Nine Conditions That Helped Massachusetts Turn Around Its Schools
What should states and districts working on school improvement keep in mind about successful turnaround efforts? AIR’s 2016 school turnaround study focusing on School Redesign Grants (also known as Title I, 1003(g) School Improvement Grants) in Massachusetts gives us some answers. The state competitively awarded these grants to low-performing schools (identified through school improvement plans and interviews) that demonstrated a readiness to improve student performance.
For state accountability purposes, Massachusetts schools were classified into five levels, based at the time on student outcomes, with level one being the highest performing and level five the lowest. Level five schools were assigned a state receiver and operated separate from the district, so level four schools were the lowest performing schools, still under the district’s purview—and became the subjects of AIR’s study.
The study examined whether students in schools that received School Redesign Grants experienced better academic outcomes and attendance rates compared to students in schools that did not receive the grants. AIR studied three cohorts of students across three years from the 2010-11 to 2012-13 school years.
AIR experts have identified nine key conditions that led to successful turnaround in Massachusetts that could be useful to education leaders in other states.
1. Principal autonomy over staffing and scheduling
When it came to staffing and scheduling, Massachusetts extended greater autonomy to low-performing schools than other schools in the state. Education leaders thought that if they removed these constraints, schools could more effectively implement improvement strategies.
With this flexibility, principals who successfully improved their schools were able to hire staff better suited to improving instruction and dismiss the ones who weren’t. They were also able to increase the time spent on instruction and interventions for core subject areas along with teacher collaboration and in-school professional development. One turnaround principal ensured that three to four hours per week were dedicated to professional time.
2. A culture of communication
Staff at schools working on improvement cited two important keys for turnaround: an open-door policy by school leaders and the ability to influence schoolwide decision-making.
Another important condition for turnaround was clear communication of instructional goals—to both teachers and students. Principals who were successful in improving outcomes encouraged teacher agency in meeting those goals and diligently monitored their progress.
3. A focus on instruction and clear expectations
Successful principals set high and consistent instructional expectations for both staff and students, many times using data to establish goals and monitor progress. Several schools in the process of improving used professional development time to advance common instructional practices and introduce teachers to new materials, such as curriculum maps.
4. Use of data and classroom observation feedback
Teachers from schools working on improvement appreciated both observations by school leaders—with timely and actionable feedback—as well as peer observations. They cited the ability to both see high-quality instruction and expectations for students in higher grades as important to their own instructional practice improvement.
Schools working on improvement used classroom observation data to target additional instructional supports, make decisions about professional development, and plan instructional leadership team activities.
5. Multitiered systems of support
Schools working on improvement all established—or were in the process of establishing—multitiered systems of support. These are systems for struggling students that use a variety of datapoints to identify and adjust both academic and non-academic student-specific supports.
Such schools not only used a student support team for observing classrooms and developing interventions, but they also ensured that all staff members were aware of the process for identifying and supporting students in this way. Staff at these schools were trained to identify student academic needs and provide differentiated instruction whereas staff from struggling schools often weren’t able to articulate this process.
6. Nonacademic student supports
Successful schools addressed nonacademic supports for students by using their multitiered systems of support and by partnering with social workers, mental health providers, and other expert external partners. Developing adult- and teacher-student relationships is an important part of this effort and can be achieved through advisory periods and afterschool clubs.
Many schools working on improvement established wraparound services to students and their families to support health and well-being outside of school.
7. A schoolwide student behavior plan
Schools working on improvement established a schoolwide behavior plan for students and ensured consistent implementation. Some schools increased teacher buy-in by including them in the planning process.
Many successful schools relied on aspects of the positive behavioral intervention system or other positive behavior models to incentivize good behavior from their students. They also communicated behavior expectations prominently throughout the school.
8. Family engagement
Schools in the process of improvement identified ways to engage parents both socially and in planning for and collaborating in implementing academic and nonacademic supports. The most effective way to engage families is to communicate with parents proactively, not reactively. Teachers built relationships through phone calls and home visits to provide positive—not just negative—information about their children.
One school revamped its open house model to show parents which skills students were developing in the classroom and provided activity materials to support parents in helping their students continue to develop those skills.
9. Sustained efforts
Sustaining these promising practices after exiting turnaround status is incredibly important. Some successful ways to do this include:
- Incorporating additional time for instruction, collaboration, and professional development into the school day and school year;
- Working with the district to ensure continued flexibilities and autonomies after exiting the low-performing school accountability status (level 4 in Massachusetts); and
- Recognizing the limited nature of time, resources, and staff willingness by strategically prioritizing efforts—versus trying to do it all.
Massachusetts’ experience shows that funding, plus a strong plan of action and a demonstrated readiness to improve can lead to better student outcomes. However, funding by itself isn’t enough. Educators need the right support, direction, and focus to make a difference in the lowest performing schools. States and districts can embrace the lessons Massachusetts learned and develop similar enabling conditions to drive school improvement.