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Making the case for bottom-up change in school reform

By February 2, 2011June 14th, 20168 Comments

In President Obama’s State of the Union address last week, he called out the Bruce Randolph School, a turnaround school here in Denver. Once one of the worst-performing schools in Colorado, Bruce Randolph graduated 90 percent of its seniors last year—and 87 percent of them headed to college a few months ago. Obama attributed the school’s success to reform that is not just “a top-down mandate, but the work of local teachers and principals; school boards and communities.”

So how did they do it? According to a Denver Post article, then-Principal Kristin Waters first asked all teachers to reapply for their positions (only 6 out of 40 remained). Then, the school became the first in Colorado to be granted “innovation” status, a move that allowed it to operate more like a charter school, granting it autonomy from district and union rules and giving it more flexibility in terms of budget, hiring decisions, schedule, calendar, and incentives.

Waters said the school succeeded, ultimately, because it created “the supports for students, teaching them to ask for help and giving them that help…It was all about best practices, holding teachers and students accountable and creating high expectations.”

These factors are also at the heart of ongoing school improvement efforts in McLeansville, North Carolina, at Northeast High School (NEHS), which has moved from the academic “watch list” to the county’s “most improved school,” having increased test scores sharply for two years in a row. Since 2007, the school has seen double-digit gains in the percentages of proficient students in seven subjects, including increases of 34.5 percent in physical science and 25 percent in geometry.

The school did it by getting all teachers and administrators on the same page in terms of its main goal: to improve student engagement. Now, teachers hold themselves accountable by creating criteria for engagement and collaborating frequently, and “focus walks” by teacher leaders and administrators ensure that students are not only engaged but also learning in all classrooms via the same research-based instructional strategies.

In both cases, improvement efforts started at the student level. The schools didn’t bring in new programs or overhaul their systems; they simply figured out what their students needed most and found the best way to systemically meet those needs.

How does your school ensure students are engaged and supported? Do you have other examples of bottom-up change that have worked?

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Carrie Lather says:

    I like the idea of teachers having to reapply to their jobs. Sometimes, teachers are too complacent with their positions. Maybe having us reapply would weed out the ones who really don’t want to be there and are not all for the kids. On the other hand, completely changing out a schools infastructure leads to uncertainty and resistance. With the school in Colorado and in North Carolina, what kind of assistance were/are they given to implement this proejct and complete overhaul of their school?

  • Simone G says:

    One example to promote bottom-up change is through communication and effective collaboration. I learned that communication and collaboration is important to the academic setting. Teachers should promote collaboration between school and family, in order to meet the need of all students. Providing parents with positive feed backs, home learning activities and other educational resources would help aid students’ development. One resource I subscribe to is National Education Association, which produces resources that are good for exploring new technologies available, adapting teaching ideas, receive information on workshop, help groups, grants, tuition deduction and many other opportunities that are great for an educator.

  • leslie riccard says:

    I asked myself the same questions as Carrie. When I read about schools that make huge gains, and change their school around, I can never really find all the details that went into this change. What assistance were they given? It seems like the schools I hear about are private, in big cities, are Title 1 schools. What about the average suburbia schools? The ones that are experiencing a diversity/demographic change and their scores are reflecting this? Was the increase in scores due to having new staff that is more motivated than the previous group? Was there mandated collaboration and follow up on the assessments? Was their success due to them being able to operate more like a charter school,having autonomy from district and union rules and giving that school flexibility in terms of their budget, hiring decisions, schedule, calendar, and incentives, as stated int he paragraph? If they are working so well, then their master plan should be shared with the rest of us. I sometimes feel that, yes, we should celebrate their success; however, what worked for their school might not work for every school in need.

  • Carrie Lather says:

    The questions you ask are extremely good. I wonder if there is more research out there to be able to answer these questions? All of these need to be answered before other schools follow suit. I believe, as you said, that what worked in that school may not work for all schools. However, the ideas that they used would be helpful in assessing if that would be viable to schools who want to follow suit. Information is everything!
    I agree that we need to promote collaboration in schools between teachers, administration, and families. How would you deal with the teachers, administrators and families who do not wish to collaborate?

  • tom white says:

    I applaud these turn around schools, but there are so many variables. I once worked in a Title I school in SC. We had a new principal come in and clean things up. Our scores shot through the roof, and it was a much more pleasant place to work. How did she do it?
    She had the school resource officer follow her around and when students or parents “gave her the business”, she had them handcuffed and taken to jail.
    Seemed to work quite well for our interesting clients.

  • Kathleen Thomas says:

    I’m curious about the 34 teachers who did not regain employment in this case study. What methodologies were they employing that the school decided were inappropriate? Is the issue with the teaching staff or the administration?
    If the teaching staff are complacent and are not trying to improve their students outcomes then shouldn’t the school attempt to re-train the teachers to motivate them to be better professionals.
    Dismissing a vast majority of staff sends an extremely negative message to the community and makes the new staff question their job security.
    It is wonderful to improve student outcomes, but the professional culture of the school should also be an area that gets examined.

  • Alice says:

    It is clear that this is a systems-centered approach framed by detailed and explicit communication of all stakeholders. What are the financial implications of this approach? Is there research that details the financial savings and expenditures for schools making these types of gains?

  • Kathy says:

    I feel it is awesome that the school changed so drastically in its performance, but there are still questions. It mentioned that teachers had time to collaborate. I was curious about where all this time for collaboration came from. I applaud the school for having the guts in order to make these changes.

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