Regional Forum: Turning Around Low-Achieving Schools: A Blueprint for Reform

July 28, 2010
Austin, Texas

Laura Shankland
Communications Associate
Phone: 512-391-6556

With the federal government providing millions of dollars in grant money to help states turn around their persistently lowest-achieving schools, state education leaders are busy planning how best to help these schools. This topic was the focus of the regional forum “Turning Around Low-Achieving Schools: A Blueprint for Reform,” held at SEDL Headquarters in Austin, Texas, on July 21–22. State-level education leaders from six states—Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas—met with education experts and national officials to discuss effective practices and policies for improving schools and to learn more about the U.S. Department of Education’s A Blueprint for Reform: The Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

“State leaders at the forum had the chance to hear from and network with researchers, practitioners, and U.S. Department of Education officials on the latest thinking around improving low-achieving schools and education in general,” said Robin Jarvis, director of the Southeast Comprehensive Center. The Southeast Comprehensive Center and Texas Comprehensive Center, both housed at SEDL, co-hosted the regional forum.

Two officials from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE) provided an overview of the Blueprint. This document outlines President Barack Obama’s proposal for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), and sets forth standards for transforming U.S. K–12 public education into a world-class system. Carl Harris, OESE deputy assistant secretary for policy and strategic initiatives, and Kandace Jones, OESE special assistant, emphasized that the Department of Education is focused on maintaining high expectations for students and educators while allowing schools and districts flexibility in meeting education goals. They also emphasized that the Department’s aim is to provide ongoing support for school improvement efforts rather than simply monitoring whether schools and districts meet academic benchmarks. “We are excited about the work,” said Harris. “The forum will be a good model for additional work around the country as the U.S. Department of Education supports schools, districts, and states engaging in school turnaround.”

Keynote speaker Elaine Allensworth, Consortium on Chicago School Research, University of Chicago, examined the leading research on turning around persistently low-achieving schools, including her research on the factors that affect high school graduation rates. She encouraged educators to focus on the whole school rather than expecting a new teacher or curriculum alone to lead to student success. “These are narrow solutions,” explained Allensworth. “They don’t actually get you anywhere unless you use them to develop the organizational structure of the school.”

Breakout sessions at the forum provided practical information about effective and evidence-based practices in each of the education priority areas in the Blueprint, such as ensuring that all students graduate ready for college and career, developing and retaining great teachers and leaders, and addressing the needs of English language learners and students with disabilities.

A panel of educators who had successfully transformed low-achieving schools also shared their stories, discussed the practices that had worked for them, and offered personal insights into school improvement relevant to state policymakers. The panel included Rayne Martin, chief of innovation of the Louisiana Department of Education, who recounted her experiences with rebuilding and taking over schools in New Orleans, Louisiana, after Hurricane Katrina. Martin explained that while some challenges she has faced turning around schools are unique to Louisiana, others are common to all states. “I think we probably all have similar challenges around identifying those particular schools [that are low-performing], making sure that we have really meaningful levels of change occur in those schools, and we’re not just being superficial about the type of interventions that we’re doing and that people actually understand the work that they’re taking on and are able to do that work,” said Martin.

State teams ended the forum in strategic planning sessions facilitated by SEDL staff, during which teams discussed how to incorporate what they had learned into their state plans for assisting school districts with low-achieving schools. “Too many times we get too involved in the day-to-day operations of what’s going on, [and] it’s good to connect and be with other people that are thinking about where education’s going in the future, particularly with Race to the Top and i3,” said Mark Bounds, deputy superintendent for educator quality and leadership at the South Carolina Department of Education. “I’ve already . . . gotten a few notes of things I need to take back to South Carolina and say, ‘Here’s some ways we can be more effective,’ especially in my area, focusing on great teachers and great leaders. . . . I’ve gotten that both from the presentations, but also from meeting some people from other states that are doing some interesting work.”

Sherrill Parris, assistant state superintendent for the Alabama Department of Education, said that her state team came away from the forum with a better understanding of evaluating teacher effectiveness. “The prospect of linking educator evaluation to growth in student learning is a ‘hot topic’ in Alabama right now,” said Parris. “The Forum in Austin provided our team with some additional information about that practice and more importantly, the opportunity to hear from other districts and states that have some experience in that area. Our appetite is whetted for more!”

Visit the Forum Web page for more information, presenter biographies, presentations, a photo gallery, and other media.

About SEDL

SEDL (formerly Southwest Educational Development Laboratory) is a nonprofit corporation based in Austin, Texas. SEDL is dedicated to solving significant education problems and improving teaching and learning through research, research-based resources, and professional development. Learn more about SEDL.