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Last year, Roll Hill Academy, a public elementary and junior high school in Cincinnati, was in a state of “academic emergency”, the lowest rating given by the state of Ohio. Only 12 per cent of Roll Hill’s students passed the Ohio Achievement Test, teachers suffered from low morale and student absenteeism was high.
But what a difference a year makes. At the beginning of this year, 58 per cent of Roll Hill’s students passed the test and Ohio moved the school up two rungs on the ladder of progress for its vastly improved test scores. The school now regularly hosts science fairs and student carnivals, and private donors have contributed book bags, uniforms and school supplies.
“It’s inspiring for this community that’s been labelled an academic failure for years to finally experience success,” says Laura Mitchell, deputy superintendent of the city’s public school system.
The reason behind its success is a programme developed jointly by the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and its Curry School of Education, which has been turning round substandard schools across the US. The Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education (PLE) launched its first programme in 2003 following support from Darden alumnus Mark Templeton, who wanted education leaders to have the same executive development opportunities he had received at the school.
The programme, which combines executive education with ongoing support for state and local school districts, has since expanded to 10 states.
Ms Mitchell says the Darden programme “taught us how to change our culture, to get people engaged and to allocate our resources more effectively”. By applying business techniques to education, teachers and principals now analyse and track student test scores to come up with individualised plans for progress.
Programmes that tackle chronically underperforming schools are nothing new. In spite of large sums spent on US school reform in recent decades, there has been little progress in terms of creating scalable programmes that reduce student absenteeism and turn out better test scores.
So far, the Darden programme appears to be working. At its core, it gives school principals and lead teachers the same training as Darden Executive Education.
“The goal is to provide the top-notch executive education that business leaders receive to education leaders who typically aren’t exposed to this sort of training,” says LeAnn Buntrock, executive director of PLE.
The purpose of the course is not solely to bring business thinking to education, she says. “It’s about leadership. It’s about teaching principals and teachers to think like leaders and not just managers.”
The programme measures its success by improved student achievement on state test scores. In future, Ms Buntrock says other metrics such as graduation rates and teacher and student satisfaction will be taken into account.
Not all schools have shown dramatic improvement, but administrators say that most have already seen solid progress. According to Ms Buntrock, average proficiency scores in maths and reading have increased by more than 40 per cent in schools completing the programme.
Typically, the state and local school district pay for participants to attend – some using the school improvement grants sponsored by the Obama administration, although many schools have also received corporate funding. Darden charges about $70,000 for the two-year programme, which includes materials, room and board for individual participants and site visits by Darden professors.
Most participants are school principals and superintendents, because the programme aims to improve leadership at the top. Participants spend a total of three weeks at Darden. The classroom portion includes lectures on aspects of turnrounds – such as identifying priorities and building a high performance team, as well as discussions about case studies, group assignments and guest speakers.
Participants leave Darden with a 90-day action plan, with aims such as creating smaller class sizes, improving communication between parent-teacher organisations or instituting school uniform policy.
“We take the things that make a business successful and say: here’s how they may apply to you,” says Alec Horniman, a professor at Darden who teaches in the programme.
“We’re trying to get principals, state boards and superintendents to think of themselves as one system, and get them to work together,” he adds.