Improving schools in disadvantaged communities

iStock_000002424978XSmallBritish researchers Christopher Chapman and Alma Harris, University of Warwick, Coventry, report on recent studies that describe strategies that have been successful in raising achievement in schools located in difficult circumstances. The studies were funded by the Department of Education and the National College for School Leadership. Chapman and Harris argue that school interventions must offer a variety of strategies for change that fit the particular developmental stage of the school’s reform efforts.

Similar to the No Child Left Behind legislation in the United States, educational targets have been established in England. Schools failing to meet these standards and those serving socioeconomically disadvantaged communities are known as “schools facing challenging circumstances.” About 600 such schools exist in the UK, and a high percentage of them serve low-socioeconomic urban populations. These schools receive a lot of external pressure to improve that involves frequent inspections and monitoring visits. There are also supportive elements to the policy including significantly increased financial resources and opportunities for “Leadership Initiative Grants.”

The effect of these interventions on student outcomes, however, has been unclear. While there is considerable research on what constitutes good or effective schools, the research on ineffective or failing schools is relatively small, Chapman and Harris report. These researchers examined two recent studies that focused exclusively on schools in challenging circumstances. They explored the strategies used to raise and sustain achievement in eight schools that had demonstrated steady improvement over a five-year period. They highlighted the key strategies these schools identified as important in contributing to their success.

  1. Improve the environment in which staff and students work: Resources were allocated to paint, repair, buy new furniture and refurbish the school. Students and staff contributed to these efforts; for example, students sanded down desks.
  2. Generate positive relationships: The relationships between staff and between staff, parents and students were poor in many of these schools. Relationships had deteriorated over time, resulting in a negative culture characterized by low expectations and a high degree of mistrust. Leaders worked to create opportunities for more positive relationships instituting social events and staff-development activities that made use of the expertise of those within the school. They also organized student-staff committees, student councils, and lunchtime and after-school clubs and trips. Evening classes were offered to parents, and all parents’ evenings included a social component. More opportunities were created to give parents positive feedback and invite them into the schools. All events created opportunities for the staff, parents and students to talk.
  3. Focus on teaching and learning: A clear focus on a limited number of learning and teaching goals was an important contributory factor to effective and improving schools. The demands of numerous initiatives can be counterproductive when they compete for time, energy and resources. Teachers in improving schools used a variety of approaches with their students. Teachers related instruction to practical student experiences and adopted strategies to ensure the learning orientation was not lost. They focused on mentoring students and tracking their progress. All improving schools had clear discipline procedures that created an orderly learning environment. In addition, there was an emphasis upon positive reinforcement and consistency in teaching.
  4. Build community: Schools built bridges with the outside community, forming relationships with families and linking local businesses with the school.
  5. Offer continuous professional development: Ongoing staff training was found to be one of the most important factors in securing school improvement. Opportunities for teachers to visit other schools, gather examples of best practice and reflect upon their own skills were critically important in raising teachers’ morale and increasing expectations of teaching performance. The quality, duration and relevance to classroom practice were important features of successful development activities. Mentoring, coaching and peer review were introduced.
  6. Provide leadership: Firm, directive leadership may be required at the outset of school reform efforts, but it appears that a more democratic form of leadership is needed as the school begins to improve. Effective leadership in schools facing challenging circumstances was a shared and dispersed entity, concerned with knowing how to motivate others and to convince staff that they could make a difference. Honesty, trust and openness were perceived as important in a leader and were modeled by giving staff real responsibility to lead. Teachers were encouraged to work together in teams and to set performance targets. Within these schools, there are often low expectations of what students can achieve. A first step in generating a belief in a culture of improvement is to set clear expectations with staff and students, to share a vision of improvement with students and to reaffirm this on a regular basis. Setting this vision and sharing it significantly enhances the likelihood of improvement.
  7. Create an information-rich environment: Data richness is an important component of effective and improving schools. Collecting and centralizing a wide variety of data, including exam results, standardized and teacher-made test results, questionnaires and qualitative data is needed. To set appropriate targets and plan effective programs, schools continuously studied existing test data to see whether initiatives were working or whether there were problems with achievement in certain areas or among certain groups of students.
  8. Provide external support: A network of supports facilitates the generation of ideas and dissemination of good practice. School districts can ensure momentum for change by providing schools with professional development and data analysis. These supports are especially important for schools at the beginning of the reform process.

Both of the studies Chapman and Harris analyzed highlight how schools in economically disadvantaged communities are continually called on to manage tensions and problems stemming from the particular circumstances of the school. Policymakers should understand that some problems these schools face are beyond their control. However, schools in these studies improved when they responded sensitively to their context, using different strategies as the improvement process evolved. Chapman and Harris state that schools should be freed from specific prescriptions and allowed to select their own approaches to change and development to meet their particular needs. Schools in poor communities have significantly different needs that require flexibility and choice to improve.

“Improving Schools in Difficult and Challenging Contexts: Strategies for Improvement”, Educational Research, Volume 46, Number 3, Winter 2004, pp. 219-228.

Published in ERN May/June 2005 Volume 18 Number 5

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