New Research on High-Performing, High-Poverty Schools (page 3)
In 2004, Lincoln Elementary School in downtown Louisville scored in the top 20 percent of all elementary schools on Kentucky's accountability index, a composite indicator of test scores and other performance measures. This is an outstanding achievement for any school but even more so for Lincoln with its enrollment of over 70 percent minority and almost 90 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches. The school is among the best performing in the state.
Lincoln Elementary is among a growing number of schools across the nation that are defying long-held expectations about student achievement and demonstrating that disadvantaged students can achieve at the highest levels. This month's newsletter summarizes a study by the Kentucky-based Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence called Inside the Black Box of High-Performing High-Poverty Schools. Researchers examined eight high-performing, high-poverty elementary schools in Kentucky and found they share several common characteristics, including high expectations, focused instruction and assessment, and a positive school climate.
The Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, independent citizens advocacy group. Funding for the study came from the Ford Foundation.
The study posed two questions. First, what do high-performing, high-poverty schools have in common? Second, how are the practices of high-performing, high-poverty schools different from those of low-performing, high-poverty schools?
The researchers gave particular attention to school and classroom practices. Authors Kannapel and Clements (2005) noted, "We hoped to identify systematically how the two kinds of school differed and to draw some conclusions about practices that are effective in helping all students succeed" (p. 5).
The study used the Kentucky scholastic audit, a tool designed by the state Department of Education to diagnose problems in schools that are not meeting achievement targets. The audit is conducted by a six-member team that spends a week on campus interviewing staff, visiting classrooms, and reviewing test scores and other materials related to the school's performance. The team uses a standardized evaluation instrument with 88 indicators. More information about the audit can be found in Appendix B of the report, available at http://www.prichardcommittee.org/
In the spring of 2004, Prichard Committee researchers contracted with five of the state audit teams to examine eight high-performing, high-poverty schools using the same process. After supplementing the audit process with additional visits and interviews, they compared data from these schools with data from schools with similar demographics but lower performance.
The authors caution that because of the limited size of their study and because the schools were not studied over time, their conclusions are not intended as policy recommendations but only as prompts for further discussion and study. They found differences between the two groups of schools, specifically identifying the following seven characteristics that the high-performing, high-poverty schools had in common:
Schoolwide ethic of high expectations for faculty, staff, and students.
In contrast to the comparison schools, the staff at the high-performing, high-poverty schools communicated a much stronger expectation that all students could succeed. Staff members at the study schools did not blame the students nor did they make an issue of the fact that many of their students were poor.
"The study schools did not talk about the kinds of kids they had. They saw the problem not as poverty but as how to help each student in the school," says researcher/author Patricia Kannapel. "Educators in these schools did not come at it with the attitude that a child would never get it; instead, they figured out what the child was struggling with and what they would do about it."
Emphasis on academics and instruction.
In each of the study schools, the overriding emphasis was on the academic program. Teachers used a wide variety of instructional strategies and programs, but they focused consistently on teaching the Kentucky Core Content. They paid close attention to aligning curriculum, instruction, and assessment. The schools developed strategies to minimize distractions from the academic program and make the teaching and learning process a top priority.
Systems for regularly assessing individual students.
Staff in the study schools regularly monitored and analyzed student achievement data. All of the schools used a variety of assessments to monitor student progress and then tailored instruction to meet individual needs. As one audit team member said, "They teach, they test, they teach, they test" (p. 17).
Collaborative decision making.
Leadership styles at the eight schools varied, and-surprisingly-none of them had a particularly authoritarian principal. Instead, staff and teachers regularly participated in making important decisions and assumed leadership roles by providing professional development, presenting issues to the staff for discussion, or participating in interviewing and hiring staff.
Strong work ethic and high faculty morale.
Teachers in the study schools reported working well beyond the school day to support student achievement. Not only did they plan instruction, analyze assessment results, and tutor struggling students, but they also helped families find necessities such as clothing and transportation. Yet, said one audit team member, with all the extra work "not once ... did I hear them complain ... so many people said ‘I love my job'" (p. 19).
Caring, respectful relationships.
Mutual respect was a hallmark-between teachers and students, staff and families. The study schools cultivated positive relationships within the building and with the community. They initiated contact with families and identified and implemented practical ways to involve them in the teaching and learning process.
Purposeful recruitment, hiring, and assignment of teachers.
All of the study schools chose and assigned teachers carefully, a factor the authors cite as contributing to their high morale and success (p. 19). The schools varied in what they identified as important teacher characteristics, but all of them had a clear and shared picture of the teachers they wanted to hire. Two of the schools developed partnerships with local universities in order to give student teachers a trial run before offering them a job (p. 19).
The authors make four observations that they suggest merit further discussion. They emphasize the importance of selecting and assigning teaching staff, noting that the eight schools actively recruited teachers who believed all students could learn and were willing to work to make that happen. They noted the consistent use of varied and individualized assessments that allowed staff to pinpoint specific learning needs and address them. They credited teachers with aligning throughout the school what was taught and what student outcomes were expected. And finally, the authors observed that in these schools, high learning expectations prevailed. Learning needs received attention, not the socioeconomic status of the students.
The Pritchard report reinforces the notion that schools with the will to reach and teach all students can do just that. They recommend continued efforts to identify and replicate the characteristics of these high-performing schools. The full text of Inside the Black Box of High-Performing High-Poverty Schools is available at http://www.prichardcommittee.org/Ford%20Study/FordReportJE.pdf.
Kannapel, P. J., & Clements, S. K. (2005). Inside the black box of high-performing high-poverty schools. Lexington, KY: Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.
Reprinted with the permission of the Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement. © 2008 Learning Point Associates. All rights reserved.
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