Going Beyond the Surface to Improve Public Schools

By: Natalie Vang

[This blog is part of a series of blogs where Stockton fellows are researching ways to improve underperforming schools. You get to learn right next to them. Leace your thoughts in the comments.]

As a student, I am frequently adjusting to change at school. Teacher changes, curriculum shifts, and modifications to school operations are often challenging to get used to. Change is hard, but I acknowledge that it is necessary for school improvement. I’d welcome adjustments to what students are taught and reconsidering how and where instruction is delivered. My desire to see transformation in these areas is strong; however, I often struggle to locate appropriate resources that would equip me with the knowledge and tools needed to take actions to address these matters.

As a developing education researcher, I’ve experienced ups and downs. I often hit roadblocks and am left with more questions than answers. Yet I continue forward. Schools play a vital role in students’ lives — it’s where they learn, grow, and build the foundation for who they are. As such, there is a duty to ensure schools serve students well. Answers must exist somewhere.

My curiosity has led me to consider the strategies used by school districts and others to improve schools. After reading articles, I better understand existing perspectives and have begun to think through ways to apply those ideas to bring change to my school. In particular, I’ve evaluated the usefulness of turnaround and new school strategies.

Turnaround strategies focus on improving existing schools that are working for the community. There are three strategies used in the turnaround model. The first would be a school reset, in which current staff is evaluated to ensure the site has a high-quality team. The second turnaround strategy is to create innovation zones, in which schools in designated areas receive additional funds to support their site needs. The third and last turnaround strategy is to transform the site into a public charter school. Doing so would allow for new financial investment for the site and an opportunity to make staff adjustments where necessary. In this regard, the charter school option combines all three turnaround school approaches.

New school strategies (as the name suggests) differ from turnaround strategies because it focuses on physically creating a new school from the ground up. In doing so, the district faces the tough decision of whether to close the existing community school in favor of establishing a new school elsewhere.

Turnaround and new school strategies are surface-level “solutions” that fail to address root causes. Instead of focusing on tearing down a school or changing it completely, districts should take the time to address teacher effectiveness and motivation. The teachers are critically important. They help students develop the tools they need to grow and prosper and must be held to a high standard. We should actively look for teachers who have a passion for their work, approach their jobs with curiosity, and strive to improve on behalf of their students continuously. Additionally, teachers should be able to develop a positive teacher-student connection. Positive relationships coupled with an engaging curriculum could help motivate student learning, thus setting the conditions for student and teacher success.

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