Instructional effectiveness for turnaround schools: Rigor, relevance and relationships

03/21/2011  |  PETER DeWITT
School Performance

Turning Around Schools in Need

Many schools are in trouble today because they are not created equally. To prove that sad fact, you need only drive from a suburban school district to a rural or city district to see the differences. On a daily basis, many students come to school without supplies, and it is almost impossible to find a working phone number to contact parents, many of whom do not want to speak with you, even if you are lucky enough to reach them. Although this sad situation can be found elsewhere, the reality is that this scenario — and countless other inequalities — exist all too frequently.

Some parents, however, do want to help their children, but they do not always have the skills to know how. Those of us who teach in poor schools know all too well about the inequalities that take place; we do not have to go to the big cities in Kozol’s Savage Inequalities (1992) to see undernourished children whose realities are much different than the ones we go home to.

Social and economic disadvantage contributes in important ways to poor student achievement. Children in poor health attend quality schools less regularly. Those with inadequate housing change schools frequently, disrupting not only their own educations but also those of their classmates. Children whose parents are less literate and whose homes have less rich intellectual environments enter school already so far behind that they rarely can catch up. (Rothstein, 2008)

These schools do not need our criticism; they need our help. Schools are facing closures because of poor performance; the vicious cycle will only continue if we do not offer our services to help these at-risk school systems.

Fortunately, the federal government is offering Title I funds to these schools so they can turn themselves around, and in doing so, significantly impact the students who enter their doors on a daily basis. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act [ARRA] provided an additional $3.546 billion for School Improvement Grants (SIG) in FY 2009. This is an unprecedented sum with the potential to support implementation of the fundamental changes needed to turn around some of our lowest-achieving Title I schools, including high schools and their feeder schools, to implement robust and comprehensive reform, transform school culture, and increase student outcomes. Title I schools are separated into a Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 model. The definitions under SIG regulation are:

Tier 1: The lowest-achieving 5 percent of Title I schools in improvement, corrective action, or restructuring in a state, or the five lowest-performing Title I schools, whichever number is greater

Tier 2: Equally low-achieving secondary schools that are eligible for, but do not receive, Title I funds. The U.S. Secretary of Education proposes targeting some of these extremely low-achieving high schools and their feeder middle schools. There are close to 2,000 high schools in the country in which graduation is at best a 50/50 proposition. The U.S. Department of Education data indicates that fewer than half of these schools currently receive Title I Part A funds. If the provisions proposed become final, school districts would not be required to include Tier 2 schools in their proposals. However, including Tier 2 schools would enhance a school district’s likelihood for funding because states would be required to give priority to districts that commit to serving both Tier 2 and Tier 3 schools.

Tier 3: The remaining Title I schools in improvement, corrective action, or restructuring

The federal money, however, is not the end-all for these school systems; there is accountability that comes with all federal money, and turnaround schools need to prove that they are taking steps toward changing their practices. Under these new parameters, the International Center for Leadership in Education has taken on reform strategies in an impressive way. It has long recognized that every school is unique and that one-size-fits-all, theoretical, and imposed-from-above-solutions are less practical, less practicable, and less effective in guiding school improvement for raising achievement for ALL students than solutions that empower and furnish state, district, and school leadership with a wealth of working models of sustainable school improvement.

Since 1991, the International Center has worked with thousands of schools across the country, which gives them the advantage of seeing best practices in the best schools and then bringing those models to schools in need of improvement. Clearly, there are discrepancies in the amount of parental involvement, teacher effectiveness, and student academic ability that the leading schools achieve over the schools that are failing. Some students, for example, enter school with a vocabulary deficiency, which automatically puts them at a disadvantage. Schools do not have control over this sad reality because it happens at home.

On average, professional parents spoke over 2,000 words per hour to their children, working class parents spoke about 1,300, and welfare mothers spoke about 600. So by age 3, children of professionals had vocabularies that were nearly 50% greater than those of working-class children and twice as large as those of welfare children (Rothstein, 2004, p. 28).

The International Center helps bridge some of that gap for these schools in need of improvement. Through the use of consultants, the Rigor/Relevance Framework®, Quadrant D lessons, and the Learning Criteria to Support 21st Century Learners, the International Center helps these schools raise their student achievement and sustain improvement initiatives. Its professional development models assist schools in increasing teacher effectiveness by addressing leadership, standards, and the importance of data to drive decision making, among many other areas.

