Supporting Schools Before They Fail with Aimee Evan, PhD
February 7, 2023
Supporting Schools Before They Fail with Aimee Evan, PhD

Schools usually fail before someone steps up to try to diagnose what’s wrong and fix it. Meanwhile, hundreds and thousands of learners suffer through subpar educational practices that might meet the needs of a select few, but not the majority.

When it comes to health, we know that prevention is the best medicine. We take care of our bodies so we can remain healthy for many years. But in our antiquated school systems, we sadly don’t take the same approach. And it’s our children who feel the brunt of this.

That’s the focus of my conversation this week with Aimee Evan, PhD, author of the new book Student Centered School Improvement: Identifying Systemic Changes Essential for Success. There are so many factors in the success of a school, beyond the school ranking, what extracurricular activities are available, and what student grades look like. Aimee encourages parents and educational leaders to dig deeper to take care of all layers of the schools so students can truly be successful.

About Aimee Evan, PhD:

Mom, researcher, school improvement specialist, author, and former accountability director, school turnaround lead, and middle and high school teacher.

Jump in the Conversation:

[1:49] – Catalyst for dedicating career to improving education
[4:33] – We’re more likely to try to make a change when we see what needs to be done first-hand
[5:34] – Unpacking how to meet the needs of students
[7:18] – We have two educational systems in the U.S.
[8:54] – What should we be doing to improve schools
[9:40] – We’re waiting for the Gordon Ramsay of education
[10:54] – The current school improvement policy is to wait for the school to fail
[12:40] – How being a mom has impacted her mission
[18:10] – How listeners can take steps to school improvement
[18:38] – We look for a good fit for our kids and conflate that with “good school”
[19:57] – Parents and teachers can see what’s happening inside school
[26:18] – A real harm is laying all change on shoulders of teachers and leaders
[27:20] – You might have new tires but you’re not going anywhere because you haven’t checked your engine
[29:20] – Engaging teachers in the change that needs to happen and utilizing all the support systems they have access to
[30:19] – Aimee’s Magic Wand
[31:28] – Maureen’s Takeaways

Links & Resources



Maureen O’Shaughnessy 0:03
Hello fellow parents and educators. Thank you for joining me at education evolution, where we are disrupting the status quo in today’s learning models. We talk about present day education, what’s broken, who’s fixing it, and how. I’m Dr. Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your host and founder of education evolution, micro school coalition, and co founder of active, I consult and train with schools and leaders who are fiercely committed to changing the narrative, reimagining the education landscape, and creating learning that serves all children and prepares them to thrive. If you are new, welcome to the podcast. Please subscribe on our website to get it delivered to your inbox weekly. If you’ve been around a while, have you left a review?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:00
Hi Aimee, it is so good to have you on education evolution.

Aimee Evan 1:12
Oh, Maureen, thank you so much for having me. I’m just tickled to be here.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:18
And listeners today I’m chatting with Aimee Evan, a mom, author of a brand spanking new book, fierce advocate of improved quality of education and senior research associate and school improvement specialist at West Ed. That’s a lot Amy, let’s dive in.

Aimee Evan 1:37
Hey, Maureen, I know I have this expression of weak when I’m good.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:43
There you go. I like it. Yes. Aimee, what was your catalyst for dedicating your career to improving the quality of education for all?

