A roadmap for school improvement 

We know the proven practices that yield meaningful gains

THE STATE LEGISLATURE is in the midst of debating a sweeping proposal to revamp the state’s school funding formula which could provide $1.5 billion in additional education aid to local districts over a seven-year period. This debate has centered on the issue of accountability and how districts will spend the additional money to achieve positive student outcomes and narrow achievement gaps.

Since the current era of education reform began in 1993, the state has invested $88 billion in schools and districts, which in turn have implemented dozens of state-imposed and home-grown initiatives designed to improve public education in all corners of the state. These efforts have led to mixed results. The Commonwealth’s public schools vaulted to the top of the charts nationally, but more recently academic achievement has stagnated. Moreover, achievement gaps between students at different ends of the income strata persist. A child’s zip code remains an all too powerful predictor of his or her academic success.

With 25 years of history to examine, we can point to school improvement strategies that have produced impressive results. Particularly revealing are the stories of lower-performing schools that have achieved remarkable improvement and the strategies and tactics they employed that are most worthy of replication.

This week, EdVestors will award its $100,000 School on the Move Prize to one of the most improved Boston Public Schools. The annual award shines a spotlight on schools that have achieved significant improvement over multiple years, delivering better outcomes for students. Over the past 14 years of the prize, we’ve accumulated a trove of best practices and uncovered some common threads in these success stories that led to dramatic school turnaround and improved student performance. We’ve documented their stories in case studies and research efforts, the results of which dovetail with state and national research findings on successful school improvement.

Our first study examining early School on the Move winners documented the common approaches that were taken to garner improvement. Our second research piece looked at what happened to those schools in the years following the prize process, highlighting the steps the schools were taking to sustain improvement. Over the years, we identified common practices shared by winning schools to gain and sustain improvement, as well as the barriers faced by schools in maintaining their success in subsequent years.

Five key practices, described below, have emerged as essential conditions for schools to achieve the rapid improvement needed to provide more students with a high quality education. This year’s three School on the Move Finalists — the Manassah E. Bradley School in East Boston, the Harvard-Kent School in Charlestown, and the Thomas J. Kenny School in Dorchester — all focused on these practices and saw impressive gains in student achievement as a result.

  1. Strong leadership and shared ownership: Distributed leadership grounded in shared accountability between principals and teachers toward a goal of instructional excellence and increased student achievement is key. In our winning and finalist schools, school leaders have typically led collaborative processes with extensive teacher involvement to develop a vision for the school based on expectations for academics and school climate. Many leaders started by implementing changes in school climate, garnering teachers’ buy-in for the kind of school environment that was desired, and then went on to tackle more challenging questions on student learning.
  2. Meaningful teacher collaboration: Our research points to the importance of educators working together to articulate how all of the adults in the school can support student learning at high levels. This means the involvement of teams of teachers and school staff in analysis of data and related decisions regarding curriculum, instructional practice, and student supports, as well as sufficient time for teachers to plan collaboratively. In winning and finalist schools, educators collaborate on designing instructional practices that enable all students to master rigorous content.
  3. Effective use of data: Winning and finalist schools have implemented intentional systems to use data to drive decisions about curriculum, instruction, and interventions. Principals and teachers use student performance data to answer questions about how students are making progress toward grade-level benchmarks. The strategic use of data prompts more focused improvement-oriented conversations as school staff routinely collaborate on classroom-level instructional changes that are needed to improve student mastery.
  4. Academic rigor and student support:  A student-centered approach balancing high academic and behavioral expectations with integrated academic and developmental supports tailored to student needs has been essential to winning and finalist schools’ success. Research suggests that high academic expectations provide direction and motivation, while a supportive approach creates a sense of trust, confidence, and emotional connectedness that can help students maneuver through the developmental changes of youth. Successful schools provide students with a variety of individualized supports to move students to higher levels of achievement.
  5. Effective family and community partnerships: Winning and finalist schools created a welcoming and engaging environment for students and families, supported by strategic partnerships aligned to school improvement goals. This includes regular communication with families to ensure they have a voice in school-level decisions. Community partners are chosen to align with the vision and priorities of the school, and are intentionally woven into the fabric of the school’s academic, enrichment, and support activities.
Meet the Author
All too often we find ourselves in search of the new program or innovative idea to address the challenges of public education. The improvement stories of these schools and those that came before them point to the deeper, multifaceted work it takes to truly see meaningful change. Addressing complex issues of student learning is a central factor in school improvement, supported and sustained by the practices described previously. These are strategies that policymakers, district leaders, school leaders and teachers can incorporate into their own schools to improve opportunities for students to be successful learners and well-prepared for college, career, and life. Focusing on these practices is a surefire way to secure the very best return on the state’s billion dollar investment.

Marinell Rousmaniere is the president and CEO of EdVestors, a school improvement organization in Boston.