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)

Focus on Learning: Promising Strategies for Improving Student Achievement

A recent study of 26 high-achieving, high-poverty schools in Texas bolsters decades of effective schools research. Effective schools exhibited the following characteristics: a strong focus on ensuring academic success for each student; a refusal to accept excuses for poor performance; a willingness to experiment with a variety of strategies; intensive and sustained efforts to involve parents and the community; an environment of mutual respect and collaboration; and a passion for continuous improvement and professional growth.[6]

There is no single program or new practice that can transform low-performing schools into effective schools. States and districts must help schools choose and sustain a coherent improvement strategy appropriate to each school by focusing all schools on the need to improve curriculum and classroom instruction and aligning all other school operations with that focus. To support these improvements, state and local leaders need to implement district-wide policies to create a safe environment for learning, help prepare young children to be ready for school, prepare teachers to carry out high-quality instruction, offer students challenging course work, extend learning time for students who do not meet challenging standards, and share current research on effective school improvement models.

Gaining Control of the School Environment: A Prerequisite


It was obvious the atmosphere was just a zoo. Kids all over the halls, getting high in the stairwells, drug deals going on left and right. It was just a circus. Attendance was atrocious, dropout rate was high, test scores low. Everything was negative. So just one step in the building and you knew that something was wrong.

--A Baltimore guidance counselor's
description of her school environment

Surveys of the American public reveal that citizens are concerned about teaching children values and discipline, and keeping drugs away from schools.[7] Creating a safe learning environment is an essential prerequisite to learning; a school cannot implement instructional innovation if it does not first establish order. District and state policies must help school leaders create the safe, orderly learning environment that allows teachers and students to focus on teaching and learning. For example:

Improving the school learning environment requires more than the implementation of get-tough disciplinary measures. It also means creating an atmosphere of respect for students and sharing with them the responsibilities of maintaining a high-quality learning environment. Staff and teachers need to work to get to know their students and form caring relationships of mutual respect. Only then can learning take place.

Improving Curriculum and Classroom Instruction

The bottom line for all schools--and the most important area of reform for low-performing schools--is providing curricula and instruction that help children reach challenging academic standards. Districts can support this effort by establishing curricular and instructional requirements, by demanding that schools offer challenging course work, and by helping students who fall behind or need extra academic assistance.

Focused Curriculum

Strategies for school improvement must focus on the particular academic needs of students. While it seems obvious, many schools pay inadequate attention to providing high-quality classroom instruction and using resources in ways that improve what happens between teachers and students in classrooms.

Boston Public Schools' Plan for School Change
What Do Schools Look Like When They Focus on Student Learning?

Using a schoolwide instructional focus to meet students' needs and end "projectitis"

  • Practices in all classrooms that support the instructional focus
  • Classroom setups that support the instructional focus
  • Consistent materials
  • Coherent schedule with few interruptions
  • Resources used strategically to support the instructional focus
  • All school personnel engaged in instruction
  • Cluster meetings focused on teaching and learning
  • Alignment of school vision with instructional focus

Looking at student work and data in relation to the Citywide Learning Standards to identify students' needs, improve assignments and instruction, assess student progress, and inform professional development

  • Teachers developing exemplars of good work
  • Displays of student work that meet standards and reflects the instructional focus
  • Professional development based on teachers' and students' needs
  • Peer coaching
  • Assessments aligned with teaching and standards
  • Administrators and teachers analyzing achievement data to reveal instructional needs
  • Public criteria for assessing student work
  • Student portfolios

Creating a targeted professional development plan that gives teachers and principals what they need to improve instruction in core subjects

  • Professional development plan that is developed with and by teachers; is driven by data; aligns all activities with the instructional focus; pools all resources; includes ongoing assessment of student learning as an integral part of school life; identifies responsibilities, strategies, and time lines; and evaluates effectiveness of activities
  • Cluster leaders that develop and support principal and teacher networks
--The Annenberg Foundation

A recent study of successful high-poverty schools in Maryland attributes improvements in reading to a number of factors, including a focus on reading across the entire school and small group teaching.[8] While the study found that there was no single successful model, it did show that reading must be a central focus for curricular and instruction reforms, particularly in low-performing and high-poverty schools. Programs such as Success for All, Reading Roots, and Reading Recovery have been implemented in schools to help students learn to read:

More important than the particular program pursued by any of these schools and districts is a commitment to sticking with a carefully chosen program plan to improve classroom instruction. An important lesson these schools learned is that to achieve marked improvements in student performance, districts and schools must stay the course and sustain their school improvement efforts over the long-term.

Academic Challenge

Many schools have low expectations for achievement; consequently, students are less likely to master basic skills and knowledge or to take and complete demanding courses.

