Education Opinion

Mission: Possible

May 01, 2001 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print
When will we realize that poor children in failing schools pay a terrible price for our shortsightedness and apathy?

Kentucky is the “poster child” for school reform among the states. In 1990, its supreme court declared the entire public school system unconstitutional. Since then, the state legislature, guided by enlightened political, civic, and business leadership, has been working—with significant success—to build a first-class public school system.

As part of its reform strategy, Kentucky identifies both low-performing and high-performing schools. It intervenes to assist the troubled schools and provides recognition and monetary rewards to the successful ones.

It might be tempting to attribute the dismal student achievement in the 50 lowest-performing schools to the fact that most of them serve poor, white, rural kids whose parents rarely finished school and are either unemployed or underemployed. The correlation between poverty and low performance is so strong in this nation that it’s easy to confuse cause and effect and assume that poor kids (whatever their color or nationality) can’t or won’t learn. But that myth is shattered by a number of Kentucky’s high-performing schools that also cater to poor, rural students.

Kentucky’s Department of Education recently conducted audits of failing schools in an effort to pinpoint the causes of failure. To identify the reasons behind success, the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence and the Partnership for Kentucky Schools commissioned a survey of teachers, principals, and parents and brought together 80 educators from the high-performing schools for a discussion. The findings make dramatically clear that the difference between success and failure is not resources but leadership and attitude.

The 38 schools recognized for consistent and significant gains in student achievement over time share the following essential characteristics:

  • The school’s mission is clear, and the staff understands it and believes in it. Principals are strong leaders, not simply building managers, and they share leadership with teachers. There are high expectations for every adult and student in the school.
  • Curricula are aligned across grade levels and topics, and teachers cross boundaries to work and plan together. They share stories, techniques, and ideas, and they focus on each student, comparing notes on progress. They are continually involved in challenging professional development connected to their daily work.
  • Teachers analyze student test scores and other data and then, based on what they learn, modify their teaching.
  • Finally, administrators extend themselves to get parents involved in the school and in their children’s learning.

The focus in these low-performing schools is not on children; instead, the schools are organized for the benefit of adults.

The 50 schools (out of 1,300) designated as the lowest performing are the exact opposite of their successful counterparts, sharing none of these positive characteristics. For example, the unsuccessful schools have not changed since the court ruling more than a decade ago. They are aimless, lacking mission, energy, and constructive leadership. They have low expectations for teachers and students, little or no curricular alignment, and no significant collaboration among staff.

The focus in these low-performing schools is not on children; instead, the schools are organized for the benefit of adults. In the state’s poor, rural counties, the best-paying jobs are in the school district, so the education system is viewed primarily as an employment agency. The effort to ban nepotism by school boards was one of the more controversial issues in the Kentucky Education Reform Act.

Knowing what contributes to success seems to be of little help in dealing with failing schools. Despite the state’s intervention, most schools will not improve sufficiently. They lack the capacity—and often the will-to better themselves, and state takeovers have not proved successful. After the period of intervention, they go on as they did before—depriving children of the education they need to survive in a high-tech, information society.

Every state has failing schools and many more that are only marginally better. Because they nearly always serve the urban and rural poor, the problem isn’t identified for what it truly is: a national emergency. When will we realize that these poor children pay a terrible price for our shortsightedness and apathy—and that we do, too?

—Ronald A. Wolk

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2001 edition of Teacher as Mission: Possible


Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated: November 17, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Nearly a Million Kids Vaccinated in Week 1, White House Says
Experts say there are signs that it will be difficult to sustain the initial momentum.
4 min read
Leo Hahn, 11, gets the first shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. Last week, U.S. health officials gave the final signoff to Pfizer's kid-size COVID-19 shot, a milestone that opened a major expansion of the nation's vaccination campaign to children as young as 5. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Education How Schools Are Getting Kids the COVID Shot, and Why Some Aren’t
Some district leaders say offering vaccine clinics, with the involvement of trusted school staff, is key to helping overcome hesitancy.
5 min read
A girl walks outside of a mobile vaccine unit after getting the first dose of her COVID-19 vaccine, outside P.S. 277, Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, in the Bronx borough of New York. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)
Education Biden Administration Urges Schools to Provide COVID-19 Shots, Information for Kids
The Biden administration is encouraging local school districts to host vaccine clinics for kids and information on benefits of the shots.
2 min read
President Joe Biden, and first lady Jill Biden walk to board Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021. Biden is spending the weekend at his home in Rehoboth Beach, Del. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)