A LYS Principal submits:
I have noted the characteristics of two types of dysfunctional schools. There are probably more types, but these are the two I have experience with. It is interesting that campuses from opposite sides of the state can have nothing in common, except their dysfunction.
The Bad School
The faculty does not hate the kids. Due to leadership issues, adults are not doing their work. The school has limped by for years until finally accountability has caught up with lazy practice. The faculty has choices in employment. There are nearby districts with available jobs, most of which pay more than they are currently making.
These schools are relatively easy to fix. Getting to people to teach will quickly fix most of the problems. Getting to “recognized” only requires a bit more effort and system discipline (Cain’s Foundation Trinity). With focused leadership and a few bumps along the way, things improve. As long as the superintendent stays committed, this type of school should be back to the business serving all students within six to eighteen months.
The Nightmare School
The faculty hates a significant population of the kids. They find reasons not to teach “those” kids. Leadership allows this. As a whole, the faculty agrees that the hated group can’t be or shouldn’t be taught. Quite possibly, there are a number of teachers here that understand their craft, so training is not the issue. They know what to do, or at least they have been exposed to best practices. But they purposefully reject basic professionalism and best practice.
They hate the kids and are miserable people, but they don’t move on because they only have X# more years to go until retirement. So they stay on. The faculty defends each other and this system through community misinformation, poisonous attitudes towards administration, and/or a union. In nightmare schools, identify this source of protection as soon as possible. For the school to descend to these depths requires a type of formal or informal faculty protection that prior leadership perceived as formidable.
Unfortunately for leadership there are only two options here: make change and fight through the protection using the direct action approach. OR leadership can try to erode the protection and then gradually make change. The problem with the erosion option is that very few leaders stick around or survive long enough for the erosion approach to work. With a two year contract and a strong superintendent, the direct action approach is what is best for kids. Traditional leadership approaches have little to no chance of being effective. The nightmare school is a special warfare scenario.
Just some observations from the trenches.
You made a couple of key observations that I want to highlight before my response. First you qualified your post by pointing out you are describing dysfunctional schools. That is critical. “Dysfunctional” does not always mean low performing. There are functional schools that sometimes have temporary setbacks and there are seemingly successful schools that fall into your dysfunctional nightmare category.
Second, from a broad standpoint, I think you are on the right track. If you held up a specific example school, I believe you would find more similarities than differences. So your categories and descriptions are a great starting point for a conversation.
I recently did clinical assessments / evaluations on two struggling schools in the same district. One you would categorize as Bad, one Nightmare. My task, quickly diagnose the situation and develop a rapid improvement prescription. Just a typical day’s work.
What is interesting is that 80% of the improvement prescription was the same for both campuses. This is similar to doctors who have the same advice for almost every aliment, “eat less, exercise more, and quit drinking and smoking.”
The deviation in my prescriptions was in the realm of staff management. The short version was this, at the “Nightmare” school every employee (from the feeder pattern Assistant Superintendent to the classroom teacher) is put on notice. The execution of best practice in every class, with every student is no longer a matter of personal choice. The situation will improve rapidly, or vacancies will be created. Anyone who transfers to a new campus in the district does so on a growth plan. A team loss is a team loss.
And as you point out, if the Superintendent blinks, the nightmare will continue.
Think. Work. Achieve.