Opinion
Equity & Diversity Commentary

For School Improvement, Demographics Aren’t Destiny

Lessons from schools with “unexpected” successes
By Karin Chenoweth — July 18, 2017 5 min read

When I talk with teachers, I often find them flummoxed by my descriptions of “unexpected” schools. That’s the term I use to describe high-performing and rapidly improving schools with large populations of children of color and children living in poverty. These schools don’t fit the well-worn pattern of academic achievement tightly correlating with family income and ethnicity, a connection first documented by James S. Coleman in his eponymous 1966 report.

When I tell them that professional development in unexpected schools is linked to both the needs of teachers and school goals and informed by classroom observations by principals and other leaders, they say something to the effect of, “The only time I see my principal is when he is doing a walk-through.”

Similarly, I sometimes describe how teachers in unexpected schools unpack standards, map out the curriculum, and develop lessons and common assessments together. The conversation stopper: “We don’t have common planning times.”

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Through such conversations, I have realized that educators in unexpected schools change the fundamental way schools have traditionally been organized.

Back in 2000, Harvard researcher Richard Elmore argued that because teaching has primarily been an isolated, autonomous, and idiosyncratic practice, school improvement is nearly impossible. “Privacy of practice produces isolation; isolation is the enemy of improvement,” he wrote. A few years later, I was hired by the Education Trust, a national education advocacy organization, to help identify and learn from successful schools serving large populations of students living in poverty and students of color.

After spending more than a decade visiting, writing about, and learning from dozens of unexpected schools across the country, I have seen what happens when school leaders take Elmore’s analysis to heart and make improvement a shared task rather than a solitary one.

For example, at Malverne Senior High School in Long Island, N.Y., 93 percent of the school’s seniors graduated in 2016, and 54 percent earned advanced diplomas (reflecting a full college-preparatory study). These numbers would be unremarkable in white, upper-middle-class high schools in New York City, but are unusual in schools with Malverne’s demographic makeup. Most of Malverne’s students are students of color—58 percent African-American and 23 percent Hispanic—and 51 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school has achieved its results by systematically building caring relationships and tackling problems together. “Failures are our problem,” Principal Vincent Romano told me. Its leaders do not leave teachers to work in isolation, but make instruction—from lesson plans to assessments—a shared activity. Every year, seven full-period classroom observations by teachers, department heads, and administrators help teachers reflect on their practice and build a culture where they work together to better engage their students in challenging material. And by continually looking at grades, test scores, and attendance and discipline data, teachers and administrators monitor how students are doing so that they can adjust instruction accordingly.

Unexpected schools like Malverne demonstrate the power schools hold to overcome barriers of poverty and discrimination—something traditionally organized schools seem to find insuperable—by breaking down long-standing structures of autonomous practice.

Traditional school structures keep schools highly dependent on the social capital students bring to their classrooms."

As Elmore wrote, traditional school structures keep schools highly dependent on the social capital students bring to their classrooms, allowing schools that serve a majority of middle-class and upper-middle-class families to appear reasonably successful. But if they begin enrolling low-income students or new immigrants, they are often exposed as schools that were not “good” in and of themselves. Rather, they had relied on the strength of their wealthier students’ vocabulary and background knowledge, and parents’ ability to provide extra help. Unfortunately, the common assessment is that low-income students and students of color cause schools to “go downhill.”

I saw how this worked in the high school my children attended. The once predominantly white, middle-class school had experienced a large increase in low-income students and students of color whose families had been drawn to the area, partly by the good reputation of the schools.

Many teachers blamed the ensuing drop in academic achievement on the new students, while continuing their decades-long march through outdated textbooks and poorly thought-through worksheets. Their instruction—isolated, autonomous, and idiosyncratic—went unchallenged by the school’s traditional structure. That is to say, the school had no systems to make sure teachers knew what state standards required students to know, no systems to identify students who had not mastered standards, and no systems to hone teachers’ individual expertise and collaborate with other teachers to improve instruction. On average, students who didn’t have the vocabulary, background knowledge, or organizational wherewithal to compensate for the weak school structures did not fare well. Conscientious teachers helped individual students, but could not by themselves change the school’s academic trajectory.

In contrast, unexpected schools have system after system to marshal the power of schools—systems as prosaic as master schedules that permit uninterrupted instruction and teacher collaboration—to help teachers work together and focus on the best ways to teach what students need to know. Most important, they have systems of information that let the adults in the school know what is working and what isn’t so they can continually adjust their practice.

These systems don’t require enormous amounts of money. What they do require is thoughtful professionalism on the part of educators and school staff who are given the time, knowledge, and resources to work together in a quest to ensure that every student is successful. That should be within the grasp of every school in the country.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 19, 2017 edition of Education Week as What ‘Unexpected’ Schools Do That Other Schools Don’t

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