Model Behavior

Schools must take the responsibility to find new and innovative ways to improve student performance with increasingly fewer resources. As we at the International Center continue to look at schools throughout the nation, we have found some great examples of how schools have done just that (Daggett, 2010).

Many new teachers enter our school buildings, wide-eyed and excited about their first teaching job. They enter classrooms ready to establish rules and classroom activities that will actively engage students of any age. These new teachers do not have the experience behind them to see how schools have changed over the years, or even worse, how some schools have not changed at all.

Teaching is so much more than instruction; it is about your attitude when you enter the class on a daily basis. It is about your classroom management style and the environment you set. McNergney, et al. (2003) focuses on understanding students. “Good teachers learn about their students so they can challenge and support them” (p. 292). It sounds simple, but understanding students is not easy because many students grow up in environments that we cannot even imagine.

As new teachers form bonds with colleagues of various experience levels, they hear stories about the past and learn about new teaching techniques they can use in their classrooms. Sometimes, however, they learn about the dark side of teaching — where there are no positive comments and schoolwide negativity reigns. It is highly important that new teachers enter a mentoring relationship with positive teachers who can show them how to negotiate their way around the school system. The mentoring system is one of the most effective ways to build a cohesive relationship between teachers and administrators. And the International Center works as that mentor for thousands of teachers and administrators across the country.

Effective Education

Offering an effective education for all students is easily said, but not easily done. Teachers can find positive career growth by exploring many ways that they can learn on the job:

Perception. Start with perception. Perception is important because it encompasses not only what a teacher believes his or her job is, but also about how a teacher perceives students. This is very difficult for teachers whose schools need improvement because the perception is that those students who enter the school’s doors are not ready, willing, and able to learn. In reality, you can teach any student who walks into any classroom. Sometimes students come with more needs, e.g., special education, discipline issues, etc., and teachers need help with these students, but good teachers can still teach them every day. There will always be students who test a teacher’s patience, but they need our help. Their behavior may actually be a cry for help.

Professional development. In order to be a good teacher, we need to be engaged as a learner as much as students need to be engaged as learners. The following examples of professional development can give teachers the help they need to reach the hardest-to-reach students. Glickman (2003) states that the “development of teachers’ ability to think about what they do should be the aim of staff development” (p. 105).

Book clubs. Many educators read books in school-sponsored book clubs or at home during the summer. Implementing some of those ideas is an important intervention.

Inservice. The International Center offers professional development to give teachers the opportunity to learn new instructional techniques and time to share best practices.

Conferences. The biggest mistake people make when they go back to the classroom after a conference is to try to implement numerous ideas at once. Start by implementing just one good idea. The International Center’s conferences offer many quality breakout sessions, all presentations are online, and presenters are willing to communicate with attendees after the conference.

Mentoring. Good, positive veteran teachers can proactively teach you the pitfalls before you see them. They can also give you the best ways to negotiate your way through the school year and the school environment. Relationships with veteran teachers will help you become a better educator.

Common planning times. Does your school offer common planning times for teachers? If so, how is the common planning time being used? What conversations are taking place? Are colleagues sharing good information or just talking about difficult children in a negative way?

Interventions. Are teachers making use of the interventions taught to them? Are teachers doing it with integrity? Using interventions such as behavior charts or sensory motor activities means that teachers try them consistently over a period of time. Remember to give interventions the time they need.

Data. We have a wealth of data, e.g., TPRI (Texas Primary Reading Instrument), DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Literacy Skills), curriculum based-measures, etc. Many educators do not like data because it symbolizes that teacher input is not valued and administrators only care about numbers. The truth is that we need to care about both! We cannot just use data when it works in our favor; we also need to use it when it does not work for us because it may provide us with important information. If we approach data-driven decision making with an open mind, data can tell us when interventions are not working for our students.

Prep time. Use prep time wisely because it goes fast and there is never enough of it. The International Center can help teachers plan engaging lessons that will reach all types of learners.

Reflective practice. “Research is fairly conclusive that the successful teacher is a thoughtful teacher” (Glickman, 2003, p. 105). It can be a powerful feeling to leave each day, thinking about what went right and what needs improvement. Honest reflection means that teachers and administrators understand what went wrong during the day and know how to fix it. Also focus on what went right because teachers need to celebrate an effective lesson. Those are the lessons that make us realize how great it is to be a teacher.

