In the summer of 2013, a national network of charter schools engaged SchoolWorks to design and lead an in-depth, qualitative research effort to uncover the specific practices and approaches driving achievement at high-performing schools. This research was the first phase in an ongoing effort to capture and share specific approaches from high-performing schools, while informing the development of resources, artifacts, and action-oriented tools to help all of the network’s schools and leaders identify opportunities to drive improved outcomes for students. Most immediately, these findings have informed targeted leadership development for emerging school leaders and specific recommendations related to instruction, coaching, and curriculum.

The project was designed to answer the following questions:

  • What are the school-wide systems and practices that drive student achievement?
  • Which of these practices appear across multiple high performers?
  • What are the specific activities, approaches, and behaviors that drive those practices and structures throughout the year and the conditions critical to their success?

Each featured school was selected based on student attrition and academic performance. Across the network, schools administer the Northwest Evaluation Association Measures of Academic Progress (NWEA MAP) assessment – a nationally norm-referenced assessment that provides a snapshot of how individual students are advancing in mathematics and literacy over time. The selected schools were not the only high performers within the network, but they represented schools that have demonstrated both growth (measured by the percentage of students meeting their annual growth targets on MAP) and achievement (measured by the performance of exiting students) in mathematics and literacy over consecutive years. These schools frequently appeared on annual high-performer lists developed by the network to measure progress and achievement. Additionally, the selected schools also represented the diverse demographics that the network strives to serve, representing both African-American and Latino students in diverse communities across the country. The initial phase of this work focused on elementary and middle schools, where a common assessment framework provided a basis for selection and comparison.

Over the course of the 2013-14 academic year, SchoolWorks sent teams of 6-8 veteran educators into the identified schools, using a variation of the SchoolWorks evidence-based School Quality Review protocol to approach the analysis of effective practices. Using a similar framework and process, SchoolWorks was able to collect comparable data from 14 other network schools not identified as highperformers. These schools comprised a comparison group for our analysis.

Both the network and SchoolWorks were intrigued by the trends across the high-performing schools that differentiate them from the 14 comparison schools. Surprisingly, across the six identified high-performing schools, no specific strengths in Teaching and Learning (the domain covering instructional planning, classroom instruction, and behavior management) emerged as common across multiple schools. While classroom instruction was effective in these schools, data from classroom observations were not sufficient to label any particular practices in this domain as significant strengths. An analysis of the data across visits showed that data from classroom observations in the high-performing schools mostly mirrored that of the comparison schools that have not seen similar patterns of success in academics or student attrition. For example, on the indicator: Questions/Activities require students to engage in Application or Analysis levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, such as Interpret, Demonstrate, Distinguish, Calculate, Solve, Test, Compare, Contrast, Debate, high-performing schools showed comparable data to other schools across the network, with this being observed in 40% of these classroom observations (n=127) compared to an average of 46% in comparison school classrooms (n=245). On several other indicators reflective of the rigor and student engagement in a given lesson, the high-performing schools’ observation average was slightly higher than that of comparison schools’ observations, but still remained at a low absolute level (under 50%) These findings led visiting teams to determine that excellence in the instructional core was not sufficient to be considered a strength or the unique driver of success in these schools.

High-performing schools and the comparison schools also demonstrated similar cultures and school climates. Site visit teams found that the staff culture in high-performing schools represented their values and beliefs. Overwhelmingly, stakeholders were able to articulate their schools’ values and provide multiple examples of how the beliefs and values were demonstrated through words and actions in their schools. Evidence also indicated that while the schools had varying values and beliefs, all schools held the unwavering conviction that all students have the potential to attend college; staff members were willing to go above and beyond to achieve that goal. The culture of the schools promoted collaboration between leadership and staff, as well as high expectations for both students and one another. In addition, families and students articulated the high expectations that leadership and staff held for them and how that motivated them to meet those expectations. Similarly, strong staff culture was a trend across the comparison schools. In 6 of the 14 comparison school visits (43%), staff culture was noted as a strength, and in only a single case was it noted as a growth area. Staff culture was described as a strength in these other types of visits if there was evidence that teachers worked collaboratively, put student achievement and well-being at the forefront, and were willing to go to great lengths to support their students and each other.