Aimee Evan 1:53
Oh, my goodness. Well, I went to school when I was 22. So I, I was the first in my family to attend college. And mostly because I just couldn’t figure out how to get there. There’s a lot of forms, there’s a lot of procedures and not having any one to really guide me through. It took me a couple of years to actually figure all that out and kind of break the code to get there. And when I went my sole intention was to go to law school, I worked as a legal secretary out of high school for several years. And just after working with some new attorneys had this harebrained idea that I could go to college and law school, well, I went through the home pre law program actually met my husband in the mock trial team. And I was sitting down one night to write my law school applications. And I had taken some sociology classes, and really realize that the quality of education that I received growing up on the Southside of Chicago, was really self par to a lot of the people that were my peers at school, there were, you know, logic classes in middle school and art and music, and many of them spoke a second language. And I just thought, well, you know, that’s kind of crappy that just because I was a poor kid growing up on the south side that that no one really had the expectation that I will be sitting in college. And quite frankly, there wasn’t an expectation that any of my kids that I went to school with would be studying in college. So it really just kind of lit a fire under my keister to, to do something about that. And so law school kind of got put on hold, and I became a teacher. It was the most random detour I had taken, but it really felt like the right thing. And once I got into schools, I realized, holy cow, I was not alone. There were a lot of kids that were growing up in poor areas, because I taught in a very depressed area in North Carolina and just you just see so many similarities with my own educational experience. So I’ve been I’ve been with it ever since going on more than two decades now.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 4:34
That is beautiful. I feel like when we see something that needs changing in our, in our personal experience, we have so much more oomph than when we go out and like oh, I want to help feed children or cry and it’s not that we shouldn’t be doing those other things, but that’s why I started my micro school. I was appalled at my, the choices for my daughter’s High School and how poorly they meshed with that. You know, I think when it comes from our own pain or longing, that it resonates in a different way.

Aimee Evan 5:05
I couldn’t agree with you more, you know, I think about good. So any kind of good, creative, innovative, it comes from some kind of yearn and burn and scarring, unfortunately, that that folks have to go through in order to really, you know, pick themselves up and and say, I’m going to do something about this.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 5:31
Yep. Agreed. So, how do you unpack how you want the world to go about meeting this need, you know, so that there aren’t poor kids in the Southside of Seattle getting something subpar? Your your brand new book, student centered school improvement? I’m sure you have a lot of ideas, what are some of the key points.

Aimee Evan 5:56
So the book really takes you on a journey. And, you know, public education has been around for over 200 years, I certainly don’t go back to the very foundation of public education. But I do provide a recent historical look at some of our policies, some of the ways in which we recruit and retain teachers and some of the trends and the changes that have taken place within the last 40 to 50 years. And really, it’s to paint a picture of that, you know, in history class, but I always loved when you heard the story about how the heck did we get here? And you sort of bag of map? How did you know how did we get to our current aware current educational system is structured, is supported, is funded, is staffed is led all of those things? And so I kind of bring the reader back a little bit to our, our generation or a couple generations back to say, how did we get here? And what have been the what have been the fruits of those labors? What have been the returns on those investments? And quite frankly, the return is, you know, there, we have, basically two educational systems in and you probably saw this too, with your own daughter, we have one education system that does work well for students, but then we have another education system that just doesn’t, it’s not funded very well, they tend to get some of the less experienced teachers, there are schools that are really difficult to work in the leadership is is a revolving door, the buildings are in disarray. So really, it was about looking at how did we get here. And if we want, and we really need all students to get a good education, not just sit in school for, you know, 12 years, but to really get a good education, then what changes do we need to make moving forward? How do we redesign the system to get the outcomes that we hope to produce in our education system?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 8:31
I love that because I completely agree with you. I can devour historical fiction, you know, but I have a really hard time with dry history. So when you paint that picture, boy, I have got to get out and get your book immediately. That just sounds really powerful. And then that to be a spring for board. So now what should we be doing?

