11 School Improvement Secrets for Radically Different Results from the Nation’s Top School Turnaround Provider


By: Michael D. Toth


My LSI Applied Research Center team and I developed 11 school improvement “secrets” that embody the radically different approach we support in our partnerships with schools and which achieve results that sustain.

I’ve visited many schools across the country that can’t seem to permanently escape turnaround status in their state accountability system.

For years, these schools try program after program for school improvement.

This constant looking to programs often creates “program fatigue” among staff and erodes teacher morale.

Each year there is hope that new programs will help the school permanently exit turnaround status. But usually, the school only suffers disappointment in the results, leaving hardworking staff feeling overwhelmed with students who are perpetually behind on academics and often behaviorally challenging.

The cycle of program after program creates a “prisoner of hope” mindset. Letdown is often followed with increasing remediation and interventions, which further robs students of their own morale for learning and is particularly damaging to Black and Brown students.

Many of these underperforming schools have hardworking principals and staff, supportive district teams, and ambitious school improvement plans. Their students are bright, even though disengagement might be masking their potential.

So, what is holding these schools back from becoming great schools?



What are the typical school improvement approaches – and do they work?

Sustainable, systems-based school improvement isn’t something that happens overnight. There is no silver bullet for deeply entrenched systemic issues in core instruction.

But our research shows that when schools focus on rigorous grade-level instruction that develops student agency, they achieve faster and sustainable proficiency results. It also builds the instructional capacity of faculty and leaders – and most importantly – students’ capacity to be better learners.

What many traditional school turnaround reform approaches attempt to do, on the other hand, is provide quick fixes to a school’s issues through highly scripted and prescriptive programs coupled with high doses of remediation and interventions for students.

Sometimes these tactics will yield temporary learning gains, but these gains plateau and don’t translate to increased and sustained student grade-level proficiency.

What I discovered in my research is that schools with broken systems require a radically different approach from the norm if they are going to achieve radically different results.

That is why LSI’s Applied Research Center designed our school improvement partnerships to rebuild the instructional systems in schools with an unrelenting focus on high-quality, rigorous, and engaging Tier 1 core instruction.

The result is rigorous academic learning that challenges and engages students and steadily builds proficiency. These rebuilt systems create a learning environment where not only is every student successful, but also the school leaders and teachers feel empowered rather than tied to a script or a program-based school improvement plan.


Examples of school improvement successes

LSI’s partner schools have achieved incredible results:

    • The lowest-performing traditional public school in the entire state of Florida, Lakewood Elementary School, became an “A” school
    • McLaughlin Middle School outperformed its district learning rates during the COVID-19 pandemic and earned its best school grade in 7 years
    • Kenly Elementary School jumped to a “B” grade for the first time in the school’s history
    • The fifth lowest-performing traditional public school in Florida, Moseley Elementary School, became a place where students thrive through Academic Teaming

These are just a few of our school improvement stories. What each has in common is that these schools and districts had the courage to deviate from the traditional turnaround programs and focus on rebuilding the systems of rigorous core instruction and student motivation.


Typical school reform = quick fixes like scripted programs and heavy remediation. If you want radically different school improvement results, utilize 11 secrets for rigorous grade-level instruction that develops student agency.… Click To Tweet


LSI’s 11 school improvement “secrets”

Throughout the 2021-22 school year, LSI’s Applied Research Center is releasing full-length articles and webinars offering practical tips and examples for each of our 11 secrets for school improvement.

We’ll link to each article and webinar here as we publish them. Read the highlights below.


1.  Create a teacher coaching and support system rather than providing one-off professional development opportunities

Virtually every school improvement program involves professional development for teachers. The learning from these courses often goes unimplemented for one simple reason: teachers don’t have access to an aligned, long-term, comprehensive coaching and support system.

Teacher support systems are the key for continuous professional growth and development which ultimately benefits students. Using a few best practices can make a big difference.

      • Blog coming soon
      • Webinar coming soon



2.  Go beyond standard-based lesson planning by focusing on whether instruction translates to student evidence

A big mistake that many educators make in their school improvement efforts is simply putting standards-based planning and instruction requirements in place but not having a way of monitoring whether it translates to improved student evidence.

Monitoring tools and techniques ensure that you’ll know on a daily basis whether all students are demonstrating evidence of the grade-level standards.

    • Blog coming soon
    • Webinar coming soon

3.  Empower teachers as experts and build ownership in PLCs instead of scripting instruction

Teachers should be the experts in their own classrooms. Unfortunately, many school improvement programs fail to treat teachers like the professionals they are, instead opting for heavily scripted lessons.

