A Synthesis of Validated Research on High-Performing, High-Poverty Schools (page 2)
Children who live in poverty often attend the lowest performing schools. State and national assessments consistently show poor children lagging behind in performance.1 Very poor communities face many hardships, where children, families, and the schools that serve them confront a host of challenges. For schools, these challenges include children who start school without early literacy skills, high rates of absenteeism and transience, difficulty attracting experienced teachers, and much more (Stiefel et al. 2000).
It is challenging work to turn around a low performing school in an impoverished community, but there is promising research to support the notion that it can be done. What common qualities, attributes, and conditions characterize high-performing, high-poverty schools?
There are public schools in poor communities that are making substantial progress, or have excelled, in their mission of teaching children to read, do mathematics, and develop higher-order thinking skills. Researchers have looked at such schools to determine what characteristics they share. Lessons learned from high-performing, high-poverty schools could bolster efforts by school leaders and educators strengthen low-performing schools (Carter 2000). The best available research indicates that positive change and success can occur even under the most challenging conditions.
Defining high-performing schools
Definitions and standards for high-performing schools varied across and within these studies. Nonetheless, each of the schools examined showed positive growth and progress. All of the studies used standardized test results, primarily in mathematics and reading, to identify high-performing schools. For instance, a school might have been identified as high-performing if it showed improved test scores across all grades or across all subjects. A school also might have been identified as high-performing if it showed improved test scores on one subject within one or two grades.
Most of the studies reviewed here focused on results of state-mandated tests. These tests offer researchers validated instruments and the potential for comparisons across schools, although not across states. Each state bases its tests on its own academic standards, which differ in content and rigor. Despite the variations in definitions and standards for high performance in schools across and within these studies, each of the schools examined showed positive growth and progress.
Findings from the research
In the 1980s, researchers began to document the attributes of successful schools (then called "effective schools") serving high-poverty populations (see for example, Pechman & Fiester 1996). More recent research shows that many more schools in poor communities than previously believed perform well as measured by state accountability plans.
The Education Trust, for example, has documented thousands of high-poverty schools making progress in improving educational outcomes of students. In its analysis of an American Institutes for Research database that combined school-level scores on state assessments and demographic information, Education Trust identified 4,577 public schools2 nationwide whose students achieved in the top third in reading and/or mathematics assessment for their state3 and had at least 50 percent low-income and at least 50 percent African American and Latino students (Ali & Jerald 2001, Jerald 2001). These schools educated more than 2 million students, including nearly 1.3 million poor, 564,000 African American, and 660,000 Latino students.
What combination of practices, attributes, and resources produces such schools? Most of the research arrives at similar conclusions about the factors that influence school-wide performance, although they vary in their assessment of relative importance or proportion of those factors.
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts
The first factor is what Cawelti (2000) referred to as "a sustained focus on multiple factors." That is, schools do not achieve high performance by doing one or two things differently. They must do a number of things differently, and all at the same time, to begin to achieve the critical mass that will make a difference in student outcomes—in other words, high-poverty schools that achieve gains in student performance engage in systemic change.
When we look across the studies, 10 factors are consistently identified. In this analysis, we separate them into five building blocks and five practices:
- A culture of high expectations and caring for students
- A safe and disciplined environment
- A principal who is a strong instructional leader
- Hard-working, committed, and able teachers
- A curriculum focused on academic achievement that emphasizes basic skills in mathematics and literacy
- Increased instructional time
- Ongoing, diagnostic assessment
- Parents as partners in learning
- Professional development to improve student achievement
- Collaboration among teachers and staff
In the sections that follow, we explore each of these characteristics.
Building blocks of high-performing, high-poverty schools
Culture of high expectations and caring
Fundamental to high-performing schools is the culture of high expectations shared by the school’s principal, teachers, staff, and students. Central to this culture is the conviction that all children can achieve and succeed academically. Much of the research points to the presence of such a culture as "necessary" or even the "dominant theme" in making it possible for a school to succeed in a high-poverty community (see for example, Barth et al 1999, Kannapel & Clements 2005, Ragland et al 2002).
Principals establish high expectations for themselves and their staff, teachers set high expectations for themselves and their students, and students learn to have high expectations for themselves—and the adults around them. Everyone models the processes of continual learning and self-assessment that are asked of students. As one of the audit teams for the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence observed, "I strongly believe everyone there believes all can learn, and I have never found that in another school" (Kannapel & Clements 2005).
Further, the school’s leadership makes sure to root this belief system in tangible, measurable goals (Carter 2000, Ragland et al 2002). Kannapel & Clements (2005) call these "high expectations communicated in concrete ways." These goals differ from school to school—that every student will go to college, study calculus by 12th grade, or play a musical instrument, for example. What matters is the concrete, demanding but achievable goal that makes it real for students. Ultimately, the culture of high expectations becomes what Haberman (1999) calls a "common ideology" that lends the school a unity of purpose and a sense of identity (Jesse et al 2004).
