While decent research on turning low-performing schools around is actually rather limited, the best evidence currently available indicates the critical first step is to admit you have a problem. And, that admission and the push for change have to come from school leaders to be effective.
That’s not just my opinion.
This has been a constant theme in a series of REL Appalachia webinars and reports about what works in turning schools around. Those webinars, some of which deal with success stories right here in Kentucky, rely in part on an Institute of Education Sciences (IES) report, “Turning Around Chronically Low-Performing Schools.”
This IES report says on page 8 that the first step in the turn-around process is to:
“Signal the need for dramatic change with strong leadership. Schools should make a clear commitment to dramatic changes from the status quo, and the leader should signal the magnitude and urgency of that change.”
Clearly if you are going to signal a need for change, the first step is that you acknowledge you have a problem.
Sadly, news reports out of Louisville show that a lot of people there have not even gotten to this first step. The city seems locked in the grips of a huge denial syndrome.
The latest example: A Courier-Journal article shows teachers and others in Iroquois High have yet to arrive at that critical first step.
While the Jefferson County School District worried more about buses than academics, Iroquois High blazed a trail of tears for years: high dropout rates, low graduation rates, and some of the worst test results in Kentucky. That earned the school a well-justified official identification as a Persistently Low-Achieving School under new rules enacted in 2010.
In turn, that Low-Achieving identification brought an audit team to the school to see what was wrong.
The audit found plenty of problems, including a principal who lacked the capacity to turn the school around and a School Council that was also so inept that it needed to lose its governing authority, as well.
So, how do the teachers in Iroquois react?
Instead of coming to grips with how poorly their school performs and digging in to start working on real change, those teachers try to duck blame, whining to the Courier about how demoralized they are by the audit. Even worse, the teachers pass that inappropriate attitude on to their students – proving beyond doubt that the audit team was right to recommend that both the principal and the school council needed to go.
Charter schools in places like New York City and Boston take in kids like those in Iroquois every year, and within a couple of years they turn those students around and get them on the right track. It’s a darn shame that certain selfish interests in Frankfort won’t let us even try that option for the kids in Iroquois and kids in other low-performing schools around this state.
I guess denial doesn’t stop at the borders of Jefferson County.