School Climate & Safety Opinion

From High Poverty to High Performing

By John Wilson — December 01, 2011 5 min read
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I always cringe when I hear so-called reformers say poverty is “no excuse” for lack of student achievement. It is not because I don’t subscribe to that belief, but because I know politicians will use that message as an excuse for not “leveling the playing field” for poor children. To believe that you can treat and fund all schools in the same way meets what many call the definition of insanity--doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. From collective bargaining contracts to federal law, poverty has to be a factor in every decision that affects the education of poor children and those who educate them.

In the United States, we actually fund poor schools less than other schools. The highest performing countries do the opposite. More than that, the highest performing countries have less poverty because they invest in infrastructure designed to expand the middle class. In the United States, we are killing the middle class, and our student achievement will pay a dear price.

I have taught poor children my entire teaching career. I have seen poor children labeled as “mentally retarded” when they were handicapped only by extreme poverty. I have experienced success in teaching poor children to the point where they tested out of special education. I know the difference in poor children who have social capital and those who do not, and I also know what strategies can ameliorate poverty.

Despite these odds, I have witnessed, “up close and personal”, some high poverty schools that were also high performing. These schools were able to lift student achievement, close gaps, and set their students on a trajectory of success. Just like the resilient students they served, the teachers, education support professionals, and principals were resolute in their commitment to children and ingenius in overcoming bureaucracy, misguided political decisions, and the “reform du jour.” Let me share what I have learned about high poverty and high performing schools.

These schools have a shared purpose or mission that is undergirded by core values that all stakeholders embrace and live day to day. The mission and core values are not just on paper or hanging in a pretty frame on the wall. They are filtered into decisions made about the classroom and the entire school. In addition, schools that are high poverty and high performing have a vision rooted in service that stretches the performance of the stakeholders and focuses on a well-designed plan of strategies, tactics, and activities tailored to the needs of the students in that school.

Schools that are high poverty and high performing are headed up by visionary leaders who inspire and empower the staff to execute a strategic plan. These leaders hire well-qualified staff and provide unconditional support to those teachers and education support professionals. These leaders are not afraid to take risks and are willing to put complete confidence in their staff--even if it means risking their jobs. Leaders of high poverty and high performing schools are resourceful and creative in managing available funds from local, state, and federal governments and are willing to seek out philanthropic support.

Faculty members at these schools are willing to embrace learning communities as a vehicle for looking at data from regular diagnostic and formative assessments of student achievement. They make decisions about interventions for students who are not succeeding and for their own professional development when data show that they are not successful in their practice. This is a monthly, if not weekly, exercise in these schools. Teachers and education support professionals at these schools do not wait until