The culture of high expectations is embedded in a caring and nurturing environment, where adults and young people alike treat each other with respect (see Kannapel & Clements 2005, Lauer 2001, for example). Haberman (1999) identified the ability of teachers to forge relationships with children in poverty and connect with them as the key factor in high-performing schools. In discussing what factors in the school environment produce resilience in students, Borman & Rachuba (2001) identify “strong and supportive” relationships with teachers as crucial. Cawelti (2000) points to incentives and student recognition as one expression of caring, and McGee (2004) observes the attention that high-performing schools give to health and safety, ensuring that students have nutritional meals and access to health, dental, and counseling care.
A safe and disciplined environment
For students to achieve academically, they must have a safe and disciplined environment in which to do so. Many high-performing schools adopt uniforms and strict codes of behavior, but some researchers suggest that these represent the interconnection among high expectations, caring, and respect rather than the trappings of authoritarian discipline (Kannapel and Clements 2005, Jesse et al 2004).
High-performing schools' approach to achieving safety and discipline is also rooted in the culture of high expectations. In an atmosphere where teachers and students treat one another with respect, behavior that is respectful of people, property, and self is the norm. Carter (2000) credits the focus on achievement as "the key to discipline," for it models for students the rewards of "self-control, self-reliance, and self-esteem." He notes that the study of music, which some high-performing schools emphasize, is a metaphor for students that hard work and discipline produce harmony and beauty.
A principal who is a strong instructional leader
Virtually all the studies cited here identified the principal's leadership as important to high performance. Researchers consistently point to the principal as a key player in sustaining that sense of "a culture of success for all" (McGee 1999, Haberman 1999, Cawelti 2000, Jesse et al 2004). Carter (2000) asserts that the presence of a strong principal who holds everyone to the highest standards is the most notable factor in creating a high-performing school.
But researchers differ in how crucial the principal’s role is and in their definition of the preferred leadership style. Jesse et al (2004) noted both collaborative and hierarchical leaders among the principals studied. Kannapel and Clements (2005) were surprised by the variety of leadership styles they observed, yet found mostly “non-authoritarian” principals who led by collaborative decision-making. Carter (2000), on the other hand, emphasized the autonomy of principals: "effective principals decide how to spend their money, whom to hire, and what to teach."
Besides establishing a culture of high expectations, the principal's most important role seems to be instructional leadership. Principals encourage, support, and collaborate with teachers to make the best use of their talents, experience, and creativity toward the purpose of improving student achievement. They regard the hiring and training of their teaching staff as among their most critical responsibilities (Carter 2000, Kannapel & Clements 2005, Ragland et al 2002).
Hard-working, committed, and able teachers
Researchers concur that teachers are an important element of high-performing schools (Carter 2000, Kannapel & Clements 2005, Ragland et al 2002). The principal regards the teaching corps as the school’s most important resource, and focuses on hiring, cultivating, and supporting the best teachers. Researchers also agree that the teachers who succeed in these schools have embraced the culture of high expectations: they are committed to seeing all children achieve (see Lauer 2001, for example). They love learning and relate well to children. They work hard, for long hours, but have high morale and devotion to their work.
The principals who hire teachers place somewhat different emphasis on the qualities that they look for in hiring, in part because it is so difficult to recruit teachers to high-poverty schools. Some require candidates to teach a demonstration lesson. Others work closely with colleges to place student teachers that they can observe and cultivate as promising candidates. Other principals hire teachers with little experience or training but the right attitudes and beliefs about children and learning, and train them on the job. In such cases, some principals report that off-the-shelf curriculum packages help these less experienced teachers deliver instruction more effectively sooner, by providing detailed guidance for them to follow in the classroom. Still other schools establish master teacher or coaching systems to mentor new teachers.
A curriculum focused on academic achievement that emphasizes basic skills
These schools consistently emphasize academic achievement and instruction. Many purchase commercial instructional packages or curricula. Many use state standards as the basis for curriculum design and assessment (see Cawelti 2000 for example). In Barth et al (1999), it was noted that “the most significant finding” of its survey was the extent to which high-performing schools use standards to guide school activity: 80 percent report using standards to design curriculum and instruction, 94 percent use standards to assess student progress, and 59 percent use standards to assess teacher effectiveness.
The research of Kannapel and Clements (2005) suggests that the choice of curriculum or instructional style was less important than the focus: "The key seemed not to be what they were doing so much as the fact that the entire faculty and school community had focused consistently over time on academics, instruction, and student learning."
Most high-performing schools adopt curricula that emphasize basic skills in reading and mathematics (see for example, Carter 2000, Cawelti 2000, McGee 1999). The philosophy is simply that children who have not mastered the basic skills will not effectively progress in their education. Some encourage early childhood education programs in the school and community. The Education Trust found that 86 percent of high-performing schools had increased time spent on reading, and 66 percent on mathematics (Barth et al 1999).
But high-performing schools do not stop with the acquisition of basic skills. It was also found that schools were seeking to develop higher-order skills (Barth et al 1999). Carter (2000) reported a variety of ways that schools sought to develop the "reading habit" in students, building libraries and offering Junior Great Books, a program of the Great Books Foundation that provides engaging texts geared to students from kindergarten through 12th grade. Other schools require students to demonstrate excellence in speech and writing, or to prepare research papers and literary analyses in early elementary grades. Middle schools and high schools offer college preparatory curricula. Some schools offer curricula enriched by sports, arts, or music; others include the explicit study of character.
Reprinted with the permission of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding. © 2007, Center for Parent/Youth Understanding
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