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Uncovering Academic Success

By Karin Chenoweth

Can it be done? Can schools help all children learn to high levels, even poor children who typically enter school far behind their more privileged peers? Is it even possible?

As a longtime education reporter and columnist, I knew the answer was yes, but I knew it as an article of faith rather than actual knowledge. I had never actually seen such a school. I had seen glimmers of hope in the fifth-grade classroom of Linda Eberhart, where African-American boys and girls from a very poor section of Baltimore met state math standards at higher rates than any other school in the state. I had seen hope in the extraordinary kindergarten class of Lorraine Gandy, who could boast without fear of contradiction that in 30 years she had taught just about every one of her students to read. I had also seen hope in a couple of schools that were committed to educating every child. But a whole school where the average poor child and child of color could walk in from the neighborhood and be pretty sure he or she would learn to read and do math and otherwise succeed academically? That I had never seen.

But I would not let go of the notion that our public schools are places that offer all children the chance to become educated and where, if they work hard, they can gain access to all the opportunities our country has to offer. The folks at The Education Trust, a national education organization that for years has identified schools where poor children and children of color do better than their peers in other schools, would not give up on that notion either. The Education Trust had actually identified such schools through their data—but it had never explained what they do to have such dramatically different results from other schools. In late 2004, The Education Trust joined together with four other organizations—the Business Roundtable, the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, the National Center for Educational Accountability, and the National Council of La Raza—to form The Achievement Alliance, and they hired me to visit such schools and describe what they do.

To determine which schools to visit, analysts from The Education Trust and I pored over state data. We were looking for public, open-enrollment schools that had high percentages of students of poverty and students of color, had at least two years of data showing high levels of student achievement (or very rapid, sustained improvement), and had closed (or greatly narrowed) achievement gaps between various groups of students.

The two years I spent visiting schools were a revelation in a lot of ways. I began this project not knowing at all what I would find. For all I knew (and feared), I would find soul-deadening test-prep factories. Perhaps, I worried, I would find schools where the teachers and principals were worn to a frazzle, burnt-out and bitter with all the expectations that have been placed on their shoulders. Or, even worse, I would find schools where the teachers were automatons, robbed of all creativity.

I found none of that. Instead, I found dedicated, energetic, skilled professionals who care deeply that all their students have access to the kinds of knowledge and opportunities that most middle-class white children take for granted. That means they include art and music and physical fitness and field trips and science and history and all the things that some people say schools must cut in order to focus on the reading and math skills tested in state assessments. That doesn't mean that the people in the schools I have visited don't care deeply about reading and math or doing well on state assessments. But they, and their principals, know that it is a mistake to "narrow the curriculum" and "teach to the test"—two of the epithets floating around the education world.

And happily, I found teachers and principals who love their jobs. They work hard, and some work long hours. They may occasionally be tempted to move to schools where it might be easier to teach; but they stay on the job because, as one teacher said to me, "We're successful. And we're like family." Many are bolstered by the idea that they are engaged in important work—work that, if enough people paid attention, could improve the public schools and, to some extent, the nation itself. But, stunningly, their work has gone almost unnoticed.

Early on in this project, I was talking with a very thoughtful principal. I said that many people think schools cannot help children who are behind because of poverty and discrimination catch up to their more privileged peers. "They say it can't be done," I said. She replied simply, "It's being done." I spent the next two years proving her point and then stole her words as the title of the book I wrote profiling each of these schools.

*  *  *

Although all the schools I profiled for this project have large concentrations of students of color, students of poverty, or both, they are very different in just about every other way. They are big and small; integrated and racially isolated; high-tech and low-tech; urban, rural, and suburban. Some require uniforms; some do not. Some follow traditional school calendars; some follow year-round calendars. Some are in big districts; some are in small ones. Some have adopted pre-packaged school improvement designs; some have developed their own model of improvement. Some have beautiful facilities; some are in buildings that should have been torn down years ago. Some have successfully engaged their parents and communities; some have not.

Those are the characteristics that many say make the difference in school quality. And yet, despite those differences, all these schools either have very high rates of proficiency or impressive trajectories of improvement. So the question arises: Is there something deeper that these schools share? Is there something more than uniforms and school size and computers that makes the difference?

I have become convinced that there is no single factor that is at the core of a successful school. That is, there is no one structure that, if every school in the country were to adopt, would transform them into high-achieving schools. Schools are too complex for simple solutions. Over and over, the teachers and principals in these schools told me, "There is no magic bullet."

But there are some characteristics that they all share, and I was pondering how to try to convey them when I had an experience that brought into stark relief the things I wanted to highlight. I visited a school that on paper looked like another success story; it posted very high proficiency rates on state tests in a state with high standards. The students were all African American and almost all were poor, most lived in a nearby housing project. I was looking forward to another "beating the odds" story.

