Over the past few years, the Michigan Department of Education, the Michigan State University Office of K-12 Outreach, the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators, and other partners worked to create the MI Excel Statewide System of Support (SSoS). In their role with MI Excel, MSU brought together a cadre of experienced and highly trained educators to mentor and guide Priority and Focus school and district personnel in their pursuit of higher achievement. The work was grounded in the research of nationally known scholars, including Joseph Murphy, William Parrett and Kathleen Budge, Franklin Campbell Jones, Lynn Sharrat, Rick Hess, Brett Lane and Bruce Wellman, all of whom were brought in by MSU to train the specialists and work with school and leadership teams from MI Excel schools and districts.
Although our role in MI Excel has changed, we are still actively involved in building capacity for Michigan schools and districts. We would like to reflect on our work with Title I schools and districts across Michigan, including the lessons learned and progress made. This article was based on many hours of interviews with the 30 MSU MI Excel specialists who worked with hundreds of Title I Priority and Focus schools. It represents their collective experiences in helping schools and districts put in place the systems, processes, culture and people necessary to raise achievement and eliminate gaps. Where appropriate, we’ve used the specialists’ own words, and their quotes (without attribution) are included throughout this article.
The collective experience of MSU specialists in working with Priority and Focus schools has produced a deep understanding of what differentiates schools that successfully and dramatically improve student achievement from those that don’t: strong, effective leaders at the school and district levels; skilled, committed teachers in every classroom; and a positive, collaborative culture of high expectations for all students. But our work has also demonstrated that getting these components in place is complex work, filled with nuance and circumstances that are unique to each school and district. This means that while much of the approach to improving student achievement is similar (e.g., a focus on data), the work must be tailored to the context of each school and district, and take into account the assets, capacities and challenges they bring to the reform effort.
What follows are some of the lessons learned over the past two years. Many of them anecdotally echo and reinforce the vast amount of research on what makes schools effective.
Leadership at the building level is critical. Without exception, every specialist listed leadership as critical to improvement in Focus and Priority schools. In Priority schools, principals need to have “turnaround competencies,” the specific skills, knowledge and dispositions that can deal with the complexity of issues struggling schools face. “School leadership has to be ‘willing to rock the boat,’ change things up, and not remain devoted to the status quo.” This extends to the school leadership team as well. One Priority school was able to make great progress because of the principal’s “extraordinary capacity to bring the staff together with a purposeful focus on student achievement. Her ability to promote shared leadership developed the capacity of the staff and brought them personally into the improvement process.”
Focus schools that were successful in narrowing achievement gaps had leaders who accepted the Focus designation as a “wake-up call” and were able to rally staff to embrace a new approach to educating the students who comprise the bottom 30%.
A school’s level of success in raising achievement and eliminating gaps is influenced greatly by district action (or inaction) in providing systemic support. A specialist said it best: “Schools were most successful when the district bought into the Focus and/or Priority work and involved all their schools in the data dialogue process, even the ones who weren’t designated a MI Excel school. This approach gave the work consistency across the district, and provided schools common ways to work with data and identify struggling students.”
Part of the MI Excel work at the district level involved using a tool developed by Education Resource Strategies (ERS), an MSU project partner. This tool, called the Resource Check, enables districts to assess if their limited resources are aligned with their academic goals. This systemic approach was successful when districts used the information drawn from this exercise to realign their resources to the strategies known to make significant differences in teaching and learning. In one district, “the use of ERS protocols and routine shed light on a number of challenges in the school and district, and the leadership team was willing to acknowledge the need for improvement after embracing the data presented.”
Just as the district can facilitate positive change in a school, it can also inhibit or block it entirely. In Focus schools, if the district refused to recognize the state metric and resulting Focus designation, it was unlikely that the Focus school would receive the support it needed to close achievement gaps. In Priority schools, district systems and a lack of resources were the most common culprits to providing school-level support. One example of a district barrier is when school staffing decisions are made at the district level. According to a MI Excel specialist, “The importance of being able to select staff cannot be overstated; it makes a crucial difference to the school culture, especially at the beginning of the turnaround journey.” Another district barrier involves the stability of staffing at the school and district levels.
Instability in leadership and staffing inhibits a school’s ability to make and sustain the changes needed to support improved achievement. Struggling schools need coherence and stability. They cannot make progress with a revolving door of staff and administrators, or a constant barrage of new programs and initiatives. This was borne out time and time again in Priority and Focus schools. “What you find, and it tends to be urban districts, is constant change; [schools] don’t have a stable environment to really implement something with consistency and fidelity. It’s always a new program, a new leader, a new teacher, a new issue. Without that stability, it’s tough to make these types of changes.”
Leadership stability at the school and district levels was key to a coherent, sustained approach to change. “When a principal quit or disengaged from the improvement process, the entire structure shut down,” said an MSU specialist. Some schools had three principals in as many years, which placed the school in a constant state of starting over. Stability is particularly critical for Priority schools. “When a new principal arrives, it generally takes a while for the new leader to get to know the climate and culture and that is lost time for turnaround implementation.”
