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Reframe Podcast: Episode 49

School Decline

School Decline

 Meredith Wronowski Reframe Podcast

When we talk about struggling schools, or schools in decline, we often talk only about the challenges of certain schools in certain neighborhoods. But Meredith Wronowski, Miami University visiting assistant professor of educational leadership, is exploring this idea of school decline in a much broader way.

Read the transcript

James Loy:

This is Reframe, The podcast from the College of Education, Health and Society on the campus of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

When we talk about struggling schools, or schools in decline, we often talk only about the challenges of certain schools in certain neighborhoods. But Meredith Wronowski, Miami University visiting assistant professor of educational leadership, is exploring this idea of school decline in a much broader way.

As a former teacher and a former principal, and now as a researcher, she has a unique perspective on many of the challenges that schools face. And why school decline should concern even the most successful schools.

(Music Fade)

James Loy:

Dr. Wronowski, thank you for being on the podcast. Can you talk about how your background lead to your interest in studying school decline? Both your past experiences and now your current research intersect in a way that I would think gives you a pretty unique perspective on this topic.

Meredith Wronowski:

So I have come to Miami University both from a doctoral program with the University of Oklahoma, but also from being a working school administrator and former classroom teacher. So I have always been sort of on the other side of the topic of school decline in that I've always worked in urban high needs contexts, where we never really found ourselves at the top, usually. So our focus was always on improving. However, you know, we sort of realized that there's this other world outside of urban education and that, you know, we do have really high performing schools, and I think the assumption is that high performing schools will always be high-performing schools. Whereas we assume that lower performing schools will always be improving, and always focused on improvement.

So I became very interested in this idea of school decline. It was sort of brought to me by my collaborators at the University of Virginia Dr. Coby Meyers and Brian Van Groningen, you know, they were like, there's this entire sort of group of schools that go from being great to good. And this is a phenomenon that's been really explored in the business world. We know that there are great companies that ultimately fail, and we think that the education world needs to explore this as well. We think it's been overlooked. And not been thought about and not been well explored, even though we have some data to show that this phenomenon of schools going from great to good exists. Because no one talks about decline in general. So I was really intrigued by this because it was so different from the context that I came in, where we were at the bottom and always fighting to climb up. And so, I just was interested in this as a phenomenon, you know, how widespread is it? Is it more common than we think it is? And then, certainly, it's a troublesome phenomenon. So what can we do as the academic community to sort of inform the practice of successful schools, so that they don't end up in a state of decline?

James Loy:

When you talk about school decline, I think it’s interesting that you invert this idea. So instead of looking at what makes schools succeed, which does seem to be the more common or generally accepted perspective. How do we make these schools even better than they are? Or, to get better? But instead you look at the inverse. Which is, well, why did they fail? Are these two approaches just different sides of the same coin? Or are they fundamentally different in some deeper way?

Meredith Wronowski:

Yeah. I think on face you would assume that it's really two sides of the same coin, and that they have an exact inverse relationship. But when you dive deeper into schools, and the way that schools think and operate as organizations, and especially the way that school leaders operate, they're not the exact inverse. So at Miami University, one of the classes that I teach is data informed decision-making. So I work with aspiring or current school leaders in how to look at their data to create an environment of continuous school improvement and the challenge that I come up against is, like I said, there are some school contexts and some school leaders -- they know that they have to improve. It's an imperative. And that's because they are in the bottom quintile, or the bottom two quintiles. However, I also work with a number of aspiring school leaders from communities that are considered academically high-performing. So they're sort of carried these letter grade ratings from the state of Ohio as they are an A school or even a B school. And they think that the improvement conversation doesn't necessarily need to involve them.

However, if we reframe the discussion to include decline, which has been absent. If we include that in the conversation. Now it includes every school. And so now we get those sort of school leaders from communities that are high-performing to start thinking proactively with the assumption that things can always get worse, and our populations are always changing. Our country is becoming more diverse. Our middle class is shrinking. Our middle class income levels are stagnant. So things like economic disadvantage, even in sort of historically affluent or middle-class suburbs, they're seeing larger numbers of economic disadvantage.

So getting aspiring school leaders, even if they're in a school that is doing very, very well to think about how to be proactive in preventing decline really shifts the improvement conversation. That everybody should be focused on continuous improvement.