Aimee Evan 8:54
So I really anchor the book, in the space of school improvement because that for the for the last 25 years has been our lever, if you will, of creating equal or equality or higher quality educational options for students, but unfortunately, it really hasn’t worked. So you know, when I look at other improvement efforts, like you may watch Kitchen Nightmares with Gordon Ramsay who I love I love him. He’s, you know, he doesn’t mince words. He’s this amazing chef, very successful restaurant tour restaurant tour. But if he can’t turn around these restaurants, and you know, we’re not we’re screwed and in education, we’ve sort of had the same mindset we’re waiting for, you know, the Gordon Ramsay of education to come swoop in And then change the decor and fire the staff and create great leaders. And it just doesn’t, you know, it’s like such a romanticized version of what school improvement is, and unfortunately, just doesn’t happen. So we’ve been, I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to lead some really great innovative research around identifying schools earlier, four areas need areas of improvement. And if we can catch schools, before students have been sitting in the seats for 510 1525 years, we can really do some great impact in communities where these schools are, I think about, you know, our current school improvement policy is to wait like, until a school fails, how is that ever a meaningful and helpful perspective, when it comes to improvement? It doesn’t. That’s why we have prevention, prevention, if you could prevent things from happening in the first place, you’re much more likely to, you know, keep them from happening. Whereas if we wait, you know, if you wait until you have diabetes, and you need insulin, and you’re going to be on insulin for the rest of your life, but if you could have prevented it from happening in the first place, you know, you then eliminated that risk factor. So it’s just, I got very frustrated as, as a school improvement specialist doing Turnaround Schools that have been low that has really been suffering and failing their students for decades. I mean, it’s not five years, it’s decades.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 11:58
And that’s just tragic, because we’re not just talking about an ineffective business, right, in any other world would go out of business, we’re talking about decades of learners suffering, being disadvantaged, not getting to meet their potential or spark their passions. So the cost is so high, and prevention makes so much sense.

Aimee Evan 12:22
Yeah, you’re, you’re so right on that Maureen. You’re right.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 12:30
So I’m curious, when I saw Mom listed first on your bio, first of all, I knew I liked you. Being a mom definitely colors my life in a rainbow of ways. How has this impacted your mission?

Aimee Evan 12:46
You know, it’s definitely you probably saw my my eyes light up. And you mentioned your own story about starting your micro schools based on the opportunities that your daughter had. A lot of this work really centered, and actually really started with my own children’s education. So, you know, while I didn’t have the privilege of determining where I wanted to live growing up, we we moved to the south side of Chicago, because that’s where my mom’s family was from. But when I myself was looking for schools, and looking for places to live, I didn’t want to repeat the same, you know, I didn’t want my students after repeat the same, the same experiences that I had. So and as an education researcher, I pored over data on schools and our education system in our area. And we, you know, my husband was like, Okay, how, how are these schools? How are these? And I, you know, I don’t want to perpetuate what we’re seeing where housing prices are through the roof when there’s, but as a parent, you do want good options for your kids. I think every parent wants to include educational options for their kids. So when my son was, my son was in elementary school, and he was on his way to middle school. And my neighbor taught at that middle school, and she said, sending your son to middle school and I said, Well, yeah, we spent two years looking for houses and I’m terrible car days. Go into that. She was like, Oh, nothing and I thought, oh, what? And she just said, you know, I’m I’m worried. She said, I’m worried about the state of the school. I’m worried that this new leader is struggling and there’s no one that’s coming to support him. Teachers Like me who’ve been there for years are starting to leave. And it was like a domino effect. The kids were becoming, you know, I’ve heard this term before untethered. So there was just a lack of high expectations, there was there was a real struggle to, and it’s possible I was a middle school teacher, I, I completely understand that, you know, the the bit of craziness that happens in middle school, but talking about was different. Yes. And it got me thinking to schools just fail? Do they just fall? Like, do they just fall flat on their face? And it’s? And the answer is no, well, no, they schools really bump along. For years, they have successes in one area, and then they struggle in another they have a success in one area, and then they struggle in another. And if we can catch them, when they’re at that point, we really can provide interventions support and get them back on track. Before those bumps and declines become decline, decline, decline, decline decline. So it really even just like you, it was an a very personal struggle with, I can’t watch this school just fall off the face of the earth. It’s a good school. They’re good staff. It’s good leadership, he just needs some help. And that was, that was the the like, straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of we need to really rethink this idea of school improvement. That was based on our recent rethinking of how students dropped out. For a long time, we thought kids dropped out, they just decided one day to stop coming to school. And once we started looking at students that did, we realize that’s not true at all, they were actually showing signs, red flags, struggling, you know, now we can predict which students are likely to graduate and which students need more help to get there as early as third grade. Same idea with with schools, we can really see if we’re looking for them, signs of when schools are struggling and need some support. So you know, it’s funny how, how our like, our mom, and we can lift cars and improve schools and change the design of the tribe.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 17:57
Exactly. That is just such a force. Yeah, don’t mess with an angry or determined mom.

