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CPRE : Consortium for Policy Research in Education

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Case Study

Ward Elementary School

This is a story about a school that made dramatic improvement in standardized test scores from 1996 to 1999. Over the three years, the percent of students scoring at or above the Basic level in science in the Stanford-9 Achievement Test (SAT-9) rose 41.43 percent; scores in reading went up 29.42 percent, and scores in mathematics went up 26.26 percent. Some hypotheses for these dramatic gains seem reasonable. Since no curriculum changes were made and resources were lacking during the first year, initial gains may have been due to a new seriousness about the test. Teachers may have been worried that, under Children Achieving, there would be ramifications for poor test performance. Continued gains were probably due to substantive changes in curriculum and instruction, increased resources in the school, extensive professional development, and a new principal who was highly motivated to implement all facets of Children Achieving as quickly as possible, because “there’s no time to waste.” Sustaining and improving these scores has proved to be problematic.

The new principal came to the school as an interim in the fall of 1997 and was officially appointed in March 1998. She is intelligent, articulate, and dedicated to her goals, working long hours to achieve her dream for making Ward “the kind of school that people will beat down the doors to come to.” When she came to the school during the 1997-1998 school year, the teachers’ biggest complaint was lack of materials; now they have more materials than they know what to do with, professional development, time to meet, a computer teacher, a librarian...and relentless demands for continued improvement. As one might expect, the principal’s demands for excellence have been met with mixed reactions from staff. Those who are committed to getting better admire her steadfastness and devotion. Others lament the fact that she is too serious, not warm and more personable, and that her standards are impossibly high. It seems clear that one critical component is missing at the school: a professional community invested in the changes that are taking place. There is little sense of ownership or pride in the reform, a high level of stress, a general level of job dissatisfaction, and a good deal of pessimism and anxiety. People are unhappy. Teachers are feeling overwhelmed and under-appreciated. Staff turnover is a serious problem, and mid-year changes in staffing have resulted in additional stresses. People are working hard and trying to make positive changes, but school is not a happy place.

The role of a loyal, committed, happy, and enthusiastic staff cannot be underestimated in our discussion of school reform. Ward School shows us that a well-meaning, hardworking, and goal-oriented principal is not sufficient to institute deep-rooted reform unless staff can be motivated around the same goals. In some respects, the story at Ward School mirrors what happened in the District as a whole, under a well-meaning, hard-working, and goal-oriented superintendent.

Publication Date

January 2011