I remember this day as one of the worst days of my life. I remember opening the newspaper, looking at the internet and being like…what?!? It was like someone threw a brick at me. And there’s nothing worse in your professional life than working incredibly hard and then getting crappy results. Nothing feels worse than that. And that is what happened.

—Doug McCurry, co-CEO and superintendent of Achievement First

When New York’s first round of Common Core state test results came out in 2013, student results plummeted across all schools; district and charter. The decline was especially pronounced at charter school networks known for their stellar academic programs, names like Achievement First (AF), Uncommon Schools, and KIPP New York.

State tests are not the ultimate measure of a child’s education, but the declining scores were concerning because the Common Core standards asked students in grades 3–8, for the first time, to make meaning of a text, find evidence to support an argument, understand concepts, and apply their thinking. When students were asked to think more deeply, most could not.

Achievement First’s co-CEOs Dacia Toll and Doug McCurry are candid about their feelings in the moment. “It was awful. I felt like we were not doing well by our kids. That we were failing…significantly,” says Toll.

With more challenging tests, AF’s low-income students no longer outperformed their wealthier peers in math. The bottom fell out of the English scores, which were now indistinguishable from those of New York City’s public schools.

New York State test results, grades 3–8

Confronting the brutal facts

“We couldn’t just put our heads in the sand,” says Toll. “We had to, in the words of Jim Collins, ‘confront the brutal facts.’”

Dacia invited her peers in the Aspen Institute’s Urban Superintendent Network to review AF’s academic programs. The Aspen cohort discovered major problems with the curriculum. Only about a quarter of AF’s lessons were deemed rigorous. McCurry observed that, “Our schools can have the best cultures. Our teachers can have every teaching move in the world. But if we are teaching to a low bar because of our curriculum, our students will never get there.”

And the problems with a low-bar curriculum spilled into instruction. Instruction often relied on techniques like choral response and basic recall questions, giving students few opportunities to think deeply. “Students never got the opportunity to develop the cognitive skills they need to be in charge of their academic futures, to be in charge of their lives,” says Toll.

The performance of most New York schools fell with the new assessments, but a few did not. Toll describes:

Common Core was like an earthquake and I’m standing over here in the rubble of my charter network and I look up. And darn it if there isn’t this building standing, looking almost unharmed in the middle of this earthquake. Do you know who it was? Success Academies. The whole state crashed and their results barely dipped. And then they shot back up the next year.

Within twenty-four hours of the state test results coming out, Doug and I emailed [Success Academies CEO Eva Moskowitz]. We then brought small armies of teachers, leaders, and curriculum specialists to Success to observe instruction, watch planning meetings, and learn how teachers intellectually prepared for lessons. I personally visited different Success schools for a total of about ten trips over the course of two and a half years.

We were trying to figure out what the heck they do that is so much better than what we do. Against a low-bar assessment, it was harder to see the differences, but against a high rigor assessment, the differences were stark.

There are a lot of ways we can try to explain away their results, but we encouraged our team to focus on what we can learn from them. With humility, we need to confront the brutal facts of where we currently are.

What we focus on gets better

Part 2 of this story describes Achievement First’s tactical response to the higher standards, but Doug McCurry encourages other school systems to think about the mindsets needed for major change. “Because if you don’t work on mindsets,” cautions Doug, “none of the tactics are going to work.”

The Aspen Superintendents visit and the Success Academies collaboration made it clear that major changes needed to be made to curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

The first step was a shift in mindset on the part of AF’s leadership team. “You can’t be in this position [as a leader] and have pride,” says Doug. “You have to say, who is doing it? What works? What do I need to do? We have to change.”

The second shift, and much harder one, was helping the entire organization buy into the idea that change was necessary and that better was possible. According to Doug:

We developed a mantra that is so empowering: What we focus on gets better. Our team can believe that [our schools] aren’t good enough, but that’s OK; because we know at AF that what we focus on gets better. And we are really going to focus on this…

Schools can be messy and complicated… and things go wrong. But Doug knew the best school systems make dramatic improvements when they focus their talents and energies.

Balancing the brutal facts of AF’s current situation with the optimism that “what we focus on gets better” set the foundation for the journey ahead.

Read Part 2 and Part 3 of Achievement First’s journey here.

Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared in a slightly different form on the Charter School Growth Fund’s blog.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Policy Priority:

Alex Hernandez is a partner at Charter School Growth Fund, a nonprofit that supports the growth of the nation’s best public charter schools. Charter School Growth Fund provides philanthropic support to Achievement First. Alex is a former high school math teacher and lives with his family near Boulder, Colorado.