James Loy:

And what did you find? What are some of the characteristics of schools in decline?

Meredith Wronowski:

Yeah. And so, we found some things that we sort of expected to find. So for instance schools that serve high concentrations of students of color, who frequently live in an intersection of also being in poverty, those schools start out significantly lower. So we're not necessarily measuring their decline because some of them can't decline. They're already in the lowest quintile. And our data reflects that. So really when we talk about measuring decline, we're talking about schools that historically have served student populations that did not fall into those categories. So not necessarily majority student of color. Not necessarily majority student at poverty. These are the schools that we think about that are normally …. Do pretty well compared to these sort of high needs schooling contexts.

So we're talking about schools that start high and move low by definition. When we talk about decline. What we find is that if your population of students who are economically disadvantaged increases, your rate of decline increases as well. So your school’s more likely to decline and more likely to decline at a faster rate, if you have a higher number of students at poverty. We also know that our rural schools seem to almost be in a state of freefall. So it's one of the largest predictors of increase in rate of decline. So rural schools during this time period were declining very, very rapidly. And, you know, a lot of our attention in the education community and the research community has been on urban high needs contexts. They're very visible. They receive a lot of press because there's a lot of press that is just sort of centrally located in large urban centers. But our rural schools get far less attention in the research community, and far less attention and in the media. Even though a huge percentage of students in the United States attend rural schools. The majority of the United States is still very rural. We still live in a very agrarian sort of country. And to have this highlighted, that these schools have been in a state of rapid decline over the past decade is, I think, troublesome and also indicates to us that we need maybe a shift in focus, that these rural communities need to receive at least as much attention as urban high needs communities.

James Loy:

And now, after this initial focus on some of the demographics and community contexts that have gone into your research, you’re now moving onto more variables such as things like leadership. How does that play into school decline?

Meredith Wronowski:

Right. So, in education it's been really it's a difficult challenge to figure out like how does leadership actually affect student achievement? We know that it doesn't really affect it directly, not in the same way that classroom teaching affects student achievement. But we know that it has all of these sort of nuanced indirect effects on achievement. And actually what we're finding in the second paper is that principal turnover . . . So if a principal leaves a school, that school is more likely to decline at a faster rate. We know that if a superintendent leaves a school district, that schools in that district are more likely to decline. We also know that if principals have shorter tenures in a building. So they… you have sort of a revolving door of principals. Like a principal comes and is there for two years. And then you have another principal that's maybe there for one or two years. You're also more likely to decline.

So it seems that there is, you know, an effective consistency of leadership in a building is the picture that we're getting. And that's important to understand. You know, I think that we . . . Rather than develop principals. If a building's not successful in this sort of accountability policy era, we put sort of the responsibility on the leader, and if the buildings are doing well, we remove that leader, not really understanding that it may be more beneficial to grow a school leader in a building that’s struggling. Rather than to just sort of remove them and replace them. That they're maybe not disposable. Or there are at least effects of disposing of school principals very rapidly. That it can actually contribute to decline, rather than improve it. The thought is if you get rid of a poor leader that the building will get better. And I think we're beginning to understand that the answer is not that straightforward. There may be some sort of other effects so . . .

James Loy:

It seems like this research could have a lot of practical applications. Schools could look at themselves and say, “We fit into these certain categories.” Like, “That looks like us. So maybe we should worry about these certain eventualities and be more proactive about that.” Or, maybe, “We’re rural, and these are concerns that we could have.” Or, “Our principal left after a year, so next time it might be a good idea to really try and focus on finding someone who will stay longer.” Or, “Our towns have noticeable demographic shifts.” It feels like this could be a way to avoid catastrophic failures, to be more proactive. Or maybe to notice certain things that we wouldn’t take notice of otherwise.

Meredith Wronowski:

Yeah. And I think that that is true. And I think even the way that I teach courses in teaching aspiring school leaders, or current school leaders, about how to work with data has changed. Rather than looking at data in like sort of a single year like snapshot, I’ve completely reframed my teaching to really engage teachers, and looking at long term trends in their data, to see things that you might not see in a snapshot. So looking at, for instance, the percent of students who are economically disadvantaged. Has it really changed across time? And are we in a trend where that number is increasing? And, like I said, I work with one particular district in Ohio. We have a cohort of aspiring school leaders there. And they're a high performing district. So, again, this is one of those groups of teachers that are like, “Well, you know, we're are already really good. So I don't know that this is going to be particularly useful to us.” But when they did take time to look at their demographics over time - in fact that community is seeing a huge upswing in the percent of economic disadvantaged students. They're also seeing an upswing in the number of special education students they have, and the number of English-language learners they have. And these were things that were very surprising to these teachers who had worked in this district -- some of them for 10 or 15 years -- they … it was sort of this slow… this progression over time that has snuck up on them.