When I arrived at the school, the hallways were filled with children gathering for the start of school, but few looked as if they had anything to look forward to. When I got to the office, it was locked. I asked an adult where the principal was; she said, "She's not here yet," as though it were normal for the principal not to be there at the beginning of school. When the principal did show up, she was surprised I was there, even though I had called and e-mailed several times in the previous weeks to confirm my visit.

The principal showed me around the school. In many classrooms she opened the door onto quickly dampened noise. The teachers (there were several substitutes that day) looked up with relief. Quite a few said things like, "Oh, I'm glad you're here—the kids are really acting up." On those occasions the principal yelled at the disruptive students in front of their teachers, classmates, and me, a stranger taking notes. "What did you promise me?" she shouted at a young boy who looked absolutely miserable being humiliated in public. "You sat in that office and promised me and your mother something. What was it?" She yelled at teachers and even a parent in the same way. At no time did the principal say she wanted to introduce me to a teacher or a student or see classroom teaching. In fact, there was very little classroom instruction visible. The two exceptions were a kindergarten teacher who was enthusiastically leading her students in a song they were preparing for an end-of-the-year ceremony and a class where a poet had come in as part of a foundation grant to introduce older children to poetry. Finally, the principal stated the obvious: "Once the state tests are done, we don't do a lot of instruction—we're doing field trips and getting ready for the end of the year." The state tests are given in March and April, months before school lets out. What little she did say about instruction made it clear that it was focused almost entirely on what would appear on the state test, such as teaching students the specific words that the state tests use and teaching them to take notes on reading passages.

Some students had been left behind from a field trip that day either because they hadn't gotten their permission forms in on time or because they were being punished for poor behavior. They had been given an assignment to write about what job they would like in the future. Although the students were in seventh grade, none of their essays was longer than a paragraph, and none included many salient details. Two of the most ambitious of the students said that they would like to run a laundry and a hairbraiding and nail salon. The principal gave the students a lecture about how they should think about other possibilities, such as running a shaved ice booth or selling cold water on a hot day.

From all I had seen—the atmosphere of distrust, disrespect, and barely controlled chaos; little interest in instruction; and extremely low ambitions for the kids (a water stand!)—I concluded that the high scores the school posted had not been attained in a legitimate way. That conclusion was strengthened when the principal told me that teachers administering state tests were "under strict accountability to not allow students to turn in half-filled-out answer sheets, and they can't have any wild answers either." Though I tried to keep my face as deadpan as possible, I think the principal knew she had made a damaging admission: There are no legitimate ways to keep students from giving "wild answers" on a state test. In addition, the principal said she had some concerns this spring because the testing protocols had changed. I could barely wait to escape, and I caught an early flight home, depressed by what I had seen. Months later, my suspicions about the level of learning at the school were confirmed when that spring's test results were published—fewer than 10 percent of the students had met state standards.

Seeing that school helped crystallize in my mind what I wanted to say about schools that are getting the job done. I did not hit on a magic bullet, far from it: I found that these schools shared about two dozen characteristics that—together—contributed to their success. I describe all of them in my book; here I present just a handful of those characteristics that seem most important. Much of what I saw in these impressive schools was extremely high-quality teaching. But I also saw leadership that supported such teaching, so I think it is essential for teachers and principals alike to carefully study these characteristics.

They have high expectations for their students. They assume that their students are able to meet high standards and believe their job is to help their students get there. They do not assume that their students are so crippled by poverty and discrimination that they cannot meet high standards. "It's not about feeling sorry for kids," says Barbara Adderley, principal of Stanton Elementary (see, "Inside a Philadephia Success Story"), located in an economically devastated part of North Philadelphia. "It's about making sure that they understand what it is they're expected to do." They talk with their students about going to college or into high-level technical training. This is true for all the levels of schooling—elementary, middle, and high.

They use all the data they can get their hands on and embrace accountability, but they don't teach to the state tests. They want to know how their students are doing, and they know that classroom observation by teachers, though important, is fragmentary and doesn't allow overall patterns to be observed. State test data, district data, classroom test data, and any formative assessment data they can get their hands on are all eagerly studied. If the district doesn't provide the data in the form they need, they come up with their own ways of charting and displaying data. And, if another school nearby outperforms them, they are the first ones to try to figure out what that school did and incorporate it into their own practice.

