A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Turning Around Low-Performing Schools: A Guide for State and Local Leaders (May 1998)

Intervening in Chronically Low-Performing Schools

As this guide illustrates, states and districts must play a role in creating the capacity, vision, and commitment needed to improve their lowest performing schools. Holding schools accountable for performance is not enough. Low-performing schools usually have limited capacity, on their own, to make the kinds of changes necessary to focus on learning and improve student achievement. Often, intervention is necessary.

Twenty-three states have policies for intervening and mandating major changes in low-performing schools, and 17 states grant this authority at the district level.[20] In some cases, this means that states or districts provide technical assistance and additional resources to help redesign or restructure chronically low-performing schools. In some jurisdictions, schools have been reconstituted -- which often involves replacing school principals and removing school teachers and staff.

Collaborative Efforts to Redesign Low-Performing Schools

Many states and districts recognize that low-performing schools cannot go it alone. Chronically low-performing schools need support and technical assistance to develop improvement strategies. A number of districts have intervened in a collaborative process involving all stakeholders -- including parents, teachers, administrators, and unions -- to redesign low-performing schools:

New York State: The Registration Review Process

New York State has developed a process to help low-performing schools devise and implement ways to improve the academic performance of students. A team of teachers, board of education members, union representatives, parents, and curriculum and education experts, led by a district superintendent, conducts a four-day review visit of each low-performing school. The review includes examination of the school's instruction, curriculum, assessment, management, leadership, professional development, parent and family involvement, discipline and safety, physical facilities, and the adequacy of district support for the school. It also mandates that each low-performing school study its own characteristics and practices. The school district then develops a corrective action plan based on the review team's findings. As a result of the program, more than 30 schools have been redesigned by school districts in the state. The review process includes interviews with everyone from the principal to the custodial staff at the school and includes the following questions that help reviewers to identify characteristics of effective school programs:

  • Is there a written school philosophy for instruction that reflects current research and the needs of the students?
  • Is there a common understanding of goals and objectives?
  • Is the program consistent and coordinated across grade levels?
  • Is there an appropriate amount of time allocated to instruction?
  • Is there a schoolwide approach to the teaching of subject matter?
  • Is there ongoing, systematic staff development on subject matter?
  • Are teachers made aware of current research? Are they encouraged to attend professional conferences?
  • Is there an achievement record for each student that reflects standardized tests, individual assessments, and the identification of strengths and needs passed on yearly from teacher to teacher?
  • Is there a systematic approach to the use of test data to diagnose student needs?
  • Are students with similar needs grouped for instruction with flexibility as needs change?
  • Is there a written, consistently applied homework policy?
  • Do parents have a meaningful role in the program that contributes to the development of their children's skills?

If schools don't work for children, school leaders must act decisively. I am pleased that so many low-performing schools have been able to turn around and increase significantly the percentage of their students who are meeting state standards. Much more still needs to be done.

-- Richard P. Mills,
New York State Commissioner of Education

Other states and districts are taking steps to improve low-performing schools with positive interventions. Maryland sponsors partnerships between the U.S. Department of Education's Blue Ribbon Schools and low-performing schools in the state. Michigan helps low-performing schools by providing evaluation services, designing district-level support plans, and helping schools align their curriculum with state assessments.

Accountability and Improvement: Kentucky's STAR Program
Livingston Central High School, Smithland, Kentucky

Teacher empowerment, backed by an infusion of state funding, was the key to transforming Livingston Central High School in Smithland, Kentucky--a small, rural, low-income school in the western part of the state.

In spring 1993, the staff at Livingston Central was informed that student scores on tests mandated by the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) had dropped significantly from baseline scores established over the two preceding years. The labeling of the school's academic programs as "in decline" and then "in crisis" triggered the school's entry into the School Transformation Assistance and Renewal (STAR) program.

STAR schools are eligible for substantial state financial assistance, but this assistance is extended only after the schools develop data-driven action plans guided by a "distinguished educator" assigned from outside the district. Ann Brown, the educator assigned to Livingston Central and veteran of many STAR assignments, says the faculty was open to change from the start.

The staff set up planning teams formed around every cognitive subject area. The teams were led by teachers but included parents, students, and others. The teams focused on applied learning activities across the curriculum. The STAR budget funded previously unaffordable technology--computers and other tools like graphing calculators. Teachers were encouraged to try to find other sources of support in the community, and a local firm made its computers available for student use until a school computer lab opened.

Livingston Central's process of school transformation was as important as any specific activity. "The most dramatic change," recalls Debbie DeWeese, then a teacher and now Livingston Central's dean of students, "was that it gave everyone a voice in the operation of the school. There was a personal buy-in. It really turned our faculty into a team."

The planning teams gave high priority to professional development for the use of STAR funds. Teachers attended seminars and workshops outside Smithland to learn new ideas by networking with their professional peers. The most stressful part of the process for the staff was a built-in self-evaluation--a monthly narrative report called "Vital Signs."

Ultimately, the turnaround was spectacular. At the next testing period, students' test scores moved the school from "decline" to "reward" status. "The major difference in our school today," says DeWeese, "is the team effort for improvement. The STAR process is extremely stressful, but it was good for us. We don't have to do it anymore, but we still operate our school this way."

