“Despite an intense national focus on school turnaround over the past decade or so, improvement efforts across the country have yielded mixed results,” says Carlas McCauley, Director of the Center on School Turnaround at WestEd.
“Educators and administrators have worked extremely hard to improve schools,” he says. “But we’ve generally seen ‘islands of excellence’ that lack cohesion and larger systems of support to sustain their efforts.” So, for instance, if a strong principal or leadership team left a school, it would often revert back to its previous practices and lose ground.
What was missing, says McCauley, was the full recognition that school improvement is more than just a school challenge. “At its heart, school turnaround is really a system challenge — starting with the belief that all kids can and will learn, given the right supports,” he says. Rapid improvement can be bolstered or stalled based on how effectively the entire system is operating together, from the state education agency to the districts and individual schools.
To support educators in creating cohesive systems that support school turnaround, WestEd, in collaboration with the Academic Development Institute and University of Virginia, developed Four Domains for Rapid School Improvement: A Systems Framework. This framework outlines four domains that research has shown to be central to rapid, significant, and sustainable school improvement: Turnaround Leadership, Talent Development, Instructional Transformation, and Culture Shift. Geared toward administrators and educators, the framework offers examples of how staff at each level of the system — state, district, and school — can implement strategic practices to address each of these critical domains.
McCauley notes that the framework is not prescriptive, and the domains and practices are not intended to be approached in a linear, step-by-step manner. “As a state, district, or school leader, you have to decide which needs and priorities are most important for your unique situation.” He notes that many administrators have gravitated toward the Culture Shift domain, saying that it is critical but hasn’t gotten the attention in the past that is needed.
“Implemented effectively,” the framework states, “the practices in the framework should not only help students assigned to failing schools, but, by creating a system that better supports students in these schools, should have a cascading effect that improves the ecosystem of all schools.”
Helping states hone their turnaround efforts
WestEd, through the former Center on School Turnaround at WestEd and its Regional Comprehensive Centers, has been working closely with states to help them use the framework to rethink and improve their systems of support for school improvement through activities that include hosting a summer 2017 kickoff meeting, establishing a state-level community of practice, and piloting an instructional transformation academy. Since its release in 2017, more than 20 states have begun working with the framework to bolster their turnaround efforts. The four domains are also helping states maximize and tailor their ESSA plans, says McCauley, “but the overarching strategy is to improve the lowest-performing schools and help all kids learn — a concern that predated ESSA.”
Feedback from states has been overwhelmingly positive, says Lenay Dunn, Assistant Director of the Center on School Turnaround at WestEd. “The whole conversation [around school turnaround] has more traction because more people are hearing it,” reports one state leader.
Fostering systemwide coherence
Four Domains for Rapid School Improvement is a multifaceted, interconnected approach to school improvement, explains McCauley. “It provides a way to build capacity and create a common language across a state’s entire education ecosystem.”
Mississippi is currently using the framework as it prepares to deploy its statewide system of support for the next set of schools identified for improvement under ESSA. By taking the kind of systemwide approach outlined in the framework, school improvement is becoming the work of the whole state education agency, not just the office that carries the title, says Sonja Robertson, Executive Director of the Office of School Improvement at the Mississippi Department of Education. “We can also now better envision the connection between the work happening at the state level all the way down to the school level,” says Robertson.
Focusing and realigning efforts
The many elements of school turnaround can be overwhelming, says Dunn, but “the four domains are a way to distill all that information and give states a more focused approach.” Although the framework offers some new information, she adds, it also reorganizes, reinforces, and makes sense of past efforts.
That sort of synthesis and simplification, says Robertson, has made it possible for Mississippi to fit the eight primary school-improvement principles it has worked with in the past into the four domains — “more a realignment of our school-improvement approach than a reinvention of the wheel.”
Utah has also used the framework to focus the state’s school-improvement efforts, says Rebecca Donaldson, Federal and Special Programs Coordinator at the Utah State Board of Education: “In the past, we had tools and processes and we collected quantitative and qualitative data, but we lacked a framework to guide the work — to help us prioritize and develop goals, milestones, and targets.” She notes that Utah is now looking at meshing its state leadership standards with the four domains and has recently introduced the framework to all district Title 1 directors across the state.
Creating and adapting tools
While working closely with WestEd staff, Utah has adopted the framework across the state agency for its school-improvement work, says Dunn. It is now in the process of rolling it out to a broader audience, including creating tools for districts around the four domains.
“We’ve developed needs assessments for schools and a planning template that blends the four domains with strategic performance management,” says Donaldson. Still to be developed are tools for school-improvement implementation, monitoring, and evaluation.
Donaldson and colleagues recently met with a group piloting these tools in Utah schools. “We received outstanding in-depth feedback about what’s working and how we can improve the tools and the process,” she says. For example, one concern expressed was whether the framework would work as well with charter schools as it does with traditional schools, which have the benefit of district leadership.
Supporting transition to the four domains
The Center on School Turnaround plans to continue to lead communities of practice and workshops, offer guidance, and collect and share best practices in ways that will support states as they make the transition to the four domains, says McCauley. And, in addition to the four domains framework, the Center will continue to provide online tools and resources to help make the work more concrete. The Engagement Playbook: A Toolkit for Engaging Stakeholders Around the Four Domains of Rapid School Improvement, for instance, shows how to do this systemic school-improvement work in a way that doesn’t feel top down, says McCauley. Four Domains for Rapid School Improvement: Indicators of Effective Practice provides ways to assess what effective implementation looks like at all levels, says Dunn. WestEd’s Regional Comprehensive Centers are also continuing to offer intensive state-level support, including the former Mid-Atlantic Comprehensive Center assisting Delaware and Maryland in using the framework to provide technical assistance for schools identified for comprehensive or targeted improvement.
Like any systemic effort, notes McCauley, it’s important to have realistic expectations about the significant commitment that’s required from all stakeholders. “There are no magic bullets,” he says. “It takes time and patience to build internal capacity and infrastructure, and to create the types of learning needed to foster successful school turnaround.”
Donaldson offers similar advice to those launching work with the four domains: Don’t underestimate how much time it will take. “Decide how much time you think the job will take, and then double that.”
McCauley stresses that, throughout all the time and hard work, it’s important to keep the end goal in mind. “All of this work is ultimately about equity — improving our schools so we can give every student access to a high-quality education.”
The development of the Four Domains was supported by the Center on School Turnaround through funding from the U.S. Department of Education.