Troubled schools can be transformed — here’s the evidence

by Ben Jensen

Published by The Australian, Saturday 22 February 2014

In 2005 more than two-thirds of Year 7 to 11 students at Sunshine College in Melbourne’s western suburbs were reading at primary school levels. By 2012, however, Years 7 to 9 students were improving in literacy and numeracy at a faster rate than the state average. Student attitudes toward learning and their school were in the top 10 per cent of the state.

Sunshine is one of a number of schools across Australia that have dramatically turned around their performance. Formerly marked by poor learning outcomes and low expectations, a turnaround school is one that has transformed teaching and learning to give its students a great chance to succeed in work and life.

Grattan Institute’s new report, Turning around schools: it can be done, examines four schools picked from a number of success stories across the country. Usually in disadvantaged communities, turnaround schools break the cycle of intergenerational inequality.

Their stories are remarkably consistent. In Australia and around the world, turnaround schools follow the same path. They implement five steps: strong leadership that raises expectations; effective teaching with teachers learning from each other; development and measurement of student learning; a positive school culture; and engagement of parents and the community.

Schools make these changes in slightly different ways. Some ensure a common instructional is applied across classrooms. Others let each teacher apply the practices they consider most effective. But all focus on student learning and how it can be continually improved.

Nevertheless, change of this magnitude in a school is very difficult. Despite many government initiatives, school turnaround is relatively rare. Extra money has been given to schools and a multitude of programs have tried and failed.

If the steps for school turnaround are clear, why have so many government interventions failed? There is a great difference between simply highlighting the five steps for school turnaround and getting change in schools, between telling people what best practice is and getting school leaders, teachers and students to adopt it.

Policies that change what people do each day look very different from most other policies. First, a method is needed to commit all parties – in government and in schools – to reform. Change will never occur if people are not behind it. Government must lead the way in making a binding commitment to reform.

Leadership and teaching skills need to be developed in the five steps of school turnaround. Having teachers and leaders learning from each other is the best way for sustained change in teaching practices.

Different evaluation and accountability mechanisms are also required. School results are the ultimate measure of improvement but change in the five steps needs to be continually reinforced and this won’t happen with a simple focus on test scores.

Instead, policy should also measure the amount of change occurring in schools in each of the five steps and hold school leaders to account for these changes.

This requires a different policy approach, one that is designed to change behaviours and practices in the five steps for school turnaround. Shanghai, which has the best and one of the more equitable education systems in the world according to the OECD, takes this approach. Its Empowered Management Program is increasing the number of the city’s turnaround schools.

The government in Shanghai contracts a high-performing school to work with a low-performing school to achieve turnaround in two years. The contract commits both schools and the government to the turnaround process.

Development programs build the leadership and teaching skills for change in each of the five steps. Schools learn from each other. Teachers move between schools, observe each other’s classrooms, offer feedback on how to improve and engage in joint learning activities.

Evaluation and accountability mechanisms continually reinforce new behaviours and practices in the five steps. An evaluation team observes classrooms and conducts surveys and focus groups of school leaders, teachers, students and parents. Teaching practices and students’ study habits and learning behaviours are measured. Change is reinforced through extensive feedback.

A new approach designed to bring about change in schools is a significant shift in policy development in Australia but could give the students who need it most a chance at a rich and fulfilled life.