Viewpoint: Failure is not an option in our schools

Six principles are key to student success.
Author Alan M. Blankstein offers six principles that are key to student success.

On Jan. 28, a group of inspiring educators from four diverse school districts across the country came together to take part in a live webcast panel discussion—the first in a 12-part series—to share their views and experiences on how they have turned their underperforming schools around, and the tools they used to succeed.

It’s what I’ve coined as “Failure Is Not an Option,” and for the past several years I’ve been working with these schools and others like them from coast to coast to focus on student success at every level. The program outlines six principles to guide student achievement. (Click here for more about those six principles.)

The webcast connected leaders, practitioners, and innovators within the education community not only here in the U.S., but from around the world to showcase real tangible frameworks for student success in our public schools. The panelists openly shared their own school success stories after implementing the “Failure Is Not an Option” program.

In the Pottstown School District of Pennsylvania, all seven schools made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) targets in 2009. This is the first time in district history for this achievement, and Reed Lindley, assistant superintendent, attributes it to the change he’s been able to make in school culture.

Because of the changes he’s implemented, and the way his teachers have embraced the program, Pottstown’s Lincoln Elementary saw close to 30 percent improvements in their students’ math and reading skills.

Even more impressive, Pottstown Middle School saw a 78 percent drop in disruptive classroom behavior, measured by the amount of time-outs between 2008 and 2009. And they’re consistently improving the district’s graduation rate. What was 75 percent in 2006 is now up to 84 percent in 2008.

Simply put, Lindley and his team of educators found a way to help their students connect with the subjects at hand, in turn helping them to succeed in the classroom.

In the Wichita Public School System, Lettishia Freund, a teacher at Payne Elementary School, reported that in 2007-08 school year her school was the lowest performing in the district when it came to reading and math.

After implementing the “Failure Is Not an Option” framework, teachers at her school were able to work together to make data-driven decisions in both subjects and collaborate on best practices for real results.

Freund and her colleagues saw a gain of 10.8 points in math and 14.3 in English during the first year. At the end of the second year, data showed an impressive gain of 17.6 points in math. This has not only helped the students’ success rate but has reinforced the teachers’ confidence in their teaching practices.

For the first time, teachers report being able to pinpoint root causes that they could control and can now work at changing their thinking about their underperforming students. This marked the first time that Payne teachers used data as a tool, and not as a crutch, to identify specific learning deficits and then worked with students in small groups to close the gaps.

Over the past three years, Payne educators have made the shift to examining data regularly to see if instruction is working and changing it, if needed. Because of this dedication to data, Payne has seen a 19.6 point gain in reading and a 32.4 point gain in math.

“In order to achieve excellence for all students, it is no longer an option for teachers to work in isolation; however, putting teachers together to collaborate is only the first step,” said Assistant Superintendent Greg Rasmussen. “To achieve the lift we are getting in Wichita, teachers have to collaborate about the right things. ‘Failure Is Not an Option’ has helped us focus our work by providing our teams with the right tools and processes necessary to bring our professional learning community to life.”

Plumas Avenue Elementary School in Oroville, Calif., had been flagged as a failing school under the No Child Left Behind legislation.

After following “Failure Is Not an Option” for three years, the academic success among students has improved by 35 points. According to Anthony Catalano, principal of Plumas Ave. Elementary, his school is slated to meet AYP targets this spring—an impressive achievement.

Fort Wayne Community Schools, in Fort Wayne, Ind., undertook six pilot programs in the 2008-09 school year.

Superintendent Wendy Robinson and the school board were so impressed with the schools’ outcomes that they expanded the program to all 52 schools in the district for the 2009-10 school year.

After the first year in Fort Wayne’s six selected elementary schools, early reporting SMART Goal results are showing great progress. Shambaugh Elementary had dramatic gains in reading in kindergarten, up 54.5 percent from its beginning benchmark assessment of 42.5 percent. Grades one through five increased reading scores by an average of 15 percent.

You might be asking yourself, how do I go about achieving this success at my school? The key is this: transforming the school culture. Some schools have productive cultures; others have problematic ones.

Every school has a culture, whether one is aware of it or not. Some schools have a culture of blame and hopelessness and end up shifting the accountability away from school professionals. This, in turn, is de-motivating for members of the entire school community, who believe they have no power and that what they do makes no difference.

Courageous thinking and leadership is needed to create a culture that unifies teachers, administrators, and students. There must be a clear, shared purpose and open communication and collaboration between teachers on student learning.

Teachers are among the most likely mentors and positive influences for underachieving students. Real change comes from administrators and schools taking a collective responsibility for student success and making that the cultural mindset. It’s working, and as you can see from the results above, change is happening.

The live webcast was organized by the HOPE Foundation and the School Improvement Network, and it marked the official launch of the foundation’s Courageous Leaders Network. The network is an initiative committed to building a professional community of educators who examine and develop best practices to improve achievement for all school students and also provides access to the latest tools and resources to further help our hard working teachers develop a collaborative culture.

I have been involved in the education community all of my life. Beginning first as a high-risk youth, I was blessed with mentors who guided me and helped me to achieve my own dreams—not just of graduating high school, but moving into college and graduate school before starting my own education foundation.

I’ve spent the better part of 15 years researching schools across the country, and working to get at the heart of what works when it comes to improving our schools. Through all my years advocating enduring education reform, I have worked with schools across the country on why the importance of courageous leadership is crucial and the steps needed for true school reform.

There are so many untold stories of our successes with students in our schools: the teacher who invested in a struggling student, or the principal who took extra time to foster a young person’s growth.

These acts have ripple effects that continue for generations, creating a collective culture in which courageousness is the norm—creating places in which the entire school community can realistically expect sustained success for themselves and for all students.

Alan M. Blankstein is author of the award-winning book, Failure Is Not an Option: Six Principles That Guide Student Achievement in High-Performing Schools, now out in its second edition by Corwin Press. More than 200,000 people received copies of the first edition, which has become a gold standard in school reform and sustaining learning communities, and this second edition, a joint publication of Corwin, the HOPE Foundation, and the National Education Association, is again an instant best seller.

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