Districts that Promote Challenging Math Courses
Lay the Groundwork for Excellence and Opportunity

Students who study algebra in middle school and plan to take advanced mathematics and science courses in high school have an advantage: 83 percent of students who take algebra I and geometry go on to college within two years of their scheduled high school graduation. Yet, 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress data reveal that only 25 percent of U.S. eighth graders enrolled in algebra courses; low-income and minority students were even less likely to take algebra in eighth grade.

Some math programs in the United States are now integrating the fundamentals of algebra and geometry into the middle school curriculum. However, not all students have access to rigorous mathematics courses, either because their schools do not offer everyone a full selection of challenging courses or because not all students are prepared for and encouraged to take them. The results of the recent Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) confirm that students do well in math through fourth grade but then drop off in middle school, and many enter and leave high school without a solid grounding in mathematics, closing doors very early for further education and better careers.

To address this, many states and districts are trying to ensure that virtually all students take rigorous college preparatory mathematics and science classes. For example, the College Board's EQUITY 2000 project, launched in Nashville, Tennessee, Public Schools and other districts with a high percentage of disadvantaged and minority students, requires districts to phase out lower-level mathematics in favor of a college preparatory curriculum for all students. The results:

  • All sites dramatically increased the percentage of students enrolled in algebra I by the ninth grade, and in three pilot districts all ninth graders enrolled in algebra I.

  • The percentage of students passing algebra I did not decline significantly, and in some cases rose as more students from the discontinued lower tracks began enrolling in algebra classes.

Research shows that students from affluent backgrounds take algebra and geometry at much higher rates than do students from low-income families, and they take more difficult courses earlier in their academic careers. Thus, low-income students do not benefit as much as their peers from high-quality academic preparation, including more advanced mathematics and science courses in high school. This limits their rates of college enrollment and completion, their ability to enroll in the full array of college majors, and their capacity to obtain the necessary skills for high paying careers.

Districts can help schools by promoting policies that encourage all students to learn basic and advanced skills in the elementary schools, enroll in challenging prerequisite courses (such as algebra and geometry) early in secondary school, and build on their education throughout high school with rigorous coursework.

Extending Learning Time to Help All Children Meet High Standards

Holding students to higher standards and accountability for performance, and requiring students to take challenging courses means schools and districts must help students who need assistance to keep up and to prepare for the future. Research shows that students who repeat a year rarely catch up and are more likely to drop out. Thus, states and districts need to help create mechanisms so that schools do not face a choice, in the face of increasing standards and accountability policies, of promoting unprepared students or retaining them for another year.[9]

Many districts have implemented policies to extend learning time so that students do not fall behind and need to be retained. They use year-round, before- or after-school, and summer school programs for this purpose. For example:

State and local leaders are pursuing these and other policies to give additional academic assistance to struggling students and help schools focus on instruction to end social promotion, hold students accountable, and raise expectations for all students. This involves fundamental rethinking about how classroom time and district resources are focused. It also requires a willingness to make districtwide changes in teaching and student promotion policies that are necessary to help all students succeed.

Starting Early for School Readiness

A growing body of research recognizes the vital effects of the early childhood environment on development and school success. Studies show that high-quality preschool programs can accelerate the development of children, especially children who live in high-poverty communities. A home environment and pre-kindergarten experience that support learning, combined with continuity between pre-kindergarten and kindergarten experiences, are important to a child's transition into formal education. Many elementary schools and districts prepare children for high achievement by providing early childhood and pre-kindergarten services. Yet, children from low-income families are about half as likely as children from high-income families to attend preschool programs.[10] Because there is such a strong relationship between poverty, student achievement, and low-performing schools, districts can further their focus on learning by intervening early to help children to be ready to learn.

Family literacy programs, such as Even Start, use strategies that emphasize multiple supports for school readiness: early childhood education, adult literacy, parenting education, and parent/child interaction time. Even Start projects help parents gain the literacy and parenting skills they need to become full partners in educating their young children. For example, the Even Start project in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, operates three early childhood classrooms and focuses on the emerging literacy of children in a bilingual setting. Parents as Teachers home visitors show families creative ways to use household items as educational toys. The program provides health and hearing screening for children, as well as field trips and cultural activities for families.

Other federally funded programs also can help prepare children for school. The Grants for Infants and Families program provides resources to identify infants and toddlers with disabilities from birth through age two, implement family-focused service systems, coordinate early intervention services, and provide vital services that otherwise would not be available. The Preschool Grants program funds services for children with disabilities aged three through five to aid their transition to school and to reduce the number who need special education services when they enter school. Early intervention for children with special needs can be critical to raising the capacity of students to thrive in the school environment.

