The Lawrence Turnaround

For decades, school leaders, education thinkers, and policymakers have endeavored to figure out exactly what it takes to turn around a struggling district. What are the conditions necessary to take a district mired in poor performance and, worse, lacking the vision and the will to break free from the status quo to one that is forward-thinking and executes on a meaningful plan to lift student performance? Even the question makes the task seem nearly impossible.

But the world is, thankfully, full of people doing seemingly impossible things. In an editorial today, the New York Times calls attention to Lawrence, Massachusetts as a district that is on track to turn itself around and give lie to the notion that chronically underperforming districts are doomed to stay that way.

Just three years ago, Lawrence was taken over by the state because of persistent low student achievement and an apparent lack of capacity to improve on its own. As the editorial puts it, “many school officials had come to believe that dismal results were the best that they could do.”  Fast forward three years and, under the stewardship of former Edwards Middle School principal (a pioneering MA ELT Initiative school) Jeff Riley, Lawrence has boosted its graduation rate by some 15 points, raised test scores, and turned so many of its schools into exemplars of practice.

So, how did Riley and the many educators in Lawrence manage to make this transformation?  The editorial lists a few key elements:

[Riley] replaced more than a third of the district’s principals right away. He also pushed out the least effective teachers — about 8 percent of the teacher corps — and cut the central office bureaucracy by about a third, transferring the savings to the schools. He created leadership roles and awards of recognition for excellent teachers and devised a system for continuously moving poor performers out of the district.

Meanwhile, he lengthened the school day in grades K through 8; created programs to provide still more instruction time for struggling students; and developed a dropout prevention effort that actively seeks out at-risk students before they cut their ties to school. Most interesting, the system brought in charter school operators to take charge of some the lowest-performing schools on the condition that they accept students from the neighborhood instead of filling seats through a lottery.

All of these steps are essential and emphasize that there is no one answer to a range of problems, but rather the consolidated, coordinated effort of many different components that will ultimately generate deep change.

Yet, I did want to call special attention to a piece of the turnaround story that is missing from the editorial, but which, to my mind, might actually underlie all of these others. Quite simply, Lawrence has become a true learning community. School leaders and whole faculties have committed themselves to learning from each other within their own buildings and from schools down the street on how to take where they are now—the instruction, the schedule, the partnerships with external organizations, the ways to connect with families—and make it better. Put another way, Lawrence has de-privatized practice installed a system and network of people committed to continuous growth.

Just one example to illustrate the point, and one in which NCTL proudly plays a role. Last year, NCTL released a video on teacher collaboration (in connection with our Time for Teachers report) that walks through the steps to create an effective session of planning lessons together. A Lawrence elementary school was inspired by the video, not only to adopt the highlighted routines, but also to create a video of its own teacher collaboration meetings. It then shared those two videos with many other elementary schools in Lawrence and soon schools all over the district were working really hard to make their teacher collaboration even more effective.  And, as NCTL has written many times, better teacher collaboration—professional learning opportunities that are made possible by expanding the schedule, by the way—is the engine that drives better instruction and, then, improved student performance.

No one is claiming “mission accomplished” here. As the Times editorial states, “Lawrence clearly has a long way to go.” But, unlike in years past when too many Lawrence educators did not have avenues to implement new and innovative educational approaches, they have now been empowered by the district leadership to leverage their profound dedication to both the idea and the practice of continuous improvement. Every day, they are moving closer to the goal of providing all the families and children of Lawrence with the high-quality schools they deserve.