AFT - American Federation of Teachers

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Improving Schools

The primary purpose of a good education is to ensure that every child has a chance to be successful in school and in life. Yet, from the start, the odds are stacked against children from high-poverty environments achieving their fullest potential. By age 3, such children have heard 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers. As a result, by the beginning of kindergarten, children from poor neighborhoods are three times more likely than other children to score in the bottom quartile on assessments of reading, math and general knowledge. The gap only widens throughout these students' schooling. For example, fourth-grade students from low-income homes score three years below their more advantaged peers. The trajectory escalates through the middle and high school years, both academically and socially: These students are less likely to avoid at-risk adolescent behavior, go to college or enter a well-paid profession. To close the achievement gap, these children need a high-quality education, at least comparable and preferably stronger than their more affluent peers receive. Children from poverty will need more and better time and the very best teaching methods we have to offer. And because knowledge builds on knowledge, and failure breeds failure, we need to offer the best as early as possible.

The AFT has a long-standing commitment to research-backed interventions for improving schools. Here are our recommendations for high-poverty schools:

Access to early childhood programs

Schools in high-poverty neighborhoods should offer access to early childhood programs, starting at age 3, that support children's healthy growth and development. These programs should be comprehensive to facilitate the acquisition of their social and emotional skills, provide the health and nutrition services traditionally available through Head Start, and implement a knowledge-rich curriculum especially designed to systematically bolster students' word and world knowledge and other cognitive skills.

Improved teaching quality

Research indicates that effective teaching is the most important school factor in a child's education. But, because high-poverty schools are often challenging places to teach, they suffer disproportionately from small applicant pools and high teacher turnover—and, as a result, their teaching force often includes a disproportionate number of new and less-experienced teachers.

The best way to attract and retain a well-qualified teaching staff in high-poverty schools is to establish the conditions for student success (including a state of the art system for diagnosing reading weaknesses, the expertise and resources to immediately and massively intervene when a child is reading below grade level, high educational expectations by all staff, safe and orderly schools, a knowledge-rich curriculum, excellent professional development, effective principals and decently maintained buildings) supplemented by a hiring policy that gives hard-to-staff schools an early crack at filling their vacancies first, and offers pay incentives negotiated between the school district and the teachers union.

Intensive assistance for the most struggling schools

Evidence is mounting that school improvement is aided when the school district can target the most struggling schools for intensive special assistance and support—and direct reporting to the superintendent. Where existing school time is already used very well, but more time is needed for tutoring, enrichment, or staff development, it may make sense to negotiate additional educational time including a longer year in these targeted schools. The direct accountability allows the superintendent's office to ensure that problems get immediate top-level intervention, whether the problem is an ineffective principal, loud construction work taking place during the school day, delays in textbook orders, broken computers or the need for speedy return of diagnostic information.

AFT Resources

Real Support for Really Struggling Schools, American Educator, Spring 2007