Evidence from a Chicago Longitudinal Study documents the importance of early childhood intervention. Title I-funded Child-Parent Centers in Chicago offer up to six years of intervention services for children from ages three to nine. Similar to centers in the Even Start program, these centers provide early childhood education and require parents to be involved in learning activities. Classroom activities are designed to develop language and reading skills, as well as social growth. In Chicago, Child-Parent Center participants had significantly higher reading and math scores than the nonparticipant comparison group at the end of third grade. These differences persisted even to eighth grade.

Preparing for Classroom Change: Professional Development

Professional development is essential to helping educators improve their knowledge of the subjects they teach and the way they teach. To be effective, professional development must engage teachers collectively as active learners. It must give them skills to use the material in their classrooms and provide an ongoing opportunity to build knowledge. Most importantly, professional development activities must be aligned with a school's focus on learning and must provide training for teachers to improve instruction in the classroom.


The bottom line is that there is just no way to create good schools without good teachers. Those who have worked to improve education over the last decade have learned that school reform cannot be "teacher-proofed." Success in any aspect of reform -- whether creating standards, developing more challenging curriculum and assessments, implementing school-based management, or inventing new model schools and programs -- depends on highly skilled teachers.

--National Commission on Teaching &
America's Future

One of the best examples of a district's unwavering focus on improving curriculum and instruction is Community School District #2 in New York City, which serves a diverse population from the Upper East Side to Chinatown. This district focuses on improving instruction through intensive, on-going, and sustained staff development. The district allocates a large percentage of its total resources for professional development, which was made possible only through cutting district office overhead and non-instructional positions in the district's schools.

One of the district's key strategies is maintaining a Professional Development Laboratory where visiting teachers observe and practice with a resident teacher for three weeks while teachers who have already participated in the laboratory teach their students. Teachers and principals frequently visit other classrooms and schools. In addition, the district has a corps of consultants who are available to schools for one-on-one and small group assistance. The district works particularly closely with teachers it identifies as in need of assistance. In cases where a teacher refuses to work to develop their instructional skills or fails to improve, the district will transfer the teacher out of the district or help to counsel the teacher out of the profession.

Effective professional development often takes teachers outside their own schools or districts to "see" reform in action in successful schools. For example:

Other states and districts are involved in efforts to improve teaching through effective professional development. Many of these efforts involve teachers mentoring other teachers or providing peer assistance. Although most such programs are voluntary and are not specifically targeted toward low-performing schools, they do allow teachers in low-performing school to reach out for help:

Schools and districts often neglect professional development. In many cases, they use professional development time to discuss district or school policies rather than to raise the capacity of teachers to be effective in their classrooms and knowledgeable about the subjects they teach. Districts that take professional development seriously find it helpful to reschedule the school day to accommodate time for training, discussion, and collaborative planning among teachers. Yet efforts to restructure the day or add professional development time into teacher schedules fall short if staff continue to teach in the same way. Those who understand the enterprise of teaching know it is an extremely complex and difficult profession that requires on-going and high-quality professional training opportunities.

Implementing Comprehensive Reform Programs

What Are the Components of a Comprehensive School Reform Program?
  • Effective, research-based methods and strategies: A comprehensive school reform program employs innovative strategies and proven methods for student learning, teaching, and school management that are based on reliable research and effective practices, and have been replicated successfully in schools with diverse characteristics.

  • Comprehensive design with aligned components: The program has a comprehensive design for effective school functioning, including instruction, assessment, classroom management, professional development, parental involvement, and school management, that aligns the school's curriculum, technology, and professional development into a schoolwide reform plan designed to enable all students -- including children from low-income families, children with limited English proficiency, and children with disabilities -- to meet challenging state content and performance standards and addresses needs identified through a school needs assessment.

  • Professional development: The program provides high-quality and continuous teacher and staff professional development and training.

  • Measurable goals and benchmarks: The program has measurable goals for student performance tied to the state's challenging content and student performance standards, and as those standards are implemented, benchmarks for meeting the goals.

  • Support within the school: School faculty, administrators, and staff support the comprehensive school reform program.

  • Parental and community involvement: The program meaningfully involves parents and the local community in planning and implementing school improvement activities.

  • External technical support and assistance: A comprehensive reform program uses high-quality external support and assistance from a comprehensive school reform entity (maybe a university) with experience or expertise in schoolwide reform and improvement.

  • Evaluation strategies: The program includes a plan to evaluate the implementation of school reforms and the student results achieved.

