Lessons from a high school turnaround

The Daily Howler dinged me (and many others) on accepting the “outperformed 90 percent of Massachusetts high schools” statement at face value. Turns out that this statistic isn’t accurate, so I’ve removed that reference (overstrike text marks my edits). I still think this high school has had successes that demand some attention.

Today the New York Times has what feels to me to be a very important article on a high school turnaround in Massachusetts. A decade ago, Brockton High was a “dropout factory,” with just a quarter of the students passing state exams and a third dropping out entirely.  But in each of the past two years, the school — 4,100 students, 69 percent of whom are eligible for free/reduced-price lunch — has outperformed 90 percent of the high schools in the state.

What happened? How did the school respond? According to an in-depth Harvard report summarized in the Times article, a small group of teachers began meeting on Saturdays to look at data and discuss reform:

The group eventually became known as the school restructuring committee, and the administration did not stand in the way. The principal “just let it happen,” the Harvard report says.

The committee’s first big step was to go back to basics, and deem that reading, writing, speaking and reasoning were the most important skills to teach. They set out to recruit every educator in the building — not just English, but math, science, even guidance counselors — to teach those skills to students.

The committee put together a rubric to help teachers understand what good writing looks like, and began devoting faculty meetings to teaching department heads how to use it. The school’s 300 teachers were then trained in small groups.

I haven’t read the Harvard report, so I don’t know what additional investments were made in professional development for teachers (the Times article makes it sound as if teachers worked together to train each other with minimal outside PD). The school is now bringing in a consultant to help with mathematics instruction, since students’ progress in math is still behind. I bring this up because the lightning rod National Urban Alliance contract is coming back on the Board agenda tonight. ($250k to train 100 teachers; some people like their approach and others don’t. I’m still not going to vote for it, though it will likely pass anyway.)  It seems to me that Brockton High got it right — teachers worked together to figure out what was working and what wasn’t, supported each other in learning more effective strategies, THEN brought in outside expertise when a weakness was identified that couldn’t be addressed in-house.

I think there are a lot of lessons in the Times’ Brockton High article, but the key one is that focusing on instruction and supporting teachers to work together can bring about reform in even the most chaotic schools.

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