Photo: Students at Sugarland Elementary in Virginia. The school went from being one of the bottom 300 performing schools in the state of Florida to being named a 2019 Model School. Read the school's story here. (Courtesy of Bay District Schools)
I have spent my career analyzing the practices of schools nationwide. The most rapidly improving schools—the ones that are successfully tackling the toughest challenges and effecting significant and documented change—tell a consistent and powerful story. Here are five central and foundational characteristics.
1. They are future focused, rather than forward focused.
In forward-focused school districts, decisions for a new school year are made around the staffing, budget, and curriculum already in place, which leaves no room in plans or budget for the innovation our schools need. The nation’s most rapidly improving schools, however, are “future focused,” meaning that they look to the future world in which their students will live and work and start planning there. They put stakes in the ground three, five, and even eight years out, and ask, “What will our students need to know, need to do, need to be like, to succeed in that future world?”
Once they answer that question, they work diligently to identify what must happen in their schools and classrooms now, soon, and as they approach each of those staked out future points to prepare their students for success. Lastly, they plan in detail the near-term changes that will put them on the path to their students’ future success. These schools plan backward from the school’s desired future instead of inching forward from the past.
2. They focus on students first.
In the most successful schools, content takes a back seat to students. Their educators understand that students themselves are changing far more rapidly than the content. Students today have technology in hand from birth. They learn differently from how we did, and their expectations for learning are different from what ours were. They are children in a world different from the one we were children in, one characterized by broad diversity and, in many cases, severe socioeconomic challenges.
Meeting students’ needs as their environment changes is priority number one at these rapidly improving schools. Their leaders understand that the traditional ways that schools and teachers are currently regulated, certified, tenured, and contracted around content-acquisition is fast losing relevance. They see that focusing on content first means focusing on students last—which leads schools down a failing path. The most highly successful schools find ways to reverse priority and put students first.
3. They use a growth model rather than a proficiency model.
In a proficiency model, 30 third graders show up on day one of school, each at dramatically different levels of achievement. Some are at grade level and others are below or above. They vary in how they learn and in their interests. They will each have different, unpredictable circumstances arise during the school year. However, by the last day of third grade, we expect them all to arrive at the exact same place of proficiency, as measured by one test, so that they can start fourth grade from the right place. Rapidly improving schools see the lunacy of the proficiency model and reject it. They understand that measuring learning by the passage of time does not work now, if it ever did. Rather, these schools embrace the growth model. They start by analyzing where each student is on day one. Then, using their available time and resources effectively, they continually adjust their plan based on individual development, bringing each student as far up a learning arc as possible. Many of these schools have studied their special education teachers’ expertise in supporting student success using individualized instruction and a growth model, to generalize those practices among all teachers for the benefit of every student.
4. They use rigorous and relevant instructional practices.
Educators at these rapidly improving schools understand this: to be future-focused, to always keep students at the center, and to achieve growth for all students, instructional practice must be rigorous and relevant. They get students to think deeply. They assign learning tasks that are tied to the real world and student interests so that students gain skills and insights valuable to future careers. If you are familiar with the Rigor/Relevance Framework®, rapidly improving schools ensure much of their instruction falls within Quadrant D—high rigor, high relevance.