The Quiet Revolution In Achievement

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A critical mass of schools is establishing that children can achieve at high standards regardless of race of economic disadvantage.

We have yet to take sufficient note of a historic development in public education: A critical mass of schools is establishing, with more assurance than ever, that children can achieve at high standards regardless of race or economic disadvantage. The wall is coming down as both method and mind-set have converged to work their magic. These developments, and the simple, common elements that inform them, obligate us to do far more than we currently do to hasten their replication and refinement. How we respond to these new realities will both define us and redefine the democratic experiment.

The Denver Post recently contained an arresting article with the headline "Schools Prove Poor Kids Can Thrive." It listed 15 schools in Colorado with exceptionally large populations of high-poverty students--and reading scores that the most affluent schools would envy.

Of the 15, four were from the same district--Pueblo, Colo. One of them is Bessemer Elementary School. Eighty-five percent of Bessemer's students receive free or reduced-price lunches. Two years ago, only 2 percent of its students were proficient writers, and only 12 percent were proficient readers. One year later, 47 percent were proficient writers, and 64 percent were proficient readers. That got the school on "Good Morning America." Officials there are still awaiting the most recent writing data, but their reading results are in: Students went up 10 more points, to 74 percent proficient. That's higher, mind you, than my own children's prestigious, affluent district scored until just a few years ago.

The Milwaukee public schools are proud to boast of what they call the 90/90/90 schools: those in which 90 percent or more of the students are from minority groups, 90 percent or more are disadvantaged, and 90 percent or more read at or above standard on the state test.

In Texas, a growing network of schools is making a name for itself by ensuring that disproportionately high numbers of students achieve at high levels regardless of race or economic disadvantage. One entire district, the Brazosport schools south of Houston, has achieved something truly remarkable: In all 18 of its schools, K-12, 90 percent or more of every subgroup--black, white, Hispanic, and economically disadvantaged--is achieving at or above standard on the math, writing, and reading assessment portions of the Texas state assessment. Forty-one percent of its students are economically disadvantaged, but there are virtually no differences between the achievement of the poorest and most affluent schools in the district, which range from 7 percent to 85 percent of kids on free or reduced-price lunches. The beauty of it, as journalist Joan Richardson points out, is that "the district's road map to success could be used by any district."

The "road map" Ms. Richardson chronicles is disarmingly simple and virtually the same as that used by Pueblo, Milwaukee, and a large and growing number of schools and districts that are beating the odds. It consists of the following:

  • Setting clear, compelling, measurable improvement goals;
  • Having teachers meet regularly and frequently to "continuously tackle shared problems"; and
  • Using data both annually and periodically to guide action and zero in on areas of greatest need.

All of the schools I have mentioned have these elements in common, and administrators who make sure they stay focused on them. But there is one more common strand. As Gerald Andersen, the superintendent in Brazosport, Texas, explains, the path to results begins with a review of core beliefs: "We believe that all children can learn. Excuses for low academic performance based on socioeconomic or racial differences are unacceptable."

And though the success of Colorado's Bessemer Elementary is founded on the same goal-oriented, data-driven, obsessively collegial structures, Principal Gary Trujillo gives first credit to "a common vision by teachers, students, parents, and administration that all students can and will learn." It starts, he says, with the mind-set.

We could be making far more rapid progress while dispelling, once and for all, the untenable notion that socioeconomic status is destiny.

Milwaukee, too, was emphatic about the importance of focused, frequent team meetings aimed at achieving measurable learning goals within a carefully designed, data-driven structure. But before any of that was in place, teachers and administrators fought hard to make "all children can learn" more than a tired bromide. It took them 18 months, but they forged a statement that required guts to create and commit to: that the Milwaukee public schools would become "the first urban school district where all students meet high standards."

Change and improvement are complex. The good news is that our best friends in negotiating that complexity are certain simple actions and attitudes. The work of educators and researchers like Michael Fullan, Susan Rosenholtz, and Judith Warren Little has been pointing to this for some time--that this combination of method and mind-set is a formula for success, not just in the basics but beyond. If what these sites and others have accomplished points to something seismic--as it seems to--two important questions emerge: How can we nourish and accelerate these trends? And if we do that, what will be the impact?

We can begin by aggressively disseminating, clarifying, and explaining--in short, by demystifying--these successes. The more detail, the better. A kind of "improvement literacy" should be our goal for every teacher and administrator. This new know-how can be achieved on the medical model--by publishing, studying, and refining every real, replicable breakthrough.

There is plenty of room for a greater amount of this activity in education courses, and lots of opportunity for more such sessions at conferences, which still abound in bloated, esoteric workshops too many steps removed from the practical, proven work of improvement. We could be making far more rapid progress while dispelling, once and for all, the untenable notion that socioeconomic status is destiny.

At the same time, we should make a radical shift in our current research budget, much more of which could be devoted to studying and formalizing these findings in plain and practical form--always allied to real, compelling success stories.

There will be resistance, but this new agenda is worth fighting for because the impact, even in the short run, would be truly historic.

We have never been so close to being able to envision a society in which something approaching universal education is the norm. Forget our endless braying about the truth or distortion in international comparisons. Consider instead the potential effects of ensuring at least a decent education for almost all students:

The crime rate, already reduced, could reach much lower levels. Sixty-eight percent of our prison population did not graduate from high school; the state of Indiana has found it useful to base projections for future prison construction on the number of 2nd graders who aren't reading on grade level.

Race and class prejudice could be mitigated as higher proportions of the current underclass enter useful occupations, and as crime is reduced in scale and significance.

The impact on the economy, as these new members of the productive sector emerge to support rather than burden the system, could be profound. About 50 percent of high school dropouts are not employed.

These methods could--if used to increase students' creative and critical capacities--usher in a more democratic and enlightened body politic, as more citizens are enfranchised and equipped to help achieve the ideal of a fair and rational society.

If this all sounds visionary, that is the point. These successful schools and many others out there provoke us to examine ourselves and ask: Is this possible? Are we doing all we can?

Mike Schmoker, a former central-office administrator, is now an independent consultant living in Englewood, Colo. His most recent book is Results: The Key to Continuous School Improvement (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development).

Vol. 19, Issue 10, Pages 32, 35

Published in Print: November 3, 1999, as The Quiet Revolution In Achievement
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