And oftentimes in suburban communities, it's hard to see poverty. So in urban communities where poverty is prevalent and you feel the weight of it all the time because it's every child that you serve. But in these sort of suburban communities, I think we have this very like hidden poverty where these students don't look much different from affluent or middle-class students. their parents, like, things like their education level is not that much different. Because this increase in poverty is an artifact of like stagnant middle-class wages. Not sort of generational poverty that has always existed in the community. So it does, I think, sneak up on suburban communities. And then by the time they realize that it's an issue, they've already sort of entered this data freefall. 

So I think even the way that we are training school leaders is going to change as a result, or I would hope that it would change as a result of looking at this data. And so, I think it does have very real implications.

Also, you know, the business community - they're very good about planning for events like leaders leaving. They're always thinking long term and planning for the next leader that's going to be there. And in education we don't … we've never thought that way. We've never sort of thought about succession plans. I think because the hope and the dream is that, you know, we have this image of like a principal will be there for 30 years, and there will be this consistency. But we know that principal turnover has increased. Superintendent turnover has increased over the past two decades. That this is a very real phenomenon. We used to only sort of be concerned about teacher turnover. But more and more leaders are turning over. And so, maybe this sort of indicates to the education community that we need to start thinking about succession planning. How do we keep the vision of the school intact? How do we keep improvement efforts that are already in progress moving forward even in the absence of that leader, or that person? So getting schools involved in the idea of succession planning, I think, would be a tremendous culture shift. We've never done that. But I think the data shows us that that's probably a necessary culture shift at this point. since turnover does relate to decline.

James Loy:

So are these kinds of changes that schools will need to look at in a whole new way? It’s pretty clear that you mentioned the culture shift it might take in just succession planning. But beyond that, just the way the whole system approaches the overall success or failure of school seems like it might require a pretty big paradigm shift as well.

Meredith Wronowski:

Oh. I definitely think so. Schools who are low-performing have been under a microscope for the past two decades. We've sort of labeled those schools. We've sort of identified those schools. We haven't done a whole lot to help those schools. But I think this idea … there have been some schools - they have been very shielded from that sort of microscopic lens. And I think that they've gotten very comfortable. And I think bringing to light that nobody can ever really be comfortable because communities are always changing. The students and families that you serve are always changing. Policy is always changing. That schools don't sort of exist in a vacuum. So just because you're great today, doesn't mean that there's not a host of external threats to that greatness. And that those sort of threats can change rapidly. Or they can change very slowly without you recognizing that the change is even happening. So we sort of talked about this idea of catastrophic failure. Everybody knows what that looks like. The bridge collapses all at once. It's very dramatic. But we also … in our next couple of papers, hope to explore this idea of very slow decline. I think that that is perhaps a more common sort of issue that schools find themselves in, or common sort of context where they're sort of a slow burn. Your community has been changing for the past decade, but it happens so slowly that you haven't noticed and you certainly haven't been proactive and planning for how you're going to address those changes. And now we have no plan for that, and we're not really sure what to do, and now we're in a very reactive mode.

So I think if we can shift the culture of regardless of who you are as a school in this particular moment, whether you're great or whether you're not great, that you always have your finger on the pulse of what's happening externally around you. But that requires a culture shift in getting our top performing schools to examine their improvement processes even though they may feel like they have nowhere to improve on, you know. And I think that the decline conversation provides an important additional tool for us to have those sort of discussions.

James Loy:

Alright. Well, I think it’s a really interesting way to look at this issue and thank you so much for being here to talk with us about it today. Meredith Wronowski, Miami University visiting assistant professor of educational leadership. And if you enjoyed this episode, and you’d like to hear more episodes of our podcast, you can download them for free right now on iTunes and now on Google Play Music. And thank you for listening.

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*Intro/outro music used in podcasts: "Tech Toys" by Lee Rosevere