Nan Austin

How to turn around flailing schools (hint: it takes wanting to change)

Why do a few schools excel, even with challenging kids, while so many others struggle?

That is the billion-dollar question.

How do we make school work for all kids? The studious souls and the class clowns. Those with devoted families and those with difficult lives. The zoom-aheaders and those lugging disabilities or learning English. Every shade of brown and black and peach.

There is no single silver bullet or secret sauce, but there are common threads, said Joe Johnson, who has visited more than 100 of these exceptional schools – the unicorns among 100,000 public campuses nationwide. He spoke last week at California State University, Stanislaus, at an event hosted by the College of Education, Kinesiology and Social Work.

One administrator acting alone is not enough, he fearlessly told a room full of doctoral students in education and school district superintendents.

“You can have kick-butt leaders,” he said. “But we never see that lasting and we never see that reaching the level of improvement we see in these schools.”

Ongoing excellence takes leaders who can pull together teams and reinvent an institution following what the data says works for kids, said Johnson, dean of the San Diego State University College of Education and head of the National Center for Urban School Transformation.

On the wall, he projected his favorite quote: “Every system is perfectly designed to achieve the results it gets,” attributed to Paul Batalden.

For all those slogging along in the trenches, working so hard doing what has always been done, Johnson’s message held little comfort. But he did offer hope.

“I am convinced that 99 percent of teacher care. But that’s not the issue. The issue is, do students perceive that we care?” Johnson said. Talking to the kids at highly successful schools, he heard the same themes across all groups. “This is a place where the adults care about me. My teacher believes I can be successful,” he said. “That influences their performance. That influences whether or not they show up.”

A culture of positive transformation undergirds change that lasts, he told the packed room, warning against top-down, compliance-driven shifts. The new normal has to come from focusing on what works, and a coherence of mission and method.

“Culture matters,” Johnson said. “If the culture of the school remains the same, you’re not going to get those changes you want to see.”

That includes having principals who make teachers feel capable and valued, too. “They feel supported,” he said. “There isn’t the us vs. them mentality that you see in so many schools.”

All that pairs with engaging lessons and across-the-board high expectations.

“We see dramatically fewer worksheets than we see in typical schools,” he noted. “Why? Because they are boring. Sometimes I go into these classrooms and I force myself to stay – in solidarity with the kids. ... You and I would fall asleep doing that worksheet.”

Lessons need to be set up so that most kids will get the picture in the first pass. “We’ve got great systems set up for remediation – you’ve got to fail first before we’re going to give you the good stuff!” he said. The best lessons build in strategies to help the stragglers along and also challenge those ready for more.

How does Johnson define success for schools? His center looks for low-wealth schools with consistently high achievement, strong attendance, low suspensions and lots of kids in advanced courses – across all demographics. That last is the hardest part.

“You have to believe success is possible for the kids that you have,” he said.

“Attacking this notion that there is this population of kids that can’t. That’s what we see happening in these very successful schools.”

UPDATE: The Iron Patriots, Beyer High’s robotics team, profiled in the Bee as they advanced to the World Championships in Houston, Texas, through a winning alliance with two other teams, finished 136th out of the 402 teams competing.

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin