Good schools can be great schools if administrators and teachers focus in part on best practices, common elements for instruction, and strategies to help all students learn, according to Dr. Tim R. Westerberg. Included: Tips for jump-starting school reform.
Former high school principal Dr. Tim R. Westerberg realized during his years as an administrator that some schools are considered good simply because they have a good location. While Littleton High School in Littleton, Colorado, where he served as principal for 20 years was good when he arrived, Westerberg wanted it to be better. In an effort to help all high schools be not just good, but great, Westerberg wrote, Becoming a Great High School: 6 Strategies and 1 Attitude That Make a Difference, to share what he learned.
Westerberg currently serves as the president of The Alliance for Quality Teaching and also is the author of Creating the High Schools of Our Choice, a principal’s perspective on the realities of high school reform.
Education World: What prompted you to write Becoming a Great High School?
Dr. Tim R. Westerberg: Two things. First, I came to the realization early in my career that there are a lot of high schools in this country that by traditional measures are good schools but that still can and need to improve. By good I mean that they score comparatively well on state tests, have a goodly number of students who receive passing scores on Advanced Placement tests, send a majority of graduates off to college, and enjoy the support of their respective communities.
Those are high schools similar to the suburban high school in which I served as principal for 20 years; they are good schools by virtue of their zip codes. That is, they get the results you would predict they would get just by looking at the demographics. Great high schools, on the other hand, get extraordinary results out of a rather ordinary collection of students. The challenge at Littleton High School was never to be just another good south suburban Denver area high school. There are literally dozens of those. The challenge was and continues to be to identify and implement the strategies and develop the culture that characterizes great schools -- schools that consistently get results that defy predictions.
The second thing that prompted me to write that book was the realization that the problem isn't that high school leaders don't know that schools need to improve, but rather that they don't know what to do and where to begin. High school principals and teachers tell me they are overwhelmed by the abundance of school improvement research, suggestions, programs, and initiatives that bombard them every day. [They ask themselves] "How do I move my school forward without falling victim to ‘the reform of the day’ leadership?" My goal was to create a model that integrates research-based strategies into a unified whole that provides direction and coherence to school improvement efforts.
The research for this book focused on the characteristics great schools have in common. What I found is that schools that exceed expectations -- as well as those that are making significant improvement from a base of overall poor performance -- engage in the extensive practice of six research-informed instructional strategies and develop a culture that communicates high expectations and support for all students. Those strategies and that culture form the 6 + 1 school improvement framework.
EW: In your book you talk about addressing “curriculum anarchy.” What are some of your solutions for curriculum anarchy?
Westerberg: Time should be provided for teachers to get together at the course or department level on a regular basis to identify big-picture course learning goals, rubrics, or scoring guides that delineate expected student performance standards; that is, what good work looks like for each goal, and common assessment items or tasks that evaluate student performance vis-à-vis key elements of each rubric. In great high schools the identified goals and performance standards are not optional but rather constitute the guaranteed curriculum for each course offered at the school, no matter who teaches it.
EW: You also recommend eliminating tracks in high school. Why is that?
Westerberg: Strictly speaking I'm not recommending the elimination of all tracks, just dead-end tracks. Remedial and general tracks are dead-end tracks in that they neither prepare students for success in post-secondary education or 21st century careers. Legitimate college prep and 21st-century career and technology tracks prepare students to continue their education after high school without remediation and for meaningful employment. Those are the only two tracks available to students in great high schools. And research suggests that students who participate in both college prep and career and technology classes in high school perform best in college.
EW: What are the biggest obstacles to changing how high schools -- and other schools -- are arranged and function?
Westerberg: Great schools focus extensively on instruction, and many high schools are not set up for that. Teachers work largely in isolation, and professionalism is defined as the freedom for individual teachers to determine what they teach, how they teach, and sometimes even who they teach; that is, senior teachers teaching only upper-level courses, for example. Collective in-depth analysis of best-practices is rare. In addition, most high schools have not adopted and internalized what Robert Marzano and others refer to as a language of instruction. Teachers and administrators in those schools couldn't talk about instruction even if the school culture permitted it because they don't share a common instructional language. Schools without a focus on instruction, a collaborative culture, and a language of instruction will never be great schools. Instead, instruction in those schools will vary considerably from classroom to classroom with the quality of instruction a student receives depending upon the teacher with whom the computer schedules the student.
“Schools without a focus on instruction, a collaborative culture, and a language of instruction will never be great schools.”
EW: What are some simple changes principals can institute to jump-start reform?
Westerberg: Principals should begin by asking teachers four related questions: 1. What are you trying to accomplish; that is, what are your goals? 2. How are your students doing? [a formative assessment question] 3. How do you know? That is, how are you tracking progress? 4. What are you doing for those who are struggling? [Is there timely intervention?]
Those questions often serve to jump-start school improvement.
The school culture needs ongoing monitoring and development. If student behavior is out of control or if the school culture is characterized by teacher isolation and low expectations, significant improvement in the quality of classroom instruction simply isn't possible. Beyond that, I recommend principals begin the school improvement process by engaging course-level groups of teachers in clarifying learning goals. That may seem on the surface unnecessary in today's standards-based environment, but I've found that teachers and students often focus solely on learning activities and are largely unaware of or unconcerned about what students are supposed to be learning. The research on the power of clear instructional goals and effective feedback to students and teachers on those goals is convincing, and the strategies in the 6 + 1 model build on a foundation of clear learning goals. It makes intuitive sense that the choice of instructional strategies, as well as effective feedback, tracking student progress, timely intervention, and celebrating success require a clear and transparent understanding of the goals of instruction.
EW: What are some strategies to enlist staff support?
“In great high schools the identified goals and performance standards are not optional but rather constitute the guaranteed curriculum for each course offered at the school, no matter who teaches it.”
Westerberg: No rational being would enthusiastically engage in work that is difficult and unsettling, absent clear and compelling reasons to do so. Staff support therefore requires clear, compelling, school-centered, student-based reasons for change. Too often teachers are asked to divert scarce financial and human resources to initiatives that are faddish, are not aligned with identified student needs, or do not complement other initiatives already underway at the school. Extensive implementation of a few researched-based coordinated initiatives aligned with identified student needs beats superficial implementation of the fad of the year. Of course teachers must also receive reasonable assurances that they will be provided with the resources, including time and training, needed to successfully implement the change being proposed.
EW: Do you think it is inevitable that the way school systems operate and teachers teach will change? Why or why not?
Westerberg: Yes. The forces of change are legion and powerful. Technology, the global job market, school choice, student expectations, political pressures, and significant advancements in what we know about how kids learn -- the science of teaching -- are among the forces that make changes in how schools operate and how teachers teach inevitable. Those high schools and high school teachers that do not respond to those forces will not stay in business.