Setting up specific systems through PLCs and aligned coaching techniques builds teacher autonomy, which improves teacher skill, retention, and adult social emotional support.

    • Blog coming soon
    • Webinar coming soon


4.  Become an agile school with short-cycle data (weekly metrics) instead of relying on lagging data

The usual metrics to track student progress for school improvement are long-cycle data (such as state test scores, benchmark or diagnostic testing, and end-of-course assessments).

Instead, an agile data improvement process with daily and weekly classroom walk metrics and student work is a much more proactive way of using student data to improve teaching and learning. The trick is knowing what to look for and how to use this leading data in the continuous improvement process for core instruction.

    • Blog coming soon
    • Webinar coming soon



5.  Accelerate in Tier 1 core instruction rather than relying on remediation

How many times have you heard that the best way to personalize learning for students performing below grade level is to “meet students where they are?”

The remedial approach may sound logical in theory, but failing to offer rigorous grade-level content in core instruction holds students back from ever catching up. Instead, using methods that accelerate learning and close gaps in real time is much more effective for school improvement.

    • Blog coming soon
    • Webinar coming soon
6.  Empower students to create a positive school culture rather than creating an overcontrolled environment

Many turnaround programs resort to methods of strict discipline to control student behavior. Instead, creating classroom structures that give students roles and responsibilities is a more sustainable way of preventing behavior problems and ultimately creating a positive school culture and climate.

Building capacity in students along with the freedom to self-regulate their own behavior might sound daunting, but with the right systems in place it builds invaluable life skills such as student agency, which environments of over control fail to develop in their students.

    • Blog coming soon
    • Webinar coming soon
7.  Leverage student peer relationships, not just student-teacher relationships

We know student-teacher relationships are crucial for learning. But developing positive student peer relationships is just as important and is a missed opportunity for many school improvement educators.

Peers are uniquely situated to support one another, push and challenge one another, and connect in ways that they might not be able to with adults. Academic Teaming structures help teachers move past the usual disorganization and shallowness of student interaction and into deeper learning and positive peer relationships.

    • Blog coming soon
    • Webinar coming soon


8.  Focus on academics as the root cause of negative student behavior, not as an unrelated issue

Often, educators tend to attribute negative student behavior to external factors such as a student’s home life. The most successful school improvement approaches make the connection between student behavior and academics.

When schools use specific strategies designed to restore students’ hope in their own abilities, engage them in their learning, and empower them to track their own progress, behavior and achievement improve simultaneously.

    • Blog coming soon
    • Webinar coming soon


9.  Encourage students to track their own academic progress rather than leaving it to the teacher alone

In most schools, it’s up to the teacher or assessment system to track academic progress. What if students tracked their own data?

This is one of the rarest strategies used for school improvement, but giving students a way to self-track their progress in real time yields incredible learning and motivational benefits. The key is creating the right classroom systems to make the right data accessible to students.

    • Blog coming soon
    • Webinar coming soon


10.  Release students to productive struggle and increase academic rigor and challenge – don’t water down student tasks or “overteach”

In most schools, instruction is mainly teacher-centered. Students are expected to quietly listen to the teacher talk and then complete a worksheet or other low-rigor task to demonstrate their understanding.

Productive struggle is critical for deeper learning, but students have few or no opportunities to experience productive struggle in traditional learning environments. Specific support structures can make academic rigor accessible for every student and help teachers move away from “overteaching.”

    • Blog coming soon
    • Webinar coming soon


11.  Build and leverage community support rather than leaving parent and family engagement on the back burner

It is all too easy to let go of community support and family and parent engagement when you are dealing with the many crises and demands of the school improvement process.

But it’s important to take the time to keep engagement strong and celebrate your wins. This approach supports the whole child, in and out of school, and promotes social emotional learning. Several best practices can make your school a shining example in the community.

    • Blog coming soon
    • Webinar coming soon


At Learning Sciences International, our social mission is to end generational poverty and equity gaps through rigorous core instruction. Our track record for school turnaround is unprecedented. I hope you will subscribe to these free resources on our proven school improvement processes that are practical and focused on helping administrators and other educators.

Want to stay in the loop on the 11 School Improvement Secrets for Radically Different Results blog and free webinar series? Sign up now for updates straight to your inbox.




About LSI

Our vision for education is to close the achievement gap. Equip all students with the social, emotional, and cognitive skills they need to thrive in the 21st century. Expand equity by giving every child access to rigorous core instruction that empowers learners to free themselves from generational poverty.

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