Turning Around Low-Performing Schools: A Guide for State and Local Leaders (May 1998)
Introduction: An Urgent Need for Action
Today, Americans demand more from schools and expect more from students than ever before. During this century, our nation pledged to increase access to education for all children. As we approach a new century, American public education must rise to a new challenge -- helping all children in every school reach high standards of learning.
States and school districts across the nation are carrying out reforms to realize this commitment to a high-quality education for all children. Many are setting challenging content and student performance standards, aligning teacher development, curriculum, instruction, and assessments with these standards and holding schools accountable for performance.
Yet some of our schools are failing on every standard that defines the education we would wish for our children. A recent report on the nation's school systems reveals that in high-poverty urban schools, for instance, a full two-thirds of the students fail to meet even minimum standards of achievement. Such low-performing schools face a number of common challenges. For example:
- Many low-performing schools are located in impoverished communities where family distress, crime, and violence are prevalent. These and other circumstances make it hard for children to come to school prepared to learn. Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show large gaps in student performance between high- and low-poverty schools. In 1996, the average score in reading for nine-year-olds in high-poverty schools lagged 37 points behind that of students in more affluent schools; the average score in math showed a 21-point difference. Because each 10-point difference is equivalent to one grade level, these results mean that students in high-poverty schools may be performing at levels up to four years behind their peers in low-poverty schools.
- State and district policies often provide limited financial, human, and programmatic resources to schools that do not have the capacity to support high-quality teaching and learning. Many low-performing schools have inadequate facilities, books, and supplies; overcrowded classrooms; poorly trained teachers; limited access to technology; and thinly stretched resources to meet student needs. Teachers in high-poverty schools are more likely than their counterparts in other schools to be teaching outside their field of training or teaching without a license.
- Over time, these factors in combination with chronic low achievement can cause stress and disorganization in schools. Teachers reduce their expectations of students and eventually burn out; many are frequently absent and seek transfers to other schools, so the faculty lacks the stability needed for long-term improvement. The task of changing seems overwhelming, and motivation for reform can evaporate. In these schools, connections with parents and the community are often weak or hostile. Parents and teachers often blame each other for the failures, instead of working together to raise expectations of students and improve student performance.
- Low student achievement is usually accompanied by high rates of student absenteeism, dropping out, and delinquency. Many students do not master necessary skills as they pass on to the next grade or drop out.
These conditions pose major challenges to states and districts facing the need to improve low-performing schools. But they are problems that must be overcome. Schools are charged with teaching students the basics of reading, writing, and mathematics, as well as skills in technology, citizenship, and critical thinking that will prepare them to excel in a fast-changing, global economy. For children from low-income families and poor communities in particular, education has always been the route to broader opportunity.
While improving low-performing schools is not simple or easy, it is possible. Across the country, there are examples of high-poverty, low-achieving schools, serving diverse communities and facing difficult obstacles, that have turned around and raised student performance:
- Middlesex Elementary School in Baltimore County, Maryland, once ranked among the 10 worst schools in its district. Identified as a failing school by the state and facing the threat of a state takeover, the school community pulled together to develop a comprehensive school improvement plan. Despite the odds, Middlesex Elementary School rose from the bottom ranks of student achievement and today places 35th among more than 100 elementary schools in the district.
- After being placed on probation in Chicago because only 11 percent of its students read on grade level, Amundsen High School began a turnaround effort focused on reading. Through concentrated efforts by the whole school staff to coordinate instruction across classrooms, and intense professional development aimed at instruction, in one year Amundsen High School doubled the percentage of students reading on grade level. Turning the tide set the stage for continued improvement by raising confidence among teachers and students that change was possible.
- When the Miami-Dade County Public School System identified Biscayne Gardens Elementary School as a "critically low" performing school, there was anger and apprehension. Change was not easy. But the school's staff worked together and, with the support of the district's program for low-performing schools, student performance on the district's assessment has risen for three consecutive years in both reading and mathematics.
- Hillcrest Middle School in Ysleta, Texas, was given the state's lowest "Priority I" rating in 1992 -- only 15 percent of students passed the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS). This high-poverty school on the Mexican border had high faculty turnover (almost 70 percent a year), low parent involvement, and low expectations of students. By committing to the idea that all children can learn and implementing a schoolwide program that focused all efforts on improving learning, the school began to change. Today, Hillcrest Middle School is a "Recognized" school in the Texas system, with over 80 percent of students passing all portions of the state assessment.
While much of what needs to happen to turn around low-performing schools takes place at the school site, states and districts have the responsibility to set the context for change and help raise the capacity of schools to focus on teaching and learning. Low-performing schools need strong leaders and the active involvement of the entire school community -- parents, teachers, administrators, school boards, teacher unions, and students -- to improve. Schools need to focus on learning and improving what happens between teachers and students in the classroom. Strong actions by states and districts -- in the form of both performance accountability and support for schools -- are critical to improving low-performing schools.
The strategies listed to the right outline some of the approaches that states and districts can take to help turn around chronically low-performing schools. Many are discussed in detail throughout this guide and are illustrated by districts and schools that have improved student achievement, classroom practices, and school atmosphere.
Turning Around Low-Performing Schools:
Pathways to Progress
- Set high expectations for students.
- Hold schools accountable for performance.
- Provide a safe learning environment.
- Create leaders at school and district levels.
- Let leaders lead.
- Recruit and retain the best teachers.
- Train teachers in instruction and curriculum.
- Support students with extra help and time.
- Involve the community in schooling.
- Create smaller schools.
- Close or reconstitute bad schools.
--Adapted from Education Week,
January 8, 1998
Because low-performing schools rarely have the capacity to make the kinds of changes required to turn around on their own, persistently low-performing schools need technical assistance, encouragement, intervention, and hope. U.S. Department of Education resources provide many of these supports. Through Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Goals 2000 and other programs, the Department is committed to helping states and districts develop high standards, strengthen teacher and school accountability, implement schoolwide improvements, extend public school choice, and support other strategies to improve student performance for those who do not meet challenging standards.
New U.S. Department of Education Initiatives to Offer Resources
And Hope for Turning Around Low-Performing Schools
- In addition to providing resources for school improvement through Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and Goals 2000, the Department will make available $145 million in new funding through the Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Program. The additional funding and assistance will help accelerate school improvement and turn around low-performing schools through high-quality, research-based models that support comprehensive school reform programs.
- President Clinton has proposed initiatives for:
Education Opportunity Zones to assist urban and rural school districts with high concentrations of children from low-income families to expand the scope and accelerate the pace of their educational reforms; and
New funding to help school districts, particularly poor urban and rural school districts, reduce class size in grades 1-3, recruit and train new teachers, and modernize buildings.
This guide examines state and district efforts to raise student performance by setting high standards and holding schools accountable for results. It explores strategies related to strengthening the school focus on learning and policies that districts can employ to build the capacity of schools to improve teaching and learning systemwide. The guide includes examples of states and districts that are working to create the conditions for school transformation and intervening in chronically low-performing schools. The guide offers concrete suggestions for policy makers, educators, parents, and community members about how to turn around low-performing schools. It concludes with an inventory of support for school improvement available from the U.S. Department of Education.
1 Education Week, 1998. [Return to text]
2 Educational Testing Service, 1998. [Return to text]
3 Fine, 1991; Anyon, 1995; Meier, 1991. [Return to text]
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