ERIC Identifier: ED478248
Publication Date: 2003-07-00
Author: Lashway, Larry
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Educational Management Eugene OR.
The Mandate To Help Low-Performing Schools. ERIC Digest.
The twentieth anniversary of A Nation at Risk has inspired numerous
retrospective looks at the last two decades of school reform. The verdict is
usually the same: noteworthy progress, but lots of unfinished business.
High on the to-do list is the stubborn problem of low-performing schools in
which a majority of students persistently fail to meet academic standards.
Despite repeated reform efforts, many of these institutions are not performing
much better than they did in 1983.
While images of failed schools have long been a motivating force in
educational reform, the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has created a new
sense of urgency. Confronted with a steadily rising bar for achievement, schools
that lag behind will lose students, autonomy, and perhaps even their right to
Moreover, educators and citizens are realizing that low-performing schools go
hand in hand with the achievement gap. Many struggling schools serve largely
minority populations whose test scores persistently fall below those of white
students. In an age when testing carries high stakes for students, the potential
social consequences give the issue even greater significance.
Turning around a school is a complex process in which clear cause-effect
relationships are difficult to isolate, but the recent interest has generated
some useful research and thoughtful analysis. This Digest explores some of the
key insights from that literature.
HOW ARE LOW-PERFORMING SCHOOLS DEFINED?
For all the
attention devoted to low-performing schools, precise definitions remain elusive.
Traditionally, the low-performing label has been applied with a broad brush to "bad" schools having a wide range of perceived deficiencies: low academic
expectations and achievement, high dropout rates, lack of discipline, inadequate
facilities, and demoralized staff. While accounts of such schools are often
anecdotal, the teachers, principals, and parents who tell the anecdotes can
easily name the schools to avoid.
More recently, low performance has been defined by failure to achieve
state-mandated accountability targets, particularly test scores. By this
measure, some 8,652 U.S. schools were considered low-performing in 2002
(National Association of State Boards of Education 2002). However, that number
encompasses a wide range of performance, since states have different goals,
tests, and criteria for judging success.
NCLB has sharpened the focus on test scores by requiring schools to boost
achievement across all subgroups (including low-income, racial minorities, and
second-language learners). Schools in which even one group fails to make
progress will be considered low-performing.
Thus, while many low-performing schools under NCLB undoubtedly resemble the
traditional stereotype of "bad schools," others are more accustomed to success
and will find themselves surprised to be among the underachievers.
WHY DO SCHOOLS PERFORM POORLY?
Over the years, researchers
and analysts have provided a variety of explanations for low performance. Three
have received the most attention.
Demographics. Some schools serve low-income children living under highly
stressful conditions that inhibit learning. The issue is not just low income,
but an environment that destabilizes home life, undermines support, and creates
despair. In addition, many low-income children are also members of racial
minorities that face additional barriers to high achievement (Shannon and Bylsma
Insufficient resources. Perhaps not surprisingly, low-performing schools in
low-income areas are frequently plagued by a lack of resources. For example,
Greg Orlofsky (2002) found that high-poverty, high-minority schools received
significantly less state and local money than did other schools; also, students
in such schools were almost twice as likely to be taught by teachers who were
inexperienced or teaching outside their specialties (Jerald 2002).
Ineffective school practices. While high poverty and limited resources are
not trivial challenges, some schools succeed despite the odds (Jerald 2001).
Their example suggests that low performance is not inevitable. Uncoordinated
curriculum, superficial instructional strategies, scattershot professional
development, and timid leadership are some of the factors that may hold schools
Undoubtedly, many cases of low performance result from a confluence of
forces. Students at high academic risk are assigned to a school with limited
resources, making it difficult to initiate (much less sustain) improvement
efforts. The perceived undesirability of the school leads teachers, principals,
and parents to look elsewhere for opportunities, creating further instability.
Finding a way to break into this vicious cycle is the key challenge for
DO SANCTIONS IMPROVE LOW-PERFORMING SCHOOLS?
standards-based accountability implicitly recognizes that low-performing schools
may face consequences, many states have been hesitant to intervene except in
extreme cases. By contrast, NCLB prescribes a variety of interventions when
schools fail to meet improvement goals. Some interventions are relatively
low-key, such as providing technical assistance or requiring the school to
develop an improvement plan. Others are more aggressive, holding out the
possibility of major changes in governance, including state takeovers.
A number of states have already experimented with sanctions such as
reconstitution (replacing personnel and/or installing new curricula and
philosophies) and state takeovers (removing local authority over the
Thus far, research on takeovers and reconstitutions has been inconclusive,
partly because these are relatively new strategies, and partly because such
wholesale changes make it difficult to isolate the relevant variables (Education
Commission of the States [ECS] 2002).
Lack of dramatic or immediate results is not surprising. Reconstitution and
takeovers do not by themselves provide detailed blueprints for success. The new
managers are still left with the question, "Now what?"
In its review of the intervention literature, ECS concluded that the success
of strong sanctions may be dependent on the local context. The specific
combination of interventions being used, the amount of time allowed for
improvement, the amount of support provided, and the degree of buy-in from local
stakeholders may all influence the results. ECS analysts concluded that
reconstitution and takeovers should be keyed to achieving specific educational
changes, not just to replacing management in the hope that something better will
HOW CAN EXTERNAL ASSISTANCE HELP LOW-PERFORMING
Policymakers generally view the breaking up of a school as a last
resort, and they prefer positive state or district action. Recent reviews have
identified several promising practices.
