MIDDLE SCHOOL HAPPENINGS
Beating the Odds: Lesson from Turnaround Middle Schools
In New York City and around the nation, there is intense interest in trying to answer the question, what does it take to turn around a struggling school? Current turnaround strategies outlined in federal and state policy include school closures, conversion to a charter school, dismissal of the principal and a substantial proportion of teachers, and the reassignment of students to other schools.
This study conducted by The Research Alliance for New York City Schools (RANYCS), was motivated by a desire to learn more about how a group of middle schools substantially improved without dramatic reform strategies. The report, “Learning from Turnaround Middle Schools: Strategies for Success” documents the strategies by which a set of turnaround schools improved student performance by drawing on existing resources and developing internal capacity to educate students effectively.
The study focused on two groups of initially low-performing schools with comparable levels of high-need students. One group exhibited significant growth in academic performance between 2006 and 2010, while the other saw minimal growth or remained stagnant during the same period. While the study is limited to six schools, the rich data we collected draws insight directly from principals and teachers, which allowed our team to better understand how these schools improved. This type of qualitative research can inform the work of educators and the districts that support them by providing school-level descriptions of the practices that played a role in school improvement.
A primary lesson from our study was the importance of leadership. Three essential leadership-driven conditions emerged as the foundation for the schools’ success:
Aligning needs, goals, and actions: Principals displayed a similarly strategic placement of resources and energy toward specific areas most in need of improvement. They also shared an ability to communicate their vision to school staff.
Creating a positive work environment for teachers: Positive principal-teacher relationships—established through professional and personal support—helped ensure alignment between schoolwide goals and teacher work.
Addressing safety and discipline: Principals and teachers also cited the importance of establishing order in their school buildings as essential for improvement. Minimizing discipline issues freed teachers to direct more time, energy, and resources towards instruction.
According to principals and teachers, these conditions established a school context in which they could implement specific strategies to improve teaching and learning. The most common strategies included: 1) developing teachers internally, 2) creating small learning communities, 3) targeting student sub-populations, and 4) using data to inform instruction.*
The findings from this study highlight the importance of cultivating strong leaders for struggling schools. School districts might consider offering incentives to successful principals to take positions in persistently low-performing middle grade schools or providing sustained mentorship between these successful principals and principals in low-performing schools. Second, leaders should be trained in both strategic goal setting and addressing disciplinary issues as the first order of business. Schools with high suspension rates and a large number of incident reports may particularly benefit from such training. Finally, this study highlights the importance of providing regular and ongoing opportunities to develop teacher capacity within the building.
Although this kind of improvement may not be possible for all low-performing schools, the experiences recounted in this report suggest important lessons for educators and policymakers, both here in New York and around the country.#
*For more details on each of these, see the full report.
Adriana Villavicencio is a research associate, NYU Steinhardt Research Alliance for NYC Schools.