Providing low-performing schools with technical assistance and support for improvement is an important part of state and local accountability measures. Chronically low-performing schools usually have little capacity to turn themselves around. In order for these schools to be held accountable for results, states and districts must intervene to help schools focus on learning, and align resources, professional development, and other aspects of school operations with that focus. While this can be done, in part, by setting district policies to meet that priority, chronically low-performing schools often require the kind of assistance that can only come from external intervention.

School Reconstitution: A Strategy of Last Resort

In some situations, the problems in a school may be so entrenched or so extreme that none of the intervention strategies discussed above produce the necessary improvement. According to district administrators in Houston, Rusk Elementary School presented such a case in 1993. The problem went well beyond low achievement: a state accreditation team described the atmosphere as "so poisonous the teachers couldn't teach and the pupils couldn't learn." Responding to complaints, district officials decided to "reconstitute" Rusk, removing faculty and staff and starting over with a new administration, almost all new faculty, and a new educational vision. Within a year, observers were lauding the improvement.

States with Power to Reconstitute Schools or Districts [22]
State Years on Probation or Warning Before Reconstitution State Assistance Offered State Years on Probation or Warning Before Reconstitution State Assistance Offered
Alabama 3 X New Jersey varies X
Arizona 2 X New Mexico varies X
Connecticut   X New York 3 X
Florida 3 X North Carolina varies X
Illinois 4   Ohio 90 days X
Iowa varies X Oklahoma six months X
Kentucky 2-3 X South Carolina 2 X
Maryland varies   Tennessee 2  
Massachusetts 2 X Texas 2 X
Michigan 3 X Virginia    
Mississippi varies   West Virginia 1.3 X
Missouri 2 X      

An isolated example in Houston at the time, reconstitution had previously been implemented in other districts (e.g., San Francisco had reconstituted four schools in 1984 as part of a desegregation consent decree) and has since been incorporated into school accountability processes in a growing number of districts and states. For example:

Yet, despite its growing use, the term "reconstitution" lacks a precise common meaning. It has been used to describe intervention strategies that range from the restructuring of school leadership, mandated redesign of a school's program and instructional practices, to state takeover of school governance. In its most extreme form, reconstitution involves disbanding the existing faculty and replacing nearly all the school staff. This approach to reconstitution has garnered the most attention and engendered the greatest controversy.

School Reconstitution:
Visitacion Valley Middle School, San Francisco, California

In spring 1994, the San Francisco Unified School District reconstituted Visitacion Valley Middle School because of low performance on several measures of achievement. The district hired a new principal, Dr. John Flores, and required teachers to reapply for their jobs. Applicants for positions in the reconstituted school received a written list of 15 expectations Flores had for his staff, along with the following frank statement:

"If you have reservations about team teaching or thematic instruction; if you prefer to teach your subject separately, to set your own rules and procedures which differ from building agreements, to set standards for class groups rather than expectations for individuals, to focus on teacher-directed activities rather than to facilitate student-oriented, hands-on lessons; if you prefer the status quo to continuous growth and improvement; if you are looking for a teaching position with little or no expectation for your commitment outside of the school day, you may want to look for a position elsewhere."

Principal Flores went on to explain that while no one can meet such expectations all of the time, he was asking teachers to strive toward these expectations and that in return, he would give them whatever support they needed in staff development, discipline, and parent relations, and would invite all to participate in decisions that affect the school. The new school staff redesigned the school's structure and program. The staff began by drafting a mission statement that included commitments to maintaining a safe atmosphere and to providing services that foster children's educational development.

Proponents believe that the threat of reconstitution can help to motivate improvement throughout the system, particularly in low-performing or probationary schools. As one Maryland principal explains, the threat of reconstitution at his school was "an opportunity for leveraging change and [using] the accountability issue in a positive way to motivate teachers and to give us an excuse to do things differently...to empower us." Supporters point to improvement in probationary schools as evidence of the motivating impact of reconstitution.

Other observers consider the threat of reconstitution a faulty strategy that blames teachers for school failure while doing little to solve the underlying problems that contribute to low performance. By this account, school reconstitution has the potential to diminish morale in schools that are already weakened communities. Teachers in one San Francisco high school, for example, called the threat of reconstitution a "degrading process" that has "sent morale down the tubes."

Intervention Strategies: Lessons and Considerations

Early findings from research on reconstitution in several jurisdictions suggest that state and district leaders should consider the following factors when deciding to incorporate reconstitution as a last resort intervention in failing schools:

Results from the study of reconstituted schools suggest several lessons that are important for state and local leaders to consider for any intervention strategy in low-performing schools:

States and districts can do much to foster success through the design of reconstitution criteria and processes, through the provision of material and human resources, and through the establishment of a climate of support and leadership. But the greatest contribution states and districts can make is in the creation of a system in which school reconstitution is unnecessary because low performance and the problems that cause it are addressed early and effectively.

20 Education Commission of the States, 1997; American Federation of Teachers, 1997. [Return to text]

21 Olson, 1998. [Return to text]

22 American Federation of Teachers, 1997. Not all states that have the authority to reconstitute districts or schools have actually exercised that power. [Return to text]


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