1. Provide technical assistance. David Holdzkam (2001) has described the
steps taken by several states to provide intensive, focused assistance to the
schools that need it most. Their programs include targeting the neediest
schools, thoroughly auditing school needs, and bringing in specially trained
principals, teachers, and curriculum specialists to act as facilitators for
change. While no formal research appears to be available, Holdzkam cites state
officials who say that while the intervention has not always moved schools out
of the low-performing category, it has sometimes boosted them into the
2. Align policies and practices with academic goals. In a multi-tiered
governance system (federal, state, and local), schools have often been subject
to disjointed or contradictory policies, zigging one way to satisfy a state or
federal mandate and zagging back again to keep the district office happy.
However, states have made major strides in aligning goals, instruction, and
assessment (and sometimes teacher preparation), sending a consistent message
that helps keep schools on track. When states and districts use their authority
to articulate and support a common academic vision, school leaders can align
their own efforts accordingly (NASBE; Tognieri and Anderson 2003).
3. Allocate resources to support achievement. Does money make a difference?
The answer seems to be yes. Diane Pan and colleagues (2003) examined achievement
data and spending patterns in four states, and found "a strong relationship
between resources and student success," particularly when the resources were
directed toward core instructional areas rather than general administration. The
authors of the study found lessons for state, district, and local leaders about
the importance of allocating adequate money and targeting it intelligently.
HOW CAN PRINCIPALS TURN AROUND LOW-PERFORMING
External assistance can facilitate school renewal, but effective
leadership at the school site is essential. Although empirical research has not
uncovered a single "best strategy" for low-performing schools, researchers and
analysts have identified some promising approaches.
For example, the Washington School Research Center (2002) interviewed
teachers and administrators at elementary schools in which the percentage of
students meeting state standards was significantly above the state average. They
found four "primary factors": a caring and collaborative environment, strong
leadership, focused, intentional instruction, and the use of assessment data to
guide instruction. In addition, the researchers were struck by the high degree
of teacher support for reform efforts, despite the shift in teaching practice
that was required. Significantly, these patterns were the same for high-poverty
and low-poverty schools.
Similarly, research in Texas (Just for the Kids, Inc. 2000) has identified
half a dozen promising practices used by high-performing schools with low-income
* High-energy, hands-on principal leadership that articulates the vision and
keeps the school focused on instruction
* Broad-based planning that sets clear instructional priorities and
meaningful benchmarks for improvement
* Focused, research-based professional development that is driven by
identified instructional needs
* Continual monitoring and assessment
* Flexible grouping for instruction based on identified student needs
* Immediate intervention for struggling students
While suggestive, these studies of successful schools do not yet yield a
detailed roadmap for principals taking the reins at low-performing schools. Even
in comprehensive school reform, which provides concrete models and resources,
implementation varies considerably from school to school (Murphy and Datnow
But even at this early stage of research it seems evident that turning around
a school requires leaders who nurture an educational vision, keep a laser-like
focus on instruction, and work to build a professional learning community.
Education Commission of the States. State
Interventions in Low-Performing Schools and School Districts. Denver, Colorado:
Education Commission of the States, 2002. Online at http://www.ecs.org/%20
Holdzkom, David. "Low-Performing Schools: So You've Identified Them-Now
What?" Charleston, West Virginia: AEL, 2001. 16 pages. ED 463 566. Online at
Jerald, Craig D. Dispelling the Myth Revisited: Preliminary Findings from a
Nationwide Analysis of "High-Flying" Schools. Washington, D.C.: The Education
Trust, 2001. 27 pages. ED 462 485. Online at http://www.edtrust.org/%20
-----. All Talk, No Action: Putting an End to Out-of-Field Teaching.
Washington, D.C.: The Education Trust, 2002. 16 pages. ED 468 741. Online at
Just for the Kids, Inc. Promising Practices Study of High Performing Schools.
Austin, Texas: Just for the Kids, Inc., 2000. Online at
Murphy, Joseph, and Amanda Datnow. "Leadership Lessons from Comprehensive
School Reform Designs." In Leadership Lessons from Comprehensive School Reforms,
edited by Joseph Murphy and Amanda Datnow. 263-278. Thousand Oaks, California:
Corwin Press, 2003.
National Association of State Boards of Education. From Sanctions to
Solutions: Meeting the Needs of Low-Performing Schools. Alexandria, Virginia:
National Association of State Boards of Education, 2002. Online at
Orlofsky, Greg F. The Funding Gap: Low-Income and Minority Students Receive
Fewer Dollars. Washington, D.C.: The Education Trust, 2002. 12 pages. ED 468
550. Online at http://www.edtrust.org/%20
Pan, Diane; Zena Rudo; Cynthia L. Schneider; and Lotte Smith-Hansen.
Examination of Resource Allocation in Education: Connecting Spending to Student
Performance. Austin, Texas: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, 2003.
Online at http://www.sedl.org/%20
Shannon, G. Sue, and Peter Bylsma. Addressing the Achievement Gap: A
Challenge for Washington State Educators. Olympia, Washington: Office of the
Superintendent of Public Instruction, 2002. Online at http://www.k12.wa.us/%20
Tognieri, Wendy, and Stephen E. Anderson. Beyond Islands of Excellence: What
Districts Can Do To Improve Instruction and Achievement in All Schools.
Washington, D.C.: Learning First Alliance, 2003. Online at
Washington School Research Center. Bridging the Opportunity Gap: How
Washington Elementary Schools Are Meeting Achievement Standards. Seattle:
Author, 2002. Available online at http://www.spu.edu/wsrc%20%20%20