Deeper Learning as a Turnaround Strategy

Turning around low performing schools is tough–particularly high schools. There’s only one  difference between a struggling school and a good school–everything. Good schools have good goals; they use a variety of strategies to personalize learning supported by aligned supports, staffing, and schedule.

Efforts to turn around low performing schools often involve managed instruction: standards-based instruction, uniform pacing, benchmark assessment, and professional development.  Sometimes these efforts incorporate rich learning experiences but all too often these well-intentioned efforts increase consistency but may wring anything interesting out of the day. To paraphrase Tony Bryk and Dick Elmore, “Moving from no teaching to some teaching isn’t always a path to good teaching.”

We found a group of schools that have dramatically increased student achievement in relatively short time periods by challenging students in interesting and authentic ways.

Watch to Exemplary. The Danville Kentucky district that is home to Bate Middle School turned 100 last year. When Bate originally opened, it was all African American and went through high school. The school was integrated in 1973. “Eight years ago the this school was on the state watch list.” said superintendent Carmen Coleman. This month The Partnership for 21st Century Schools named Bate an Exemplar School. Coleman said, “They’ve come a long, long way!”

Two years ago they began adding project-based learning and engineering, which begins with an introduction to engineering and includes systems, gaming engineering, and some programming courses from Stanford. They visited high performing schools across the country.

Principal Amy Galloway “put teachers together in think tanks and teams to develop and own an innovation plan for what they thought the Bate experience should be for students and what they thought was important.”

Project-based work “is supported through a flex-grouped schedule that allows teachers to block and mix classes as needed throughout the year for more in-depth and time consuming deeper learning experiences and applications of the skills and content the students are learning,” said Galloway.

In their redesigned educational environment, students receive in-depth experiences in engineering and the arts, as well as speech and communications, foreign language, and a multicultural curriculum. This is accomplished through individual growth goals supported by individualized instruction in math and reading complemented by individual and team projects.

Bottom to Best.  When Katie Decker was appointed principal in 2001, Bracken was one of the lowest performing schools in Clark County. Katie believed, “choosing a theme and a passion and finding out what kids like and teaching them based on their passion will work!” Her belief transformed Walter Bracken Magnet into an award-winning K-8 program that is ranked among the top schools in district.

Art is infused into the STEM-focused curriculum. Students participate in a minimum of three field trips each year. Experts from the community support student immersion in real-world applications. In addition to community partnerships, the improvement formula (as noted in a June feature) includes parent involvement, an invested staff, and effective use of technology.  Grade level teams assemble a variety of instructional components and often use Edmodo to communicate and collaborate on assignments.

PLC Plus. As noted in June, A visit to Wyandotte High School a dozen years ago convinced me that it was possible to convert a big bad high school into a good college prep school. Students choose from seven themed small learning communities that incorporate job shadowing, internships, field trips, and hands on learning. A solid core curriculum, a relationship-based advisory, and lots of peer instructional feedback made a big difference.

Restructuring the Kansas City Kansas high schools into small learning communities in 1999 improved graduation rates from 48% to 81% by 2005. Getting students into the right math courses and focusing on the quality of instruction boosted math proficiency rates from 7% in 2003 to 53% by 2008. The percentage of students reading proficiently nearly doubled over the same time frame. College enrollment rates doubled, from a quarter to nearly half of the graduating class during the same period.

Adult learning. When it comes to turnaround situations, creating a positive culture and setting good goals are always the first step. Measurement around a few priorities can bring quick results and create momentum. It may be easy to implement a scripted approach, but these three examples suggest that creating structures and supports for adult learning will not only yield quick benefits but will lay the foundation for long term success.


Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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