What States Can Do – Part III: Improving Our Schools

There is nothing more important for a nation's future, for its long term security and for opportunities for its citizens, than the health of its schools and the quality of education they offer.

Visiting New York in 2010, I was deeply impressed with the work of John Schnur and his team at the New Leaders for New Schools initiative. John is one of America's leading thinkers on improving school outcomes. He was a key adviser on education to Barack Obama both before and after his election as President. John led the development of the $4 billion Race to the Top program where Federal funds are used as a carrot to reward states that positively reform their education systems to get better outcomes from schools.

As in most worthwhile endeavours, success in schools is in most part due to leadership. We all know personally that individual teachers can have a profound impact on learning for students. But to keep doing better year after year, Schnur argues that effective principal leadership is by far the most important component of success, particularly for schools with low test scores and high poverty rates. He cites many examples of how previously poor performing schools had been ‘turned around’ quite quickly following a change to a better principal. I was told, for instance, about an elementary school in Baltimore where only 45% of its students met the basic standards of proficiency in math. Within two years, a high performing principal had boosted that result to 88% and is working on plans to ensure that 100% of her students make the grade.

New Leaders runs seminars that focus on diagnosis, data, instructional improvement, personal leadership, teams and school culture. Courses are taught by leading experts and ‘master principals’. There is also hands on training through one year paid, full time internships in an urban school, enabling teachers to work alongside outstanding principals who have turned around schools in disadvantaged areas. When these new leaders become principals they are given ongoing mentoring and support to help them get the best possible results. Research has shown that New Leader schools are twice as likely to have significantly improved student test scores compared with other schools, and with a lower drop out rate.

In South Australia, one area of real concern for us as a new government in 2002 was that there had been a serious drop in the school retention rate during the 1990s compared with the previous decade. We were concerned that by not completing their schooling, young people weren't just dropping out of school but dropping out of any real chance of securing meaningful careers. There is also a massive social as well as personal cost with declining retention rates linked to crime, drug and alcohol abuse as well as higher unemployment rates.

Coming up with an effective way of reversing increased dropout rates was an early reference to the State Government’s Social Inclusion Initiative. It was clear that a 'one size fits all' approach was deemed useless. So we looked at more targeted ways of re-engaging with those young people most at risk of dropping out of school or who had already done so. The method that was adopted is now being hailed in Australia and internationally as a 'best practice' social innovation which puts the local community at the centre of decision making.

Our program is formally known as the "Innovative Community Action Networks" but is more commonly know as ICAN. An ICAN is a local partnership that is given both the power and the resources to help tackle issues that contribute to young people dropping out of their education. Each local ICAN is quite different in its approach and in its membership, which in addition to the State funded ICAN Manager can also include parents, local police, Aboriginal youth workers, teachers, student councillors, NGOs and youth advisers. The key to ICANs success is recognising the complexity of needs each young person is facing and addressing those needs through an individualised case management approach. It involves community action that is flexible and innovative in helping young people at risk to re-engage with learning. Successful strategies draw upon the interests, strengths and aspirations of the young people themselves. They are given a voice and asked what they want and need to help them achieve their goals. It’s about a ‘tailor made’ curriculum which, at the same time, embraces a broader view of learning with pathways forward to further education and real jobs.

So, how does it work?

One ICAN developed a specific program for young, teenage mothers who had dropped out of school and were living isolated and often impoverished lives, with part time or casual employment such as working in a take-away or as a cleaner. This ICAN purchased a bus to pick up the young mums and take them to school where on-site child care was available to allow the students to be close to their children, who were often babies. An ICAN Case Manager helps each student with an individual learning plan focussed on their goals. Apart from accredited classes to assist them to complete their schooling these young mothers also received tailored lessons around parenting skills, such as budget management, nutrition and resume writing. Importantly, case managers assist their students to stay on course with their education, helping them to deal with challenges so that they are not distracted from their studies.

It is important to stress that each ICAN can differ so that it can be a better fit for local and individual needs, cultures and circumstances. However, personal case management sits at the heart of the ICAN approach. Outcomes are closely monitored and program evaluation occurs regularly.

So what are the outcomes? Between 2004 and 2010 more than 9,000 teenage students were involved in ICAN, with the program achieving more than a 70% success rate. This means that more than 6,000 students, who would have otherwise left school, are learning and earning. By 2010, South Australia recorded a school retention rate of 84.2% - an increase from a low of 67.2% in 1999.

Another policy initiative that has proven very effective is the Premier’s Reading Challenge, which borrowed ideas from similar literacy initiatives around Australia and from the United States. In South Australia, our Reading Challenge has been embraced by more than 95% of our public, private and religious schools. I am told it has the highest participation of any reading initiative in the world. The Challenge involves students from the age of five until 14 reading a minimum of 12 books (but often many more) upon which they are tested for comprehension. If they successfully complete the program each student receives a signed certificate from the Premier in the first year, a bronze medal in the second year, then silver, then gold followed by "Legend" and "Hall of Fame" etc. Top sports stars, celebrities and children's authors go out to schools as Premier's Reading Challenge Ambassadors to promote the program and read to the students.

There is no doubt that the medals presented in end of year ceremonies in the schools plus the Ambassadors have played a major role in the success and extraordinary popularity of the Reading Challenge. At first the younger children love the idea of the medals but then they fall in love with the books! Because of our concerns about childhood obesity we established a similar program, the Premier's Be Active Challenge, to encourage fitness and have banned junk food from school canteens.

This Blog was published on the Center for National Policy website.

Mike Rann is Fellow for Democracy and Development with the Center for National Policy, Washington, D.C.