This month, a colleague challenged me to blog for 30 days and I readily accepted that challenge! My blog series will address School Turnaround. Why a series of blogs?
When a school is labeled as needing Turnaround Services, the task seems monumental for whomever is involved. In order for the change process to be implemented within an organization in a manner where the change will actually prove sustainable, a 3-5 year commitment is in order. Knowing this, it’s fair to say that one blog post will barely address the effort that is needed. Oh… and don’t worry! I won’t take 3-5 years to share the series!
I will describe some of the processes used throughout the Turnaround process, as well as the many challenges and successes schools experience during this collaborative work. This first blog focuses on perception.
“Perception is one’s reality.” These are the words of my dear friend and mentor, Dr. Steven Houser who left this world too soon. They ring in my mind the moment I am asked, “So, what’s wrong with the schools where you work?” I believe most intent to ask, “Why aren’t the students demonstrating proficiency on their state assessments?” This question is posed to me by those who work in high performing schools and yes, by those who have attended school…which is pretty much MOST people!
Their perception is that something “WRONG” must be going on. Before I can answer, the inquisitor provides me with their best idea of the “wrong” that is occurring: It’s because the parents aren’t involved… it’s because the kids don’t care… no, wait, it must be because they are poor… or Black, Native American, Hispanic…or…just fill in the blank with the race of the students… I have thought about these answers and what they reveal… a lot! Clearly, a personal profile of a high performing school has been developed based upon the speaker’s perception.
In fact, the surprise is, there are schools where the student profile looks like this:
-90% of the students belong to a race that is not Caucasian.
-90% of the students qualify for and receive free and reduced price lunch yet,
-90% of the students are performing in the proficient to advanced range on their state’s standardized assessment.
These schools prove that proficiency can be achieved no matter your level of income or your race.
When my work begins in a Turnaround School, those within the school community also ask the “What’s wrong…” question. They are right to do so because before a plan for improvement is developed, the root cause must be determined. This is where perception meets reality. The root cause is determined by conducting a comprehensive appraisal. This deep dive into the daily business that is occurring within the school site is highly collaborative as all stakeholders’ perceptions are collected. All sources are consulted using a variety of configurations from forums to interviews to observations. School performance assessments and data are also viewed. All data are analyzed for trends and then, those trends are shared with the staff.
The amount of buy in that occurs as the administration and staff listen to the results of the appraisal always amazes me. At first, everyone involved (including me) experiences some initial discomfort when the “state of the school” is shared. Yet very quickly, one begins to see beyond his or her own perception. Deep conversations transpire, possible solutions begin to emerge, and a collaborative plan for improvement materializes.
The varied perceptions of those within the school soon morph into a vision of a desired reality the school can become.
So, what IS wrong with the schools where I work? …or more professionally, does a commonality emerge when viewing the appraisal data across ALL schools?
Without fail, one common factor emerges: A lack of a common instructional philosophy exists. In turn, the instructional language and routines are inconsistent. This impacts EVERYTHING within the site, from culture to practice!
For example, if several teachers in the school hold differing beliefs regarding the level of accountability and responsibility students should experience related to assessments, then consider the effect on instruction in the classroom, conversations held in the faculty room, and the challenges that occur during team planning sessions.
After I explain this to those who asked the first question, the next question I’m asked is, “Who is ultimately responsible for fixing the instructional philosophy within a school in need of Turnaround services?” We’ll examine this answer further in the next blog. (There’s that perception thing again as I hear the word, “fixing.” Hmmm.)
In the meantime, feel free to comment regarding a time when your perception was challenged. I hope I planted some seeds… and thanks, Steve, for planting your seeds of wisdom in my mind!
Dr. Frances A. Miller,