Aimee Evan 18:07
Right, right.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 18:09
So Aimee, how can our listeners, parents, teachers, or school leaders, apply some of what you’re saying? How can what steps might they be able to take these? I don’t think it’s on very many people’s radars, the trajectory of a school successful to failing, what can they do?

Unknown Speaker 18:29
So that is a that is a great question. And I’ll start with, I’ll start with parents, because I think sometimes, as parents, we and I struggle with this too, even though I’m familiar with school ratings and assessments and things like that, we can we still look for a good fit for our kids, and conflate that sometimes with a good school. And so let me let me unpack that just a little bit. Because, you know, having extracurriculars having a good sports program, having good facilities, those are all really important things. But they can also be supplemented elsewhere, if you find a good solid school, so I would push parents to look past some of that and look at how are school how are students in that school doing? How are they what kinds of opportunities do they have as far as classes what kind of support will your child get if they are struggling for principals and teachers? I think there’s a couple things in fact, teachers are on than the beacons, they’re the ones who can see what’s happening inside the school. And so as teachers are starting to leave, if leadership is, you know, keeping things very close to the chest and not sharing, not asking for feedback, often a sign that things are overwhelming that the leadership and that the school may be struggling.

Aimee Evan 20:27
So what we found in our research is that there’s their characteristics in every component of school. And what I mean by that is, schools are made up of leadership of talent, which is usually your, your teachers, your instructional leaders, the culture of the school, the instruction that’s happening. And then there’s also these, what we call contextual factors is the operations, the systems and processes that a school, how the school is financed, what the governance relationship is, with the leader, and the school. And so in the book, I outline several characteristics of what that looks like. But it could be things like, does the leader know what areas in which they they are working on, and making decisions to get there, sometimes you find leaders that are leading on paper, but not necessarily in practice. And so when you ask leadership questions about what are the priorities, and how are you going about achieving those? And if they don’t know, then that’s definitely that’s definitely a sign that there likely isn’t anything happening toward those priorities. What’s the culture at the school? Are teachers collegial? Or are they competitive with one another? And you know, friendly competition is not a bad thing? But are they working together? Do they have time to do that? Do they have training to do that? Or are they just coming together and competing with one another? And then the other thing that we looked at was talent? So what is the typical turnover of talent? So some districts and states just look at one year of turnover? What’s the percentage of teachers that are leaving? over a year’s time? Well, what does that look like if you compound that in three years, or even five years, and in some schools, they’re having an entire staff turnover every five years, it’s really hard to create roots, and really have priorities and approaches take shape. When you are training new talent every five years, you know, there’s not a lot of continuity that happens when you have that level of turnover. And then again, around the instruction, what does instruction look like? I think this is one of the hardest pieces, especially for parents is, what is the level of rigor because I went to a school and we’ve seen plenty of schools where the staff is wonderful, they’re lovely, the kids are safe and cared for, but the level of rigor of the instruction is just not there.

Aimee Evan 23:36
And so you have kids that move on to middle school or high school or even, you know, afterwards college or the trades, and they have missed a lot of things. So some kids may have been safe. They may have been, you know, they may have really liked their teacher, the parents may have really liked their teachers, but the level of instruction was really waning, or was just very low. And that, you know, that’s not good for kids either.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 24:04
Right? Wow, lots of factors to for principals, and teachers to be looking at, and to be thinking about, how does our school rank what are these are some of these red flags for us to put on our radar?

Aimee Evan 24:17
Right? Oh, and I would say not, you know, not every school shows that every time and just because you are struggling in an area doesn’t mean that you are on this, you know, this, this roller coaster of decline. It’s really the purpose is to be aware. So when we have you know, it’s like any kind of predictive measure, it’s a way to be focused and honed in on what are the things that I’m definitely you know, in the in the noise of our every day, like, What are the five things I really need to be paying attention to, and making sure that I’m focused on, because those are the things that could really have a domino effect in other areas. So it’s, you know, coming up with those characteristics, it wasn’t done to stress principals out, it was really to help them focus in like, if I’m, you know, if I only have time to look at these five data points, what should those five data points be?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 25:34
Excellent. I think that’s super important. I know, as a school leader, there are times where it’s like, I just feel like whack a mole and Covey’s quadrant, I want to be in that important, non urgent, but when all these fires need to be put out, I’m not what are my priorities? And how am I moving on them? So for you to say, here’s a way you guys can really get clear on that. So that you’re not trying to be all things to everybody and fix everything at once you’re, you’re really focused in so it sounds like you have a lot of information that could really help teachers in schools, assess, have used predictive measures and address what needs to be improved in their school.

