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Volume 26, Number 2
March/April 2010

Four Central Dilemmas of Struggling Schools

The starting points for a developmental approach to intervention


There is an emerging crisis of school accountability in this country. Having passed beyond the arguments about whether schools should be held accountable at all, we’re trying to figure out what to do with the thousands of schools that aren’t good enough. Included in this group are schools that are persistently dysfunctional, along with many others that truly have gotten better, but not with the speed demanded by federal regulations. For a host of reasons, these schools haven’t converted the labels and sanctions imposed by states and districts under the No Child Left Behind Act into any dramatic leaps in student learning. They haven’t capitalized on the new performance data available to them. The new crisis—the most recent in a long series of urgent calls for reform—centers on how to fix this underperformance.

Time and again, state accountability and intervention in low-performing schools collides with the realities of the established culture and relationships in these schools. In some cases, this collision appears to bring about promising new practices, or at least helps set in place the conditions that might lead to sustained improvement. In others, the collision is like a powerful wave rolling to its quiet conclusion on a long beach. After the wave’s energy is dissipated, the beach remains unchanged; the low-performing school retains its most persistent, limiting features.

If there is a single variable missing from current intervention systems, it’s the effort to nurture a developmental strategy within each school. Indeed, there’s no attention at all to the organizational development that might reasonably occur over time for most schools. A far smarter strategy for a low-performing school would consistently guide a principal and teacher-leaders to understand their school in terms of the general pattern of growth for similar schools, and then provide ongoing support so that the educators could make more informed decisions about which improvement activities are most likely to move the school from one developmental stage to the next (see sidebar “The Developmental Stages of Improving Schools”). The Developmental Stages of Improving Schools

The stages of school improvement provide a useful framework for a school’s developmental profile. These five stages should be thought of flexibly, and primarily as a means of guidance as schools begin to ask, “Where are we now in our development, and what impact might the decisions we make now have on our ability to develop ourselves?”

Stage 1: Emotional Reactions and Questions about Responsibility. This period is defined by disbelief and real questions about the legitimacy of either the measure by which the school is judged or the sanctions it must face. The successful navigation of this stage requires that teachers feel that their concerns are heard and, as much as possible, addressed in concrete terms.

Stage 2: Administrative Responses to the Crisis. Administrators in many low-performing schools begin by “reaching for the low-hanging fruit”—e.g., starting remedial programs, creating pacing guides. These administrative actions can help set the stage for cultural change: to move teachers toward a vision of collegiality and mutual professional obligation.

Stage 3: Voluntarism. At this stage, some teachers—the school’s teacher-leaders and a handful of others—are apt to become involved in projects that might have an impact on the instructional core of the school, that is, the curriculum, instruction, and assessment at the heart of teachers’ ability to increase student learning. A new level of trust takes hold among most teachers, and pockets of more proficient instruction begin to take hold.

Stage 4: Universalism and School Identity. In this stage, clear expectations are held universally, and broad implementation of, and fidelity to, the school’s instructional programs are no longer issues. Teachers identify with their school, and everyone in the building can express in considerable detail the school’s particular way of going about their work.

Stage 5: Internal Accountability and Sustained Growth. The end game for schools, low-performing or otherwise, is this: that all teachers agree to and frequently enact a common understanding of powerful teaching practice and learn together so that this understanding is adaptive, conscious, and expanding.

It’s important to note that schools don’t pass on their own from one stage to the next in stepwise fashion, always in advance; a single school can possess features of several stages at once. The central idea here is that these stages exist, that they have describable characteristics, and that intervention policy should be explicit in its intent to coach schools—through tough dilemmas, crises, and moments of great uncertainty—from one stage to the next as efficiently as possible.
The alternative to helping schools establish their own developmental strategy is many more years of the hunt-and-peck improvement work that the current system produces in such abundance.

To improve low-performing schools more effectively and efficiently, intervention support must prepare a specific developmental profile of each of its target schools. In particular, a meaningful developmental profile will evaluate each school’s response to four key dilemmas the school must address to realize sustained improvement. Each of these dilemmas relates to the tug between change and stability.

