Breaking Barriers to Reform

By Del Stover

We know that poor children arrive for their first day of school at a decided disadvantage. And we know that what works in a classroom for our middle- and upper-class students most often is not enough for children in poverty. For these children and their schools, something more is needed. It’s here that innovation, creativity, perseverance, and the sheer will to change are crucial if we’re to improve the educational achievement and the futures of these children.

Yet, given the challenges that school boards and public schools face—parents and employees who resist change, and state and federal mandates that restrict and sometimes quash reform efforts—you’d think that change and true reform to help these students isn’t possible. But it is.

School boards and school leaders all over the country are trying new things. While their goal is to raise up all of their students, those who aren’t doing well by any standard—test assessments, graduation rates, or otherwise—need more immediate attention. Their school boards are willing to take risks—with their employees, parents, and community—to help these students learn more and achieve more.

An exemplar of this kind of innovation and risk-taking is the Chugach School District, which serves 300 students in largely remote and impoverished areas of Alaska. Struggling with the lowest test scores in the state and a high dropout rate, school officials decided years ago on a bold new strategy.

They replaced credit hours and grade levels with what they call a “student-centered” approach. Students work at their own pace, developing learning projects that help them master academic skills, and teachers serve as facilitators and mentors who help students stay on course academically and fulfill state learning guidelines.

“All kids are different,” says Superintendent Robert Crumley. “We decided we are going to engage them and their families in a discussion about what they are interested in, what they think their aptitudes are. We do a battery of tests ... and we develop individualized learning plans so they can learn real-life skills ... and their learning is meaningful and relevant.”

This sweeping restructuring of everyday classroom learning has worked wonders. Almost immediately, student achievement levels rose dramatically, dropout rates fell, and students were more engaged in learning, he says. The district’s turnaround was honored in 2001 with the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.

Chugach’s success story and others across the nation share a common trait. School leaders recognized that reform required more than tweaking their teaching practices or initiating a number of add-on programs. What was needed was systemic change to provide the environment and academic supports that would allow educators and students to overcome the immense obstacles to learning that are raised by poverty and its accompanying social ills.

Meeting the needs
Teachers can attest to the challenges they face in our poorest schools—and their inability to single-handedly help children overcome the academic, health, and social challenges confronting them.

“In my first year of teaching in a great system with great teachers, I realized very quickly that we had maxed out the system,” says Wendy Battino, an Alaskan educator who co-founded the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition (RISC).

“We were doing the very best we could. There were brilliant teachers doing amazing things. But the system was only going to allow us to do so much. We couldn’t meet the needs of all the students, no matter how many hours we worked or how many weekends we worked.”

Today, more than 170 schools are using the RISC model, which assists schools in reshaping instruction towards what’s known as mastery or competency-based learning.

But obviously RISC is only one approach to tackling the challenge of low-performing schools. At ASCD, (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development), reform-minded school leaders are encouraged to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of their schools in six areas: school climate, curriculum and instruction, community and family engagement, professional development and staff capacity, and good use of data.

The thinking behind this broad-based look at schools is that school leaders must ensure that teachers and students have all the supports they need to be successful, says Donna Snyder, manager of the whole child programs at ASCD.

For example, she says, consider the issue of “wraparound services.” Children do not do well if they have a toothache, are hungry, or are traumatized by violence in the home. So school leaders must consider expanding their roster of school nurses and counselors—and bringing government agencies and community services into the schools—so that students’ personal, social, and health needs are met. Only then can students and teachers fully focus on learning.

“Children,” she says, “need to be healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged within a supportive environment.”

That’s hardly a new observation, but as the history of school reform has shown, without systemwide changes, an unconnected initiative won’t respond effectively to student needs, particularly in the poorest, most academically struggling schools.

Hiring social workers or opening school-based health clinics often are isolated or ad hoc initiatives. Often limited by funding or scale, they serve only as a Band-Aid to the needs of children rather than as a systemic, highly influential support system.

“There are all these different pieces, programs, and approaches. What we need to do is pull it all together in a stronger, strategic thread,” Snyder says. “What we’re finding is that school improvement isn’t just about dollars, but a lot of times, school districts have the dollars but they’re not being used in a strategic manner.” 

Better use of teachers
Given that education is a very labor-intensive endeavor, some educators suggest school boards need to put equal emphasis on the quality, training, and classroom practices of teachers.

Research shows, for example, that high-poverty schools consistently employ the least experienced, least trained, and least effective teachers. Mentoring for new teachers is spotty, and staff turnover rates are high and a constant disruption to developing staff capacity in a school.

