Across the United States, some schools are considered underperforming, and Assistant Professor Lam Pham of the NC State College of Education says small interventions are not enough to improve student outcomes. Instead, he said whole-school reform was needed to turn around chronically underperforming schools.
Schools that are considered for reform are usually those that are chronically underperforming, meaning they consistently rank in the bottom 5% of schools in terms of student performance for at least three years.
Instead of interventions that focus only on teachers of a specific subject or aspect of the school, a whole-school reform, or turnaround effort, takes a holistic approach to s tackling the multiple factors that could contribute to poor school performance.
“Whole school reform is this idea that we have to focus on the whole school, so we think about things like the whole human capital of the school, the school curriculum and the length of the day school; all these kinds of holistic interventions that can be put in place,” Pham said. “It can also come from multiple sources of governance. We think about this at the federal, state, and district levels when implementing comprehensive, whole-school reforms. »
What are the impacts of attending an underperforming school?
Pham, whose research focuses on school reform, said the research is clear about the negative effects for students who attend chronically underperforming schools.
In addition to a majority of students consistently scoring in the lower 5% on standardized tests, students who attend underperforming schools also experience higher rates of chronic absenteeism and higher post-secondary enrollment and completion rates. weaker.
Over the long term, students who attended low-performing schools tend to have higher teenage pregnancy rates and often earn less as adults than their peers who attended higher-performing schools.
Low-performing schools are also often prone to high turnover rates among teachers and principals, who report experiencing high levels of dissatisfaction and a desire to work in schools where they can feel better supported.
These impacts, Pham said, exacerbate an already existing problem for students in underperforming schools, who are often already structurally disadvantaged.
“There is an equity issue here because the bottom 5% of schools are often schools serving our most needy students. It is often students from low-income and minority backgrounds who, in general, have the fewest resources even before going to school,” he said.
While school turnaround outcomes can be mixed and are influenced by school context and the specific intervention selected, Pham said school reforms can produce positive effects on students, but not always.
For example, students affected by school adjustment often see increased scores on standardized math tests as well as higher scores on non-high-stakes tests, such as benchmark exams. However, many interventions did not produce improvements in graduation rates, student attendance, or disciplinary outcomes.
This, said Pham, is not an indication that interventions are not working, but the result of the fact that many reform efforts tend to focus on improving test scores.
“It’s not that the intervention can’t improve student outcomes, it’s that we disagree on the best kind of student outcomes to focus on,” Pham said. “I think that just means we need to think about what metrics and metrics we want for our students and incentivize them.”
What factors should be taken into account in school reform?
To engage in effective school improvement, Pham said policies often require schools to start with a needs assessment. The process includes interviews with principals, teachers, and parents as well as surveys of students and community members to determine what may be the most pressing issues for that specific school.
This is crucial, Pham said, because different problems will require different approaches to school improvement.
“There are schools where students don’t come to school, but that’s a different issue from schools where students come to school but need a lot of emotional support. There are different issues, and we need to understand what they are in order to determine what interventions we need to put in place,” he said.
A common intervention is to extend students’ learning time. This can take many forms depending on what works best for a particular district, but can result in extending the school day during the week, implementing a longer school year, or even having students in school. classes on weekends.
Although Pham recognizes that extended classroom time can leave less time for non-academic activities, which are equally important to students, extended learning time has proven effective in achieving the goal of a better student performance.
“In general, the fact that students spend more time in an educational setting is helpful to student success. We think student success is very important, so if that’s the goal – and it’s not always the only goal – but if that’s the goal, more learning time is better,” did he declare.
A crucial part of school reform, whatever problems exist, will be recruiting and retaining effective teachers. But, Pham said, schools need to be careful about how they recruit new educators.
Chronically underperforming schools, Pham said, are often located near other underperforming schools. When an intervention effort targets a single low-performing school in the area, Pham’s research shows that the low-performing school being reformed will often unwittingly recruit the most effective teachers away from other low-performing schools nearby.
“You would think they would just go out there in the wild, somewhere far away, and find effective teachers, but that’s not happening,” he said. “What happens then is you’re just redistributing the teacher labor market in such a way that the one low-performing school gets better teachers, but the other low-performing schools suffer.”
One method to avoid this outcome, Pham said, is to support clusters of schools rather than just improving one school. It’s part of the initiative that Pham will study as part of a grant-funded partnership with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools that aims to improve 10 of the district’s worst-performing schools.
Pham’s work will look not only at recruiting effective teachers, but also at how schools train and retain teachers who are already in the building.
“There are many important factors in school improvement. Resources are important, the school day is important but, usually, every day when I finish my research, I just think it’s the teachers and principals [who have the biggest impact.]”, Pham said. “Investing in teachers and principals gives our school improvement efforts a much better chance of success.”