Failure is not an option

Federal Education policy makes targeting the lowest performing schools the priority. It is widely understood that school performance across the US is uneven. While some schools are performing very well, others are in dire need of help. Under No Child Left Behind, interventions for schools that did not meet the federal standard were predefined by law. Controversially, those interventions included simply closing schools.

The Every Student Succeeds Act removed specific interventions, but the requirement to rescue schools in the bottom five percent remains. It’s left up to states to determine what those interventions look like. Given the complex nature of changing school culture, some still advocate for one of NCLB’s most controversial intervention: closing schools. The central argument is that students trapped in those schools will be free to find better education opportunities once the school is closed.

However, a study conducted by the Center for Research and Education Outcomes found that less than half of students whose schools had closed ended up in higher performing schools. The majority of students went through the process of transitioning schools and saw no benefit.

There is a better way! The very first district that The Learner First worked with included a school that was slated to be closed if it didn’t improve immediately. It was a diverse school, with teachers and a principal that cared deeply about their kids. But with low test scores, the school was labeled as “failing.”

Our work revolves around making the very culture shift that eludes policymakers charged with “fixing” struggling schools. We partnered with the district to connect with that school’s teachers and principal; we brought in parents and community members to provide their own unique insights and to steer the process; we helped teachers and administrators refocus from testing to what really counts, learners. We worked with that school and the community around it to identify its strengths as well as areas for improvement. We watched as they made a courageous leap from a school that was just trying to stem the bleeding, to an empowered community that was driving real, lasting change.

“This is why I became an administrator,” the principal explained when talking about The Learner First Process, “because I had one of my students—and this is a student who, you look at his record and his history, absent all the time, every indicator, underachieving—he actually walked up to me and he said, ‘Sir, I don’t want anyone to know this, but I think Math is cool.’ You know, and that is, as a former math teacher, if I can have my students tell me that, I know I’m being successful.”

That school did not close. Even though we worked with teachers to stop teaching to the test, test scores improved. Teachers, who were now being treated like professionals, were reinvigorated and once again excited about their practice. They were working to engage students and make students excited too, and it was working.

And it still is.

Years after we left the district, that school continues to use the processes they developed with us. They continue to bring in parents and families, and to identify and teach to all learners’ strengths and interests. As hard as it is to change school culture for the better, once it is better, it’s impossible to change it back. Once you’ve seen that way of working, you can’t unsee it.

We continue to focus on the very schools that seem unfixable, the ones that are on the verge of closing. We have seen amazing results when we do, and we know that it’s possible. Closing down schools might have benefits for some of the students in that school, but turning a struggling school into a champion for learners helps all the kids in that school.