It’s not that school districts aren’t trying. Over the years, they’ve experimented with additional pay for teachers who accept assignments in high-need schools. Some have paid more attention to mentoring and support for teachers, and they’ve bolstered support staff in their most-struggling schools. But, school reform experts say, a more drastic change is needed.

One evolving trend is similar to what’s seen in the medical care industry, says Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. More than a century ago, he notes, the general practitioner was responsible for most medical care, but today radiologists take X-rays and medical technicians draw blood, freeing physicians to focus their expertise on more demanding medical needs.

A similar division of instruction, using paraprofessionals and technology, could provide similar freedom for teachers to focus their energies more efficiently, he says. “Think about the high school English teacher with 150 kids. If she spends six minutes a week [per student] making grammar and spelling corrections, that’s 15 hours a week—that’s giving kids six minutes of attention circling spelling errors. That’s a crazy use of 15 hours a week that could be spent on tutoring, designing lesson plans, or mentoring.”

Other models are being proposed to make more time-effective use of teachers. One idea is that less-experienced teachers and paraprofessionals should handle the day-to-day instruction of students, with master teachers available to provide intensive instruction to those students who fall behind.

Some see great potential in technology: The so-called flipped learning model uses videos and less-experienced teachers to present the basic concept of lessons, and then students use computerized exercises to develop their skills. Computers would red flag those whose scores on tests and online exercises fall short of the rest of the class, and veteran teachers would intervene.

The idea isn’t to replace teachers but to develop an instructional model that allows them to focus their skills where it’s most effective—and free them from time-consuming tasks that aren’t a good use of their time, says Charles Reigeluth, co-author of Reinventing Schools: It’s Time to Break the Mold.

But it’s more than that, he says. “It’s about retooling the factory model of schools. During the Industrial Age, the most common form of work was assembly line work, and we needed to prepare [students] for boring, repetitive jobs, and that’s how schools were organized. We needed young people to sit down, be quiet—compliance was the key. Now we need problem-solving abilities, collaboration skills, critical thinking skills, and lifelong learners. We need motivated learners. So the teacher’s role is so different.” 

Be bold
Whatever initiative is launched, it’s certainly going to need a determined school board to make it happen, says NSBA President Anne M. Byrne. “Research shows us that school boards make a difference in student achievement and in creating high-performing schools.”

So be bold. Some suggest boards can ease union opposition or parental concerns about “change” by launching their own charter school or “innovation school” to pilot a new instructional model—with a principal and teachers who are willing to take the lead.

“You cannot force people to change,” Reigeluth says. “But those who want to try new things can switch over [to these initiatives] ... those who don’t can stay where they are. Let the trailblazers go forth, and then let’s see if they can change everyone’s mind with their success.”

Kentucky’s Taylor County School District pursued that course, developing an instructional model that allows students to focus on mastery learning, project-based learning, independent work, flipped learning, or a traditional classroom setting. “Imagine a wagon wheel with spokes. Each spoke is a model that may work best with some teachers or students,” says Superintendent Roger Cook.

By allowing students and teachers to choose the learning models they pursue, there was no avenue for opposition from teachers or parents. How, he asks, can anyone disagree with giving people a choice in how they learn and teach best? In fact, some students pursue a different spoke—style of instruction—for different academic subjects depending on the learning style that works best to meet their needs.

It’s a fundamental shift in school design, and it works for teachers, he says. Classes end two hours early on Fridays, allowing teachers and administrators to review student data and engage in professional development. Flipped learning and other strategies allow teachers to work in innovative and more efficient ways.

As one of the first four Kentucky “Districts of Innovation,” a program that gave school officials some flexibility with state education rules, Taylor County has seen significant academic improvements in the past five years. A no-dropout policy resulted in a 100 percent graduation rate in 2013.

Individualized learning plans have accelerated leaning in for some children, Cook says. “We’ve got fifth-graders who are taking high school algebra, and we’ve graduated about 60 seniors this year” who are halfway through their college credit requirements.

At the Center on Reinventing Public Education, Director Robin Lake says dramatic effort to turn around low-performing schools is going to test school boards, particularly if they are seeking to rethink what hasn’t worked in the past. But they must go into the effort with a commitment to follow through.

“If they are serious about asking schools to experiment and find better ways of doing things, then they have to create strategic opportunities for school staffs to be able to do just that. It doesn’t mean opening the floodgates to do whatever they want to do. It means being systemic about creating experiments, testing them to see if they work, and allowing people who have good ideas to try them.”

Del Stover ( is senior editor of American School Board Journal.