In terms of staffing, struggling Priority and Focus schools often faced a laundry list of issues that made it difficult for them to attract and retain skilled teachers. Rural schools and their communities often faced a lack of resources that restricted the kind of salaries they could offer, so turnover was high. Schools in large urban districts often struggled with bureaucratic rules and/or collective bargaining agreements that had strict requirements on how teachers were assigned. This resulted in a significant number of new teachers in a school every year; some schools reported 30-50% turnover during the past two years. In some charter schools, low pay and poor benefits contributed to high staff turnover. “Dramatic and timely progress would be much more likely if Priority schools were assigned highly qualified, experienced teachers, and those teachers were retained at these schools for several years. This would increase consistency and stability, and increase the capacity of the school to improve student achievement.”
Data, data, data. Schools that successfully raised achievement and closed achievement gaps focused on multiple forms of data. “The use of data for instructional improvement was often a rallying point for both administrators and teachers.” Specialists found that when they were able to engage leaders and staff in their own the data, they were able to take ownership of the story the data told. “When we put good data in front of teachers and walk them through the process of disaggregating the data, they can be key in identifying areas of concern. We have to slow down and have rich dialogues about the data and the process, as well as to monitor implementation,” And when staff members were able to “put faces on the data,” they were able to make the leap to student-centered learning. “When the conversation moved from teaching to learning,” one specialist observed, “then I knew that we were beginning to make a difference.”
Using data requires time, something that was in short supply for most schools. The most successful schools found creative ways to give staff the time they needed because they recognized that “the key to the using data to increase students’ academic performance lies in both individual and collaborative effort of staff members to understand, analyze and use pertinent information in designing energetic, meaningful, and effective lessons.”
Professional Development and Ongoing Support for Teachers. Schools that made significant progress made high-quality teaching a priority and put systems in place to support teacher growth and development. Professional learning communities—when they were practiced with fidelity—were instrumental in helping teachers collaborate with colleagues to evaluate and improve their own teaching. Instructional learning cycles (ILCs) provided a structure that enabled teachers to frequently evaluate (and reevaluate) student growth and identify where they needed to try different instructional strategies to facilitate that growth. ILCs were also key to successfully implementing multi-tiered systems of support. The building leadership team was indispensable to making these structures work by providing feedback and support, as well as holding teachers accountable for implementing them with fidelity. The schools that were most effective in utilizing these strategies were located in districts that implemented these reforms in every school, provided extensive training and support to teachers and building administrators, and met monthly with building leaders to check on progress.
Initiative Overload. Many schools suffer from initiative overload. “There’s a tendency in these schools to try to do too many initiatives instead of focusing on one or two and doing them well… that’s a key thing we have to work on in all of our schools. Schools tend to jump from issue to issue looking for the next silver bullet.” Nearly every specialist observed this same phenomenon at some point in their work with Priority and Focus schools. A laser-like focus on the data was the best defense to initiative overload by enabling schools to make instructional and programmatic decisions based on the needs of their students, and then monitor their implementation and results.
A balance between student support and academic press. There were several schools that exemplified the potential for change when support for students and families is at the forefront of school improvement efforts. “Helping students deal with their own personal challenges improve student connections to the school, and facilitating this support throughout the entire staff means that the likelihood of a student-to-adult connection can be increased.” But while student support is very important, work with MI Excel schools revealed that a similar focus needs to be placed on academic achievement. A few schools that excelled at providing a caring and supportive climate and culture for students were hesitant to stress academics. But the poor academic achievement of the students in these schools was evidence that student learning needed equal time and effort. “There needs to be a balance with academic structure, curriculum and rigor,” observed a specialist. One way to do this is to involve students in their own data. Several schools have adopted a system where students track their own data in notebooks. This gives them ownership of their data…and their learning. In some schools, students knew where they were in every subject in relation to where they needed to be.
Summary. Michigan’s Title I Priority and Focus schools, taken as a whole, made significant progress over the past two years that the Statewide System of Support has been in place. The schools that were able to emerge from their status embraced their designation, accepted the supports MI Excel offered, and utilized data to identify and address student needs. It has been difficult, complex, sometimes frustrating, but always rewarding for the MSU specialists who mentored and guided school and district leaders and staff as they worked to improve teaching and learning in their schools.
There is much left to be done. Michigan still languishes near the bottom of U.S. states in student achievement. Many schools still struggle with internal and external factors as they work to improve teaching and learning, and limited resources promise to be a reality for public education for the foreseeable future. Low expectations still challenge many educators, and some just don’t believe that every child can learn. But the seeds of change have been sown and there is growing momentum as schools and districts focus on data and create learning environments that foster authentic learning for all the students they serve. As we look to the future, Michigan’s Title I Focus and Priority schools can and will continue to improve if they are committed to ensuring that every child reaches his/her potential and have continued and coherent systemic support until they have the tools, processes, skills and dispositions necessary to sustain positive change.
An MSU specialist perhaps said it best. “To do our work, to help these schools build capacity around data analysis and data interpretation and use that data to drill down to instructional practices does not, in and of itself, bring about stability for schools, particularly Priority schools. What it does is give them is great momentum for change. And the better they get at it, the more change is going to come. It’s our job to ensure theycan help themselves after we step away.” The MSU Office of K-12 Outreach continues to actively engage and assist Michigan schools and districts in building that capacity.