Ingredients for School Improvement - Continuing the Conversation after Question 2

Regardless of how you cast your ballot on Question 2, there is one thing we can all agree on: our state cares about improving education. Although we may disagree about what method of school governance is best to accomplish this, the attention given to this ballot initiative shows us that citizens across Massachusetts consider school improvement a top priority. We need to continue this conversation about school improvement and focus on how we can scale the practices that are working in both charter and traditional public schools across the state. We know the ingredients for progress, and they can work in any type of school.

For proof, just look at the winners of EdVestors' annual Thomas W. Payzant School on the Move Prize. For more than a decade, this award has been singling out Boston schools that have made remarkable progress, significantly outpacing the district average. We have been working with EdVestors for many years to study the success of prize-winning schools. Last year, we looked at 12 previous winners and finalists to find out how they made rapid progress and whether they were able to maintain it overtime. Our research report, Staying the Course: Sustaining Improvement in Urban Schools, found that while some schools continued to see increases in student performance, others saw test scores drop. What made the difference? While each faced their own unique challenges, we found a common set of practices that successful schools used to sustain progress.

Schools that make lasting improvements empower teachers and create a team culture. When teachers play a key role in shaping their school’s vision, they stay invested for the long haul. Schools in our study not only brought teachers into the decision-making process, they also gave teachers the time and space to work together, which created a culture of continuous learning and a sense of trust and transparency. Over time, school leaders and teachers gained a sense of collective responsibility for all students’ achievement and a deep investment in the improvement process.

Schools make progress by setting high expectations. But simply raising the bar isn’t enough to sustain improvements. Students must believe that they are capable of meeting those expectations. The schools we looked at created supportive and encouraging environments where teachers believe in the promise of all students. They stopped using the word “can’t” and started telling students that they can work hard, that they are able to learn, and that they can go to college. Schools need to bring students into the process and make them feel that they are part of the solution for school improvement.

Sustaining success also means engaging parents and community partners. Schools can’t work in isolation, since students need more support than they will find inside school walls. From going door-to-door to talk with families about their concerns to providing math courses for parents so they can support learning at home, the schools in our study are working to get parents invested in the improvement process. These schools also utilize outside organizations to provide everything from afterschool and summer programs to mental health counseling, all with the goal of helping students come to school ready to learn. These partnerships help fill the gaps that schools don’t have the resources or capacity to address and give students the support they need for success both in school and after graduation.

It’s worth repeating: empowering teachers, setting high expectations and instilling confidence in students, and engaging the community are practices we know lead to lasting school improvement. This is not an easy process; school improvement is complicated and it takes time. But these prize-winning schools show us that progress is possible when we use the right ingredients. So let's keep the conversation about school improvement going and continue the work to help all schools put in place the pieces that will lead to lasting success.