals in seven years.

Palm Beach officials say they’re confident they can turn the school around, but they’re stymied at the same time. Most of the county’s schools have A or B ratings. After a decade of underachievement, one school clawed its way to an A rating this summer, and several others showed improvement.

“There is no magic bullet,” says Marcia Baldanza, who, as lead restructuring administrator for the Palm Beach County schools, works with the county’s most troubled campuses. “School improvement just takes time.”

Just how much time is needed, though? How can we turn around troubled schools and districts that languish in failure? If we know what works, why can’t we make it work everywhere?

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