The Research Alliance for New York City Schools, housed within the NYU Steinhardt, released the results of a year-long study examining strategies used to turn around several of the city’s low-performing public middle schools. Taken together, the study’s findings underscore the importance of strong leadership in ongoing school-improvement efforts.
“The turnaround strategies prevalent in federal policy are sweeping approaches to change—school closure, conversion to a charter school, or dismissal of the principal and teachers,” said Dr. James Kemple, executive director of the Research Alliance. “In contrast, the schools in this study significantly improved student performance without the infusion of new resources and without the wholesale reassignment of students, teachers, and administrators.”
The Research Alliance for New York City Schools conducted the study as part of an ongoing focus on the middle grades, a critical turning point for students and, unfortunately, a time when many fall off track. In New York City—where only about half of 8th graders are proficient on standardized math tests, and just 35% are proficient in English Language Arts—the underperformance of middle schools has become an area of particular concern for the Department of Education. In September 2011, Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced a broad strategy to improve middle school education in the city.
This study looked closely at two sets of initially low-performing schools. The first set, “the turnaround schools,” had exhibited significant growth in academic performance between 2006 and 2010. The second set had remained basically stagnant during the same period. Drawing on interviews and focus groups in both sets of schools, the report, “Learning from “Turnaround” Middle Schools: Strategies for Success,” identifies conditions and strategies that were essential to the turnaround schools’ ability to improve performance:
School-wide essential conditions: 1) the alignment of needs, goals, and actions, as identified by the principal, who then directed resources and energy toward achieving those goals; 2) a positive work environment for teachers; and 3) a safe and orderly school building.
Strategies for improving teaching and learning: 1) using a highly collaborative, internal approach to professional development; 2) creating small learning communities for students; 3) targeting student sub-populations, especially special education students and English Language Learners (ELLs); and 4) using data to group students and tailor instruction to meet their needs.
“The essential conditions were really leadership-driven,” said Dr. Adriana Villavicencio, the report’s lead author. “Principals focused on building relationships with staff and managing discipline issues, which then made it possible to implement specific strategies that improved instruction.”
The report makes a number of recommendations for improving the effectiveness of middle schools in New York City and around the country:
- Cultivate strong leaders for struggling schools. School districts might offer incentives to successful principals to take positions in persistently low-performing middle schools or create opportunities for successful principals to mentor others.
- Train leaders in strategic goal setting. Districts should support principals in the work of identifying specific areas where their schools are struggling and creating measureable goals and benchmarks that address those needs.
- Train principals to head off disciplinary issues. Principals of the turnaround schools made establishing order in their buildings a significant priority—they did so by increasing teacher and principal presence where students congregate and forming strong relationships with students.
- Increase teacher mentorship. Schools should develop structures that help teachers learn from one another and expand the use of effective instructional practices.
“The study sheds light on very actionable steps that districts and educators can take to improve middle schools across the city,” said Villavicencio.
To learn more about NYU Steinhardt and the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, visit: http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/research_alliance/.
(Photo: James Kemple)