All the schools make sure their students know what their state's tests look like in terms of the format, and they try to ensure that their students aren't surprised by the material or the kinds of questions that will be asked. But none of them spend a huge amount of time teaching their students what will be on the state tests or teaching them how to "bubble in" a scoring sheet. They teach a rich, coherent curriculum tied to state standards. They don't teach the test, particularly in those states where the tests are low-level reading and math tests. In the states where the tests are a bit more sophisticated and high-level, such as the Massachusetts MCAS and the New York Regents, the schools might spend more time teaching directly to what will be tested, but that is because those tests are more closely tied to a set of high standards.

They use school time wisely and add time for students, particularly those who are struggling. They establish classroom and school routines to ensure that endless amounts of time are not spent going to the bathroom, getting out and putting away books and materials, and going from one activity or class to another. School time is for instruction, and instruction is treated as something sacred. Most of the schools establish uninterrupted blocks of time for instruction so that classes aren't disrupted by bus announcements or by students being pulled out for speech therapy or counseling. Using time wisely doesn't mean that kids don't ever have fun or recess. It means that students are engaged in productive activities just about all the time.

Different schools add time in different ways. Some have before-and-after-school classes and summer school. Some have year-round calendars with intensive tutoring during the intersessions. They all figure out ways to get their children more time for instruction, and they do so with the same kinds of resources (often involving federal funds) that are available to many high-poverty schools and within the parameters of the teacher union contracts. Many also see that extra time as an opportunity for enrichment, and they offer interesting classes such as music, drama, and sign language.

They do not spend a lot of time disciplining students in the sense of punishing them. They do spend time disciplining children in the original sense of the word: leading them (think of the word disciple). They teach students how to act by noticing and encouraging kindness and consideration and they teach kids how to have good social and professional relationships by explicitly teaching them how to disagree with someone without getting upset and fighting. But their main method of discipline is to aim for high-quality instruction every moment, on the theory that busy and actively engaged students do not have time to misbehave. In those instances when behavior issues are deeper than boredom-induced mischief, teachers aren't left high and dry. These schools have additional interventions to use when needed, such as pairing disruptive students and their families with mentors or with outside social services.

They provide teachers with the time to meet, observe each other, and do serious professional development. Either the principal or an assistant principal spends a great deal of time building a schedule so that children have coherent instructional days and teachers have time to work together. The most common strategy in elementary and middle school is to schedule an entire grade to have "specials" (usually art, music, physical education, and sometimes science) at the same time so that the teachers can meet. Teachers review data, go over student work, develop lesson plans, and map curriculum. Teachers are also encouraged to seek out and observe colleagues who have perfected a particular lesson or who are trying something new and want feedback about whether it is clear and coherent.

The general theory among these schools is that if students are weak in a particular area, the teachers need to learn more about it. Professional development that does nothing to deepen teachers' content knowledge, understanding, or pedagogical skill is not typical in these schools. And, they realize that new teachers often don't know enough about classroom management, curriculum, assessment, reading instruction, or how to physically set up a classroom, so mentors are often provided to help induct new teachers into the profession.

Although the principals are important leaders, they are not the only leaders. Teachers and other administrators, and sometimes parents and community members as well, sit on committees that make important decisions for the school, such as hiring, curriculum, school policies and procedures, Title I spending, and much more. Trennis Harvey, assistant principal of Capitol View Elementary in Atlanta said, "Of course your leader has to make some decisions, but most decisions here are made by teams." In most cases, this is part of an explicit practice to institutionalize improvement so that it is not reliant on a single individual. These principals are consciously trying to build enduring structures that will outlast them.

*  *  *

These schools are achieving at higher levels and improving at faster rates than some in the education world think is possible. It would be reasonable to wonder if the teachers and principals are nearing nervous-breakdown level. Overwhelmingly, that's not what I found. Mind you, the schools are not easy places to work. But because the atmosphere is respectful and teachers' work is organized in a way that allows them to be successful and take leadership roles, they are nice places to work. As a result, they do not have the kind of turnover that many schools with similar demographics have.

After visiting all the schools profiled in this book, I began to feel as if the folks in these schools can be likened to the Wright brothers, who proved once and for all that manned flight was possible. In much the same way, the schools profiled in my book demonstrate that the job of educating all kids to high levels is possible. When you overcome drag and gravity with enough thrust and lift, you get flight; when you overcome poverty and discrimination with effective leadership, thoughtful instruction, careful organization, and what can only be recognized as the kind of pig-headed optimism displayed by the Wright brothers, you get learning—even in schools where many people wouldn't expect it.


Karin Chenoweth is a longtime education writer who now writes for the Achievement Alliance. From 1999 to 2004 she was an education columnist for the Washington Post. Before that, she was senior writer and executive editor of Black Issues in Higher Education (now Diverse). This article is adapted from her book, "It's Being Done": Academic Success in Unexpected Schools, published by Harvard Education Press. For more information, visit www.hepg.org/hep/Book/65 or call 1-888-437-1437.