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UPDATED: October 7, 2013 NO.18 MAY 2, 2013
Higher Learning
Educational forum draws state and provincial education leaders from China and the United States to discuss best practices
By Corrie Dosh

'Turnaround schools'

Improving student education at underperforming schools was a key topic for the delegates, who visited two Boston-area schools highlighted for their successes in improving performance. One, Boston's Orchard Garden Pilot School, was once one of the lowest performing schools in the state of Massachusetts. After opening in 2003, the school burned through five principals in seven years and had a teacher turnover rate of more than 50 percent every year. The approximately 800 students—25 percent of whom were designated English as Second Language (ESL) scholars—turned in dismal test scores.

By 2010, state educational leaders had enough. They designated Orchard Garden as one of 12 "turnaround schools" in Boston. School administrators gained flexibility to replace 80 percent of the teaching staff and implement a new program focused on quality educators, data-driven benchmarking and increasing learning time for students. Students begin their day at 7:10 a.m., and some attend extra classes in citizenship and leadership until 5:15 p.m.—a far cry from the typical 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. schedule of basic instruction at most American schools. After just one year, the percentage of students reading at grade level and testing well on mathematics had improved significantly, according to school administrators.

"Extended learning time, a deep connection to the arts, and a strong student support system have yielded positive results at Orchard Garden School in a short time," said McLaughlin, adding that both schools visited by the delegates "clearly demonstrate that a focused vision on student success can be achieved by a caring and dedicated staff."

Provincial leaders in China also described their efforts to turnaround weak or underachieving schools at the forum. Shanghai, for example, is trying a number of approaches including asking the principals of high-performing schools to also manage a low-performing school and creating clusters of high- and lower-performing schools where teams of experienced teachers are transferred into the weaker schools to help improve the quality of teaching and learning, writes McLaughlin.

Deb Delisle, assistant secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education in the U.S. Department of Education, says Federal legislation has been targeted to identify and overcome discrepancies between high-performing and low-performing schools. During the George W. Bush administration, this took the form of No Child Left Behind. The regulations have now been transformed into the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, enabling states to focus resources on the chronically lowest 5 percent of schools in each state.

Education exchanges

Sherrill Parris, deputy state superintendent of education for the Alabama Department of Education, said she attended the forum in part because her state is looking to start educational exchanges with China.

The benefits of educational exchanges are "well known," writes Jeff Wang, Associate Director of Education and Chinese Language Initiatives Asia Society in New York. Students who study abroad report a transformative experience, and have a "vital" cross-cultural experience in a new era of globalization.

There is also increasing recognition of the benefits of international benchmarking as a tool for education policymaking, Wang writes.

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