Administrators. Yes, administrators should be held accountable as well. “When the principal sneezes, the whole school catches a cold. This is neither good nor bad; it is just the truth. Our impact is significant; our focus becomes the school’s focus” (Whitaker, 2003, p. 30). International Center consultants are former or present teachers and administrators at the building, district, or state level and therefore understand good instructional practices. The consultants know what good instruction looks like because they observe great practices and collect valuable ideas. The relationships we foster together will help build a better school community.

Quadrant D learning. The International Center focuses on leadership, effective teaching, standards and curriculum, often for turnaround schools, through the use of needs assessments and strategic planning. Ravitch (2010) asks, “Why is the curriculum important? It is a road map. Without a road map, you are sure to drive in circles and get nowhere” (p. 236). In Quadrant D learning, students move from Quadrant A (acquiring) to B (applying), C (assimilating), and finally to D (adapting the information they are learning). We all know that when students take ownership of their own learning it becomes more relevant for them — the ultimate goal of Quadrant D.

An Amazing Story of Success

The International Center’s impact on school systems is extensive. One of the greatest and latest examples happened in Pasadena, Texas. In partnership with the International Center, the Pasadena Independent School District multi-year project began with a thorough needs assessment, strategic planning, and clarification of its issues, expectations, and desired scope of work. A comprehensive and integrated implementation plan then guided the process of school reform and helped the district to turn itself around: 

2004-05: A Year of Analysis

The district spent one year studying the “why” of the need for change. Input was gathered from focus groups to establish a districtwide Expectation Graduation Team composed of representatives from all stakeholder groups. The Expectation Graduation Team analyzed survey results, focus group feedback, research on dropout initiatives, and the International Center’s characteristics of successful high schools. High schools created their own Expectation Graduation Task Forces, which included the feeder middle school principals and had International Center consultant support.

2005-06: A Year of Development

The International Center’s Chief Executive Officer Dr. Bill Daggett’s keynote presentations to all district teachers and administrators established the need for change and set the stage for the creation of a shared vision about the competencies students will need to be successful after graduation. The district leadership team developed a multi-year improvement plan with recommended processes for sustained improvement. Staff development was provided on the Rigor/Relevance Framework, academic teaming for data-driven instruction, and differentiated literacy strategies. Teachers designed high rigor/high relevance Quadrant D lessons. All high schools became members of the Successful Practices Network.

2006-07: A Year of Empowerment 

PreK-12 administrators participated in staff development on instructional leadership. An International Center consultant met with campus teams on a monthly basis to design, monitor, and evaluate progress. Dr. Daggett addressed all 9th graders on preparing for their future, and academic teaming and advisory periods were initiated.  An early start date was implemented for all freshmen at the larger high schools. Spring visitation opportunities prior to enrollment were held for both students and parents. Based on a review of achievement data, each campus developed three research-based instructional practices; examples include cooperative grouping, note-taking skills, and questioning skills.  A system to monitor the Expectation Graduation plans on a monthly basis was also implemented.

2007-08: A Year of Expansion 

Laser-like focus was given to research-based practices and literacy improvement strategies based on the previous year’s review of data. Administrators received walk-through classroom training. Academic teaming was expanded to grade 10. Data teams were established on each campus. As a result, teams now regularly review and report on periodic student assessments, attendance, discipline, and stretch learning. International Center President Ray McNulty addressed all district teachers and administrators on the impact of relationships. Teams of master teachers developed Quadrant D lessons. The International Center provided approximately 70 days of staff development, and planning began for the implementation of career academies in grades 11 and 12 for the following year.

2008-09: A Year of Refinement

The focus continued on research-based strategies with an emphasis on literacy: vocabulary development, critical reading/writing, writing to learn, and graphic organizers. Consultants provided intense campus training in instructional strategy development, instructional delivery, the gradual release model, walk-through data collection, and campus leadership. Careful monitoring of 9th graders at the end of each grading period was implemented, with intensive individualized interventions and mandatory parent conferences to discuss engagement, behavior, and school attendance, plus individual contracts and improvement plans for all struggling students. Initial team training occurred on the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) model in all five high school campuses as a means for engaging English language learners in the regular classroom. The programming phase for implementation of career academies began.