Unknown Speaker 26:17
Absolutely. And I think one of the, one of the real harms maybe is the right word that we do is we lay all of this on the shoulders of teachers and leaders. And what we forget is that schools are a, they’re nested, you know, you think of like Russian dolls. They’re nested within both per student within a family and a community. But they’re also nested within these support structures that were designed to provide to remove barriers and provide the support to help do the things that we’re asking schools to do. I think those reports have gotten a little rogue and they’re doing their own thing. I know. Yeah, oftentimes, you hear you hear that? Districts are like, let me give you an example. So one of the things in the school improvement literature that I, you know, I’ve found to be really interesting, and I write about in the book is that when, when schools previously struggle, they got from the federal government, what was called the grant school improvement grants, and it was a pot of money that the school can put to use to help address the areas that they found needed improvement. So maybe it was purchasing curriculum, or training their teachers, or reducing class sizes by hiring more staff, or maybe it was implementing a socio Sarria social and emotional learning curriculum, as we’re seeing a lot of schools do now. Well, that’s all well and good. But then the district came along and said, you know, we’re gonna, we’re gonna do a renew reading program, well, maybe isn’t necessarily what the school needed to do. But then the school was sort of, you know, the Twixt, in between these two important initiatives. And it’s like saying, you know, and that was one of the biggest reasons why schools didn’t improve, because they were on these not parallel priorities. And so it’s like, you know, it’s like saying, your check engine light is on, but we’re going to place we’re going to replace all the tires on all the cars in your neighborhood. You might have new tires, but you’re not going anywhere, because you still haven’t fixed your engine. And that’s where schools really were frustrated with a lot with having this opportunity to work on the things that needed to be worked on, but then not having the ability or the autonomy, or hearing from the support structure, that that’s not what they were going to be doing. They were going to be doing something else. And so when I, when I talked in the book about alignment, I provide an example of what that could look like. And it’s really about, you know, how do we engage the teachers in the change that we want to happen? But then all support and teachers, the leaders, the schools around them in making that change?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 29:42
Absolutely. I think you’re so right. It’s it is too much weight, and there needs to be those outer layers of the Russian doll. Everybody needs to be pulling on this. And the more the outer layers can pull, the more our leaders and teachers can serve the students when are not trying to do all of the other pieces. Lovely. And, Aimee, you have so much in your book, I can’t wait to read it. And we’ll make sure to put the link in the show notes so that everybody can be reading it. I’d like to close with a magic wand moment. So I’m handing you the educational magic wand. What would you wish for? So that school improvement happened for all learners?

Unknown Speaker 30:29
Wow. What an amazing question. Teacher support is probably the magic wand and support in a way that is respectful is content and pedagogy. So instructional practice, that is the is a way for teachers to become that masterful teacher in a in a supportive way?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 31:01
Absolutely. Let’s make it. So. Aimee, thank you. Thank you for the hard work of writing a book, and for the research and everything that you do that impacts our learners. I really appreciate having you as a guest today.

