In 2014 newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that instead of closing “troubled schools” and simply reshuffling the deck, New York City would invest in a “Renewal” program to turn the schools around and benefit their students. Ninety-four schools were enlisted based on low four-year graduation rates and poor test scores for middle and elementary schools. Renewal schools received additional funds, students an extra hour of instruction each day, and teachers extra professional training. The schools also offered students summer enrichment programs to support learning.
In October 2018 de Blasio did an about-face and announced that the Renewal program was being phased out as too costly, about $775 million over four years, with at best only incremental improvement in student performance.
But de Blasio probably acted too fast and with incomplete data. A new study just released by Columbia University shows that at least in some cases the Renewal program was surprisingly successful. Researchers concluded that the Strategic Inquiry program implemented in some of the Renewal high schools was able to help more troubled city students get on track to graduate.
According to the study, the Strategic Inquiry approach helped teachers and administrators to target struggling students and provided them with the literacy skills they needed to complete course work and pass state exams. Students in the Strategic Inquiry schools were almost two and half times more likely to be on track to graduate than similar students in other schools. The study’s co-author Priscilla Wohlstetter argued that their results also showed that this was an approach that could be “replicated, customized and adopted in school districts throughout the country as one important component of education improvement reform.”
John Adams High School in Queens was one of the schools that successfully implemented Strategic Inquiry. Its principal, Dan Scanlon, said staff training in Strategic Inquiry methods was instrumental in boosting the school’s graduation rate there from 53% in 2013 to 72.4% in 2017. He credited Strategic Inquiry with transforming “the culture of our school” putting more students “ on track to graduation and successful lives.”
The Strategic Inquiry model was developed by Nell Scharff Panero of CUNY-Hunter College and Joan Talbert of Stanford University and is discussed in their book, Strategic Inquiry: Starting small for big results in education, published by Harvard Education Press in 2013.
Strategic Inquiry asks teachers and administrators to study their schools “through the lens of struggling students” to understand how school systems shape practices that can limit student success. Based on their analysis, they implement strategic changes designed to improve results. Trainers/consultants familiar with the inquiry process are vital collaborators with the school teams. It is a very intensive process that takes three to five years to be effective.
Panero has school-based strategic inquiry teams working with trainers/consultants to develop specific improvement targets. She argues that small high-leverage changes can have a major impact on school climate and student performance. She calls this process “getting small to get big results.” At John Adams High School, inquiry teams implemented “Writing is Thinking” in content area classrooms. It is an approach to writing instruction that teaches students very basic writing skills that are a vehicle for deeper thinking and makes it possible for them to clearly express ideas.
Panero is a big fan of using data to uncover specific academic areas where students need to improve. Once these are identified and a corrective strategy is developed, inquiry teams work intensively with small groups of students, usually 12 to 15, to get definitive results. With the possibility of improvement established, inquiry teams work to change school systems so they support rather than interfere with team goals. The final step in the process is to enlist and train the rest of the staff to become school change agents as well. Panero emphasizes that reflection on the ongoing transformation process, what she calls turning the “lens of inquiry” onto their own practice, is crucial for success.
The Columbia University researchers reported that Strategic Inquiry implementation was strong in the four schools that they studied, which they found “remarkable since the schools were in Year 3 of implementation and the time frame for full implementation is 5 years . . .Staff reported an increase in shared accountability, distributed leadership,and evidence-based practices, as well as an increase in collaboration.”
So far no one has come up with a miracle potion for transforming American schools, but school renewal and Strategic Inquiry offer real possibilities. It will be a shame if Mayor de Blasio and the New York City Department of Education shut them down.