2009-10: A Year of Opportunity

The district began the year with a strategic planning process to set the course for continuous improvement.  A core group of district, campus, and community leaders assembled in early fall.  Teachers from across the district joined the team to develop strategies to address the action steps. The strategic plan serves as a roadmap for the district and will be implemented over the next five years. Other activities included: 

  • instructional leadership training for all administrators and instructional specialists on differentiated instruction in all classrooms 
  • continued growth of the gradual release model
  • developing Quadrant D moments
  • defining “smart” classrooms and allocating resources 
  • embedding relevant technology into classroom instruction
  • including the nationally recognized 16 career pathways for career and college planning
  • rewriting district benchmark tests for instructional specialists to do diagnostic assessments 
  • collaboration with local community colleges and universities to create a PreK-16 pathway 
  • continued expansion of the SIOP model on all high school campuses
The Pasadena Independent School District was a struggling school district that needed to turn itself around and sought help from the International Center. The graphs that follow show the dramatic improvement that the school district enjoyed over its six-year relationship with the Center.

The International Center has many examples of how it has helped schools turn themselves around, but perhaps Pasadena Superintendent Dr. Kirk Lewis says it best:

Our relationship with the International Center, which began as a simple 9th grade initiative, now focuses on systemic instructional improvements and innovations from PreK-12. Pasadena ISD continues to show strong gains in academic achievement, reduced failure rates, and improved student attendance … all with the intent of ensuring that more and more of our students are college- and work-ready graduates prepared and eager to take their place in the 21st century. The professional development provided by the consultants and the abundance of resources available through the International Center and the Successful Practices Network contribute to the daily improvements we see in classroom teaching, differentiated instruction, and the implementation of the Quadrant D lessons. With the International Center’s help, we have added depth to our instructional program and built internal capacity to sustain and implement all we have learned (International Center for Leadership in Education, 2008).

It’s the Relationship That Matters

Turning around failing schools is not an easy task. It takes hard work and commitment on the part of everyone in the school district. But it can be done. Too often, organizations come into a school district offering a “silver bullet” that will help change them overnight. Days, months, and years later, those same districts learn that there are no “silver bullets.” 

School reformers sometimes resemble the characters in Dr. Seuss’s Solla Sollew, who are always searching for that mythical land “where they never have troubles, at least very few.” Or like Dumbo, they are convinced they could fly if only they had a magical feather. In my writings, I have consistently warned that, in education there are no shortcuts, no utopias, and no silver bullets.  For certain, there are no magic feathers that enable elephants to fly (Ravitch, 2010, p. 3). 

The International Center for Leadership in Education has an outstanding reputation for helping struggling schools, and helping good schools become great schools. It has become uniquely qualified to help schools produce measurable gains in student achievement that epitomize sustainable school turnaround and improvement. The Center works like a conductor for a community of learners where everyone can learn from each other. During these stressful financial times when districts are experiencing declining enrollment and being pushed into changes they never saw coming, it is important to work with an organization that can both navigate and lead.  


Glickman, C. D.
Holding Sacred Ground. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003

International Center for Leadership in Education,
District of Excellence: Investing Wisely for Sustained Improvement. Rexford, NY, 2008

Kozol, J. Sa
vage Inequalities. New York City: Harper Perennial, 1992

McNergney, R. F., and McNergney, J.
Differentiated Instruction: A Guide for Elementary School Teachers. Boston: Pearson, 2003

Ravitch, D. T
he Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. New York: Basic Books, 2010

Rothstein, R.
‘A Nation At Risk’ Twenty-Five Years Later. Washington D.C.: Cato Unbound, 2008

Rothstein, R. “Class and Schools.” In R. Rothstein,
Class and Schools. New York: Teachers College Press, 2004

U.S. Department of Education.
Obama Administration Announces Historic Opportunity to Turn Around Nation's Lowest-Achieving Public Schools. Washington, D.C., 2009. Retrieved:

Whitaker, T.
What Great Principals Do Differently. Columbus, Ohio: Eye on Education, 2003

Peter DeWitt is the Principle of Poestenkill Elementary School in Averill Park, NY. He is also a consultant for the International Center for Leadership in Education. He can be found at
Comments & Ratings

  11/21/2011 10:41:40 AM
Wanda Asogwa 

Reading Specialist 
Thank you for the article, it was highly informative.