  • Coordination of resources: The program identifies how other resources (federal, state, local, and private) available to the school will be utilized to coordinate services to support and sustain the school reform.
-- Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Guidance,
U.S. Department of Education

Supporting Comprehensive School Reform:
The Role of States and Districts

States must:

  • Assure fit between reform models and the state's instructional strategies.
  • Assess district capacity to support comprehensive reform.
  • Play a continuing role in assessing success of models and comprehensive reform programs.

Districts must:

  • Help schools choose models that best meet the needs of their students.
  • Ensure that district strategies are aligned and work in tandem with comprehensive school reform efforts.
  • Create a new district operating environment -- change budgeting, use of categorical funds, personnel authority, accountability, professional development -- that will support comprehensive reform.
  • Find an approach to supporting comprehensive reform that fits the district -- not just an individual school.
  • Monitor and control the quality and performance of model design teams or other technical assistance providers.
  • Create a public engagement process that informs parents and the community about comprehensive school reform.
-- Consortium for Policy Research
in Education

Comprehensive school improvement strategies may offer particular promise for reforming chronically low-performing schools. Schoolwide strategies recognize that low performance has multiple causes and dimensions that cannot be solved by a single program or uncoordinated improvements. Comprehensive school reform works on the theory that school improvement must address all aspects of school effectiveness, including rigorous curriculum and high standards, efficient school governance, solid community-school partnerships, on-going staff development, up to date technology, and increased parent involvement. Beginning in 1998, the U.S. Department of Education will distribute $145 million to districts and schools implementing high-quality, research-based comprehensive school reform programs. This Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Program will allow districts to target their lowest performing schools for improvement.

A number of research-based models serve as promising components of comprehensive school reform programs. For example, Success for All, an intensive reading program, includes 90 minutes of reading instruction per day, student assessment every eight weeks, tutoring in reading by certified teachers, cooperative learning, small homogeneous ability groups in reading, and often a family support and outreach team. Miami-Dade and Memphis are implementing the program to help raise student achievement in many of their lowest performing schools.

High Schools That Work is a model targeted to improving the achievement of career-bound high school students. The model strives to eliminate the "general education" track and upgrade the curriculum and instruction for all students by setting high expectations, increasing student access to technical studies, improving students' problem-solving skills, and providing work-based opportunities for student learning.

A key element of comprehensive reform programs is the use of outside facilitators to help schools implement models. New American Schools, for example, an organization that offers numerous schoolwide improvement models, has helped more than 700 schools implement its designs. Design assistance teams cooperate with school staff and the community in making changes that are required for comprehensive reform. The design teams provide schools with information and guidance, help build ownership of the transformation process, and build the school's capacity to reallocate resources and effectively improve student performance. For their part, schools must conduct a needs assessment and work to create the conditions within to support the design implementation. This includes reallocating funds, aligning professional development in a cohesive plan, redefining staff roles, building community support, and changing the school governance structure.

Models That Can Help Improve Low-Performing Schools

The U.S. Department of Education's new Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Program will support the implementation of high-quality, research-based comprehensive reform models in schools embarking on whole school change. School reform models that have been identified in the legislation include:

  • Accelerated Schools
  • ATLAS Communities
  • Audrey Cohen College
  • Coalition of Essential Schools
  • Community for Learning
  • Co-NECT
  • Direct Instruction
  • Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound
  • High Schools That Work
  • Modern Red Schoolhouse
  • National Alliance for Restructuring Education
  • Paideia
  • Roots and Wings
  • School Development Program
  • Success for All
  • Talent Development High School
  • Urban Learning Center
This list is not exhaustive. Other sources for finding out about models and education reform networks include:
  • Education Commission of the States' A Policymaker's Guide to Education Reform Networks (1997)
  • Kentucky Department of Education's Results Practices Showcase (1997-98)
  • Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory's Catalog of School Reform Models: First Edition (March 1998)

Although comprehensive programs are implemented on a school-by-school basis, districts must provide essential leadership, resources, and support strategies. On a practical level, many districts have hosted "model fairs" that bring together school staff and design assistance teams to explore options and exchange information. Some districts, including San Antonio, Cincinnati, and Memphis, are committing to adopting comprehensive school reforms in a large proportion of their schools. Cincinnati expects to implement comprehensive designs in a minimum of 24 schools during the 1998-99 school year. The cost of implementing the designs is the responsibility of the school. Districts can help schools reallocate their budgets, and show them how they can use their Title I and other resources to pay for the designs.


6 Charles A. Dana Center, 1997. [Return to text]

7 U.S. News and World Report, 1997. [Return to text]

8 Hawley, 1997. [Return to text]

9 American Federation of Teachers, 1997; Meisels, 1993. [Return to text]

10 National Education Goals Panel, 1997. [Return to text]

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