Becoming an “Unexpected” School

Most of us don’t have the opportunity that Karin Chenoweth has had over her career and particularly the past decade – to visit many schools and synthesize what works. Starting with the question “What does it take for a school to succeed beyond expectations?” and then focusing on neighborhood schools, where low income students and students of color are learning at unexpectedly high levels, Chenoweth set out to identify common ingredients of their success.

She reports the results in her brand new book: Schools that Succeed: How Educators Marshal the Power of Systems for Improvement (2017). She calls outlier schools that consistently outperform their counterparts “unexpected” schools. My interest in reading this book revolved around three questions:

  1. What are the common characteristics of these schools that perform well beyond expectations?
  2. What role does leadership play in building an “unexpected” school?
  3. If common themes are identifiable in these “unexpected” and successful schools, then what are the implications of using these themes to improve all schools?

Common characteristics of “unexpected” schools (spoiler alert – answers coming!)

In two earlier books on this same topic, Chenoweth found that effective work done in student populations of color or poverty, (regardless of size, rural/urban, racially isolated/integrated, elementary/secondary) all shared five basic processes behind their academic success:

  1.    They focused closely on what students need to learn.
  2.    They collaborated on how to teach it.
  3.    They assessed frequently to see if students learned it.
  4.    They used data to find patterns and adjust instruction.
  5.    They built relationships.

Role of leadership

Surprised by the five points above? No, not so much? Many schools aspire to do these things, but why don’t they achieve greater results? Answer: There has to be an effective leader with an educational vision who puts systems for improvement in place (emphasis mine). For starters, research cited by Chenoweth shows that “there has not been a single case of a school improving its student achievement record in the absence of talented leadership.”

So, what do these talented leaders focus on? In a nutshell:

  1.  getting kids and teachers to believe that it is not about talent, it is about effort,
  2. putting systems in place to provide support, enrichment, discipline, organization of schedules, space and materials and then monitoring and evaluating those systems,
  3. instituting systems to develop leadership capacity and distributed leadership, and
  4. a laser focus on improving instruction using the five basic processes mentioned above under Common Characteristics.

Common themes of unexpected schools

To achieve these processes, leaders reworked schedules to find common planning time so teachers could work collaboratively around standards, curriculum mapping, common assessments, data analysis, engaging instructional practices, and team calendars and planning around curriculum unit/lesson development, discussion of standards, and quality assessments connected to curricular outcomes.

Teacher professional growth and evaluation systems built on best practices are key in these schools. Principals who develop deep professional knowledge and expertise so they can focus on instructional practice as top priority schedule time for observations and collaboration meetings with teachers first in their schedules. All teachers are expected to be growing in meaningful ways while others who are ineffective come under more intense scrutiny and conversations about student learning.

Chenoweth makes two statements in the closing paragraphs of her book that merit repeating:

  1.  “To overcome the institutional inertia that protects individual classrooms requires a deep belief that all students are capable of achievement and an equally deep belief that it is the responsibility of adults in a school to work together to ensure that students succeed.” (p. 204)
  2. Quoting an educator featured in the book (Sergio Garcia): “This isn’t rocket science. It’s doable.”

I heartily recommend this book. It lays out what I believe to be true from my own experiences about school improvement – it takes significant focus, courage, and perseverance.  In the words of Indira Ghandi – “Nothing that is worthwhile is ever easy.” May God grant us the strength to be “unexpected” schools and leaders!

Chenoweth, Karin. Schools that succeed: how educators marshal the power of systems for improvement. Harvard Education Press, 2017.