Times Op Ed 2

(This article is the submitted version of an Op Ed published Dec 31 2009 in the Trenton Times.)

Turning Around Failing Schools: What Works

In a November 29 Times article we described the failing record of Trenton Central High School (TCHS), especially its low achievement and high dropout rate. We also pointed to examples of schools that have succeeded at raising student achievement and reducing the dropout rate in communities similar to Trenton.

In this article we address the question: “What policies and programs have successful schools used?” The answer involves major changes in both the curriculum and the structure of troubled schools, and we deal with these separately.

Curriculum Change

Central to school improvement is recognizing that many students enter school with severe deficiencies in the knowledge, skills and habits needed for academic achievement. They need a curriculum – content, sequence, methods -- that differs greatly from what is provided to students who are better prepared to learn. Successful curricula in these cases emphasize major changes:

Intensive reading, writing and math instruction. Very little education can take place among children who cannot read, and each step in mathematics requires mastery of previous steps. It is not surprising that successful schools emphasize these core subjects for underachieving students. Every year that these intensive efforts are delayed, from primary grades on, makes success more difficult.

Extensive tutoring. Extreme reading and writing deficiencies call for intensive tutoring, usually on a daily basis, over a lengthy period and by trained specialists. A tutoring program that shows good results is “Response To Intervention,” led by specialists trained in small group tutoring who use frequent assessment to guide instruction. Entering students are evaluated and those below a specific standard receive intensive small group tutoring for at least half the day until they can rejoin the mainstream.

Extended instructional hours and days. Longer school days, daily homework, and a longer school year are the rule in schools that show remarkable gains in achievement for disadvantaged youngsters. Nationwide, the 70 KIPP schools (Knowledge Is Power Program) and numerous New Jersey charter schools exemplify this practice. The increased teaching time—as much as 60 percent – accounts for a large measure of these schools success.

Outreach to parents. Successful schools in all types of communities rely on parental support. This includes interviews with parents in which the goals, methods and needs of the child are explained and parents are enlisted in supporting the process.


Just as curriculum change addresses the needs and difficulties facing students, restructuring addresses the needs and difficulties facing the organization at both school and district level. Successful structural changes have included:

New School Leadership. Here a lesson is taken from the corporate sector where competition improves outcomes: this sector emphasizes leadership change and rewards those with a track record of turning around failing operations. Leadership in schools is critical not only for implementing curriculum change but for setting the tone of behavior and respect that are essential for learning. Principals and superintendents with a track record of successful turnarounds are of great value.

Charter Schools. Charter schools—chartered by the State Department of Education— are responsible directly to the state. As such, they are able to address problems without the rigidity of practices and personnel that sometimes plagues established district organizations. The earliest charter schools struggled with new practices and a large number did not survive. The successful charters—like North Star Academy and Robert Treat in Newark— have shown remarkable improvements in student achievement and graduation rates and now serve as models for new charters. One-half of California’s 383 charter schools were converted from existing schools. States are also turning to operators of large charter school systems with strong track records – Green Dot Schools, Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), Achievement First, and others. Increasingly, reviews of charter schools show improved student achievement.

Alternative schools. These public schools employ a structure based on individual student interests. MetEast in Camden, for example, is part of the network of 60 Big Picture schools in which students intern in community businesses and associations for some 40 percent of the school week. Big Picture schools already show considerable success in improving high school graduation rates. Similarly, magnet schools are district schools that specialize in a particular subject like science or the arts. They enroll students who display an aptitude for the schools’ specializations, and who accept the demands of a rigorous curriculum.

Vouchers and state scholarships. Providing students with the funding necessary to attend out-of-district public or private schools is another alternative to failing local schools. The successful program in Milwaukee is the prime example of this approach.

Finally, in virtually all cases of successful inner-city schools, gains can be traced to

  1. an orderly school atmosphere

  2. laser-like focus on course content and skill development that is buttressed by

  3. daily homework, and increased instructional hours and days.

In our next Times article we will spell out changes specific to the needs of Trenton in bringing about major improvements in its students’ achievement and graduation rate.


Further descriptions of 30 successful schools and districts are in Schools that Succeed, Students Who Achieve: Profiles of Programs Helping All Students to Learn by James Deneen, (Rowan and Littlefield, December 2009.)

A website with further information on these articles can be found at:


Dr. James Deneen was a teacher and school administrator before joining Educational Testing Service as a program director. He is the author of several books on curriculum and assessment.

Dr. Carmen Catanese was most recently Executive Vice-President of the Sarnoff Corporation.