Aimee Evan 31:18
Thank you so much for having me, it was a pleasure.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 31:30
When Aimee and I had our interview, her ebook, student centered school improvement, identifying systemic changes, essential for success had just become available. I have the link in the show notes. So I went online that weekend to buy it. And it was already the number one new release in education, policy and reform. Congratulations, Aimee. It’s no surprise that her book is already a success. Oftentimes, we talked about what learners can do to be more successful, or how to be a better school principal. So it adds a unique puzzle piece of valuable information into this education evolution landscape. When we look at a school’s success. I know from serving on accreditation teams and being in schools that are accredited, that every five to eight years, an outside agency comes in and tries to address school success. But sometimes that is a one off. And we really need things that are plans that are sustainable, and ongoing strategic plans that really have teeth, and aren’t just written up and then sit on a shelf getting dusty. Understanding recent historical policies, and key factors in school improvement lay an important foundation.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 33:01
I love how Aimee breaks that down so we have the context. And isolated reform efforts have not been successful. So Aimee’s clear and practical suggestions on how to approach the challenge of improving schools that have had a history of difficulty is really important. Getting lessons from concrete examples of schools that have undergone significant improvement creates a much better roadmap than generalities and programs that throws spaghetti against the wall hoping to have impact. So her book is definitely worth a read. Aimee’s background is a skilled researcher rings through when she shares information, such as what we can look at in third graders that are predictive red flags that can end up resulting in those kiddos dropping out if we haven’t met their needs. Yikes. How can we make this research and information that’s known, acted upon in our elementary schools. It reminds me of the very important aces acute childhood experiences, trauma research that Dr. Kristen Miller of the Heart Project shared in Episode 42 and 97. Those are also in the show notes. She talked about ACEs screenings at the beginning of each school year for our learners. If we could mandate this, we could understand their traumas, and build in responsive teaching to the instructional time and in spite of less instructional time, students that get this extra teaching and community building score higher than their peers. So these added features are value adds we need to understand them in education and be willing to let go of covering as much content so that we are dealing with the whole human and aligning with neuroscience. Rant over, it seems like we need this layer of support for schools. That takes research from theory into practice. I mean, who wouldn’t want their children to have more responsive community building time, if they did understand the neuroscience, and benefits and the resulting increase in learning? Who wouldn’t want to understand the needs of a troubled school and help it turn around? Before it has failed multiple years of students? I encourage all those working on school change, and who influenced school change to know their predictive measures and act on them? Are we giving teachers time to collaborate? What is behind the high rate of teacher turnover?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 35:55
And then once they have those answers, they need to get really clear on the top things that can be focused on and everybody needs to be pulling in the same direction. We can’t be scattering teachers and school leaders, with many, often conflicting expectations. Aimee’s metaphor of Russian dolls of support is powerful. Yes, we have teachers in the center as the ones who are directly impacting our precious students. And then we have the school leader who is supporting the teachers. But where are those outer layers of Russian dolls? And are those district and state policies aligned to meet the needs of schools, we want them to be adding layers of support and aligned with a common mission, not merely adding bureaucratic demands, that takes school leaders and teachers away from their top priorities. Aimee’s magic wand is particularly pertinent following what has been called air quotes, the great resignation. The multitudes of teachers who left the profession once we return to school, after the pandemic, lockdown lifted, is a giant red flag. We need to, as Amy said, give teachers support in a way that is respectful. We also need those Russian dolls of support to look at how we make sure teacher pay is competitive, that teachers have collegial time to collaborate and stay current, and that they are not expected to do unpaid work outside of school hours. All of you who can step up as those Russian dolls of support, now is the time. And thank you for being a part of the education evolution.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 37:57
I know how challenging it is to make changes inside your own school or community. I’ve spent years working with schools around the world on creating learner centered programs. And it always struck me how much schools were able to get done with the right tools and guidance. If you’re ready to make changes like this in your own school, let’s talk and put together an action plan. Visit for a free 15 minute call. And let’s see if we’re a good fit for more work together. Thanks again for listening. To support the education evolution. Subscribe so it lands in your podcast app and gets out to more decision makers. Then rate and review it. For more information and shownotes go to education evolution listeners. You are the ones to ensure we create classrooms where each student is seen, heard, valued and thriving. We are in this together and we need you. Let’s go out and reach every student today. Thank you for listening, signing off. I am Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your partner in boldly reimagining education.

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Leading Like a Teacher with Miriam Plotinsky

This week on the podcast, we’re welcoming back author and educator Miriam Plotinsky. She’s sharing about her latest book, Lead Like a Teacher, and talking about what school leaders can do to build more trust and a more collaborative school environment.

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