While strengths in instruction and staff culture appear necessary but not sufficient to explain the success of the high-performing schools, a number of differentiating factors did emerge. Across the comparison schools, Human Capital (specifically, how teachers are supported, developed, and managed) was regularly cited as an area for improvement. In fact, 50% of the comparison schools either inconsistently implemented a system for supporting, managing, and evaluating staff members or lacked one altogether. In contrast, high-performing schools’ leaders made a priority of developing teacher capacity and did so effectively, making this a strength that set these schools apart from their network peers.

Evidence indicated that all high-performing schools scheduled time for teachers to be observed and coached, in addition to providing whole school professional development. In these schools, teachers received frequent feedback from school leaders, instructional coaches, and their peers. The frequency of coaching varied across schools and depended on staffing and teacher needs. However, in all high-performing schools, teachers were able to discuss the last times they were observed and coached, and reported that they valued this structure. Across a majority of these schools, there were also clear systems and structures for staff professional development. Most of these schools provided whole school professional development aligned to their school-wide priorities. In a few high-performing schools, teachers were able to attend professional development sessions aligned to their specific professional goals. In these cases, professional development was differentiated and individualized to support teachers’ varying developmental needs. This provides a stark contrast to comparison schools, in which these areas were consistently cited as in need of improvement. Seemingly in this set of schools, strengths in the area of coaching through the effective implementation of systems for feedback and professional development bears a relationship to better results for students.

A second particularly noteworthy strength that seemed to differentiate high-performing schools from the comparison schools was strong internal communication. Evidence indicated that systems were intentionally established by high-performing schools to promote frequent communication among various groups of stakeholders. Site visit teams found that school leadership prioritized the establishment of norms to maintain clear and effective communication with one another, both formally and informally. Specifically, teachers reported having several touchpoints with both leadership and their team members through scheduled meetings and common planning times. Review of staff handbooks revealed explicit expectations for how staff members should communicate with one another in 67 percent of the high-performing schools. For example, guidelines delineated to whom staff should direct their questions and concerns, when to reach out to a team member, and also included specific agendas and frameworks to support staff in how to engage in those conversations. School leadership and staff further reported that the expectations in schools were that staff engage in genuine, transparent, and respectful communication with all stakeholders, including students. Evidence also indicated that the schools’ cultural norms promoted an understanding that staff members are expected to do whatever it takes to support one another and that success can only be achieved through teamwork and collaboration. Lastly, across the high-performing schools, site visit teams found a focus on the personal well-being of staff members. School leaders and staff consistently spoke about the importance of getting to know one another personally and feeling supported as individuals and contributors to a larger purpose.

In the comparison schools, communication was specifically cited as an area for growth across multiple schools. Specifically, the finding that school leaders and staff do not maintain clear, effective, and supportive communication was explicitly cited as a challenge in 4 out of the 14 reports (29%), and as a contributing factor to another growth area in an additional report. Generally, when this area was cited as an area for improvement, staff members noted that they were unclear about roles and responsibilities, or how information should be conveyed. Such confusion did not exist in the high-performing schools. The sort of clarity and effective communication observed in the network’s high-performers may be a contributing factor to their consistent records of achievement.

Results from this analysis raise the possibility that while instructional practice and school climate and culture must attain a sufficient level of quality, other factors can make the difference between good and great schools. At least two such factors appear to be the area of Human Capital (staff support, coaching, development, and management) and the area of communications.Lessons learned from the high-performers identified for the project, particularly around the ways that they hire, support, develop, and retain their teachers, will be shared across other schools to help others build similarly supportive, open, and aligned school cultures that can turn good classroom instruction into great outcomes for children.


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