The Challenge of Raising Student Achievement

Raising student achievement has been a goal in every district I have ever worked. It is discussed in political circles, in the media, and even at cocktail parties. Defining student achievement, and the different things students need today to be successful in life is a conversation for another day.  For the purposes of this article I would like to share an article I found on the topic.

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s article “Focus on Learning: Promising Strategies for Improving Student Achievement,” 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

I agree with the importance of each of these characteristics, although I would add a couple of items, and would order them differently. I think creating an environment of mutual respect and collaboration is most important. Without these values providing the foundation, and permeating classroom relationships between teachers and students, it is very difficult to learn there. Then, if a continuous improvement process is put into place, and everyone (students, teachers, administrators, and even parents) is committed to learning through these processes, good things will eventually happen.

What is missing from the list are some of the things we have learned through our Project RED research and our work with schools. The list is missing a carefully designed system for educators to investigate and experiment with the characteristics, and process for them to learn how to learn from experimentation and decide on the next action. This doesn’t seem to come easy to many educators. Therefore, teachers often need to be closely guided and supported throughout several iterations of the process. The list also either neglects, or assumes the role of the instructional leader. It is imperative to have a skilled change leader at the school level that can develop and initially guide the process, as well as encourage teachers to stay the course.

It was refreshing to see a systems way of thinking about education reform in the article, rather than pushing variations of the same programs inspired by the failed standards and accountability movement for the past 40 years. The USDOE isn’t really espousing a systems approach, per se, but the findings that are attributed to success are much more conceptual in nature, and allude to the importance of a continuous process of investigation, reflection, and action. I find it a little ironic that the only way to dramatically raise student achievement at scale is for all teachers to become effective learners themselves. The content of teacher learning may vary greatly, but the process needs to focus on investigating, experimenting with, and improving the ways they help each individual student learn.

The biggest challenge I have with the article, personally, is that it was written as if these are new insights, and if we could only figure out how to scale them, we could dramatically improve student achievement nationwide. The article, however, was written in 1998, and it was actually developed as a as a guide for state and local leaders on how to turn around low-performing schools.

What happened to the potential of these findings? Why haven’t we improved student achievement by scaling the learning from this guide? There are several possible reasons. It is possible not many educators saw the guide. It is likely that it was not broadly marketed. Companies and advocacy organizations spend a tremendous amount of time and money marketing their solutions. The USDOE guide would be only one small ripple in a sea of programs being pushed on instructional leaders.

It is more likely that many urban educators were aware of the guide since several high profile urban districts are showcased in the document. So why didn’t they implement the ideas from the guide? Unfortunately, our egos sometimes get in the way. Many of the building administrators I have worked with think they are doing the things they need to in order to be successful, and therefore, are not really open to new ideas. This response may also be the result of building administrator being overwhelmed with the many responsibilities they have that lie outside of their role as instructional leader. I have met a few that told me they simply don’t have the bandwidth to deeply engage in any new ideas. This is often evident in compliance driven systems, rather than growth-minded systems.

My belief, however, is that some educators probably did try to develop the characteristics in their schools, but it didn’t work. Often our first reaction when things aren’t working in education is to adopt an existing program, and plug it into the troubled spot. These type of “plug and play” programs usually come with a bunch of steps that teachers must follow, as well as guidance on how to implement them. Unfortunately, this never works in the long run. There is too much variability in human systems to standardize in this way, and expect it to be effective for every student.

Without much further investigation we will never know for sure why the characteristics have not been more widely adopted, but there are a couple of other things that must be considered that we have learned from our Project RED research, and our work at One-to-One Institute. First, without a strong leader who can develop a shared vision for any reform, it will not succeed. I believe most districts realize this, but may verbalize it differently. One of the questions I most often hear from administrators, for example, is “How do I get everyone to buy in to ____. There are effective ways to enlist people in someone else’s vision, but the optimal scenario is to involve all constituent groups in the development of an actionable vision. Either way, unless a majority of people in your system are supportive of the vision, and are willing to deeply engage, it is doomed to failure.

Second, unless leadership is distributed throughout the system, it will not be sustainable. The average tenure of a superintendent is currently around 3 years.  If the superintendent changes every 3 years, or sometimes even more often in our most challenging districts, the vision often dies. This happens because the roots of the vision may have not had enough time to grow, or were never effectively nurtured.

It is obvious that raising student achievement for all students is a complicated endeavor, and I have just scratched the surface of reasons why we haven’t found a guaranteed way to raise student achievement at scale. One simple truth is that we will never increase student achievement by simply adopting a program that worked somewhere else. The bottom line is that only when everyone in the learning environment engages in an effective system of continuous learning and improvement will student achievement steadily improve.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.

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