Developmental Dilemma #1: The Attribution of Cause

In many struggling schools, staff members and principals grapple heavily with the source of the problems highlighted in their school’s performance data. For the teachers at Stoddard Middle School1 , for example, low performance was about the decimation of the city’s industrial base, the slow slide of civility among their students, and disengaged families and their rough-and-tumble kids. The hallways were a mess, the staff said, because the tumult came from home. Students were impolite, disaffected, and barely engaged because they had been raised this way. The internal workings of the school weren’t much a part of the conversation either in the teachers’ lounge or in the school’s leadership team meetings.

This external-internal dynamic will be familiar to anyone who spends much time in schools. After all, it’s far easier to strike up a conversation with a teacher about the infelicities of our popular culture than it is to inquire about the effect of a particular teaching strategy. Even if this dynamic is familiar, intervention design cannot afford to ignore it. The manner in which a school describes the source of its poor performance is a telling indicator of its location on the trajectory toward internal accountability. Because this dilemma is so powerful for teachers—causing so many teachers to feel blamed, then burned, and ultimately hostile to all external help—the attribution of cause is the first place to begin in assessing the internal workings of a school targeted for intervention.

As a starting point for creating a developmental profile for a low-performing school, support providers should consider how responsibility is defined by the educators and administrators they hope to help. Intervention design should include the answers to a few important questions. For example, how do teachers describe what’s going on with the school’s poor performance? Is this description internal or external, or some combination of both? Is there consensus or variability among teachers? And what is the relative level of offense among teachers who feel impugned by their school’s accountability label?

The importance of these questions is not to find teachers who don’t see the value of getting help or view themselves as key to the success of their students. Every low-performing school probably has a few teachers who feel this way. What’s important is that the school leaders have regular opportunities to work with support providers who clearly understand this dynamic and can help them strategically and efficiently improve the faculty’s overall sense of responsibility and efficacy.

Developmental Dilemma #2: The Control of Instruction

This dilemma centers on the degree to which school leaders, or leadership teams, assume central control of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. In Connington Elementary School, the principal took to the hallways with a teaching checklist of his own design; in Tanner K–8 School, the principal simply encouraged teachers to avoid the “same old, same old.” Control of the instructional process is a hot-button issue just as likely to elicit strong reactions from teachers as is the question of who’s to blame for low performance.

Like the attribution of cause, the dilemma about control over instruction has the potential to derail local efforts at improvement and can cost schools years in unnecessary and damaging infighting. But it hasn’t yet figured into intervention design.

What questions should support providers ask to assemble a useful developmental profile related to the dilemma of instructional control? First, they should know where a low-performing school has been, what its history of distributed leadership has been, and what questions about instruction it has considered. Has it taken on any substantive issues related to teaching and learning? Has it mostly followed the lead of its district? Has its attention been close to the classroom and what teachers do during the instructional day, or has it been focused on remediation, after-school programs, or other extracurricular activities?

On a related tack, it’s also important for support providers to learn about the extent of instructional expertise at the school. What are the principal’s capacities for leading instructional change? How are teachers situated in this regard? And district staff?

In effect, collecting information about this key developmental dilemma means asking some questions—probably no more than good teachers ask about their class at the beginning of a school year, and probably about no larger a group of people than an average class of students. It’s important because school leaders need explicit support to understand the opportunities and pitfalls of this dilemma and how it can be managed in support of incrementally more distributed leadership.

1The names of the schools mentioned in this article—all urban schools in Massachusetts—are pseudonyms
Developmental Dilemma #3: The Location of the Response to Intervention

Shot through the stories of struggling schools are fights about where and how to respond to state intervention requirements. How close will schools’ improvement efforts get to teachers’ classrooms? How vigorously will schools insist on uniform, high-quality implementation? The tug is often toward efforts located outside the classroom—in the hallways, on the playground, or after school. These are areas of relative comfort for most schools, and incursions by the principal or leadership team into the territory of individual teachers—like those initiated by Connington’s principal—are usually greeted with some form of pushing back.

This well-described dilemma can be heard in the ongoing concerns among teachers about academic freedom or their complaints about unscheduled observations and evaluation by principals. From the perspective of change agents, this is about the unjustifiable privacy of classroom practice; from the perspective of many teachers, including those who work in low-performing schools, this is about autonomy, professional discretion, and protecting the hard-won right to do right by kids.

As they assemble a developmental profile of each school, intervention support providers should ask what efforts the school is making so far. Are these efforts related to change in the classroom and to improvements in curriculum, instruction, and assessment? Or are these efforts more concentrated on schoolwide features like extracurricular programs or school climate? If the school is attempting to improve classroom processes, how much of this effort relates to instruction, which is the most private, most skill-based of the three areas listed above?

In addition, it’s worth learning what mechanisms the school uses for understanding the extent and quality of its implementation. Fundamentally, can the leaders of the school say with any accuracy how many teachers are implementing its classroom initiatives, how well these initiatives are being enacted, and, more challenging yet, how this implementation is affecting student learning?

By asking these questions—and helping school leaders realize the dilemmas involved in the answers—support providers give the leaders a glimpse into the working of their own schools. These questions frame a larger set of possibilities, in the same way that pulling back to a full map gives context to a magnified location. To ask whether a school knows how many teachers are implementing an instructional initiative, and how well they are doing so, is not just a powerful suggestion about what can and should happen. It’s the beginning of a conversation, which so far has been absent in intervention design, about how best to get there.

Developmental Dilemma #4: The Definition of the Challenge

The challenge facing low-performing schools lies between two poles. On one pole, the challenge may be viewed as one of compliance with state requirements; on the other, the task may be defined as a matter of professional learning.

At one end of this continuum, teachers and principals may talk openly about the need to follow the guidelines of the state, even if they disagree with them. “There’s no point in resisting,” teachers at Stoddard Middle School said to their colleagues, “so let’s just get the work over with.” On the other end of the continuum, teachers and principals may express their own need to learn new skills to support students to achieve. Here, on the professional-learning end of the continuum, is where research has shown that schools have the best shot at sustained growth. This is internal accountability, when teachers themselves adopt the disposition of learners and then hold their colleagues accountable for reaching increasingly rich levels of practice and inquiry.

Clearly, most low-performing schools are not self-actualized learning machines. They are somewhere between the self-defeating, self-comforting stance of the compliance orientation and some form of organized professional learning. Where they are on this continuum matters, though, just as it matters that everyone involved in supporting the school has explicit knowledge that this continuum exists. If the goal is to guide schools toward internal accountability and to avoid the traps of the compliance-oriented response, doesn’t it make sense that these two things have names?

In order to assess how a school manages the dilemma of compliance versus professional learning, it’s important to have a conversation about the principal’s own orientation toward this dilemma. It’s also important to know how teachers talk about this, and district office staff as well. How do central office demands reinforce the compliance orientation? How is the teachers’ union oriented to this question?

These four developmental dilemmas, alone or in combination, very often create significant drag against forward motion. None of these dilemmas is easily resolved or managed, and most schools face them without the advantage of either having them made explicit or receiving any ongoing guidance. This isolation lies at the core of a system in which positive results, even on paper, appear to be wildly improbable. Out in the real world, you can see the slow progress we’re making.

Using these dilemmas to assess the developmental orientation of individual schools can help bridge the gap between low-performing schools and the central office apparatus that is, in theory, supposed to provide support. Today, districts get no help in trying to view their schools in a developmental way. There’s nothing to insist that this happen.

By considering the predictable dilemmas of schools, this work repositions both district and school; the conversation can pull both toward mutual understanding and support, instead of the more familiar relationship of central office dictates and deep cynicism down in the trenches. When both school and district participate in developing an honest portrait of each school, there’s the chance for forming a joint understanding of the challenges and potential in each school. This starting point for the meaningful differentiation of support is what many low-performing schools urgently need.

D. Brent Stephens is the principal of Anthony Ochoa Middle School in Hayward, Calif. This article is adapted from Improving Struggling Schools: A Developmental Approach to Intervention, by D. Brent Stephens (Harvard Education Press, 2010).

Also by this Author

    For Further Information

    For Further Information

    A. Calkins, W. Guenther, G. Belfiore, and D. Lash. The Turnaround Challenge: New Research, Recommendations, and a Partnership Framework for States and School Districts. Boston, MA: Mass Insight Education and Research Institute, 2007.

    Center on Education Policy. Moving Beyond Identification: Assisting Schools in Improvement. Washington, DC: Center on Education Policy, July 2007.

    R. Elmore. School Reform from the Inside Out: Policy, Practice, and Performance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2004.

    J. Gray. Causing Concern but Improving: A Review of Schools’ Experiences. London: Department for Education and Employment Research, 2000.

    National Governors Association Center for Best Practices. Reaching New Heights: Turning Around Low-Performing Schools—A Guide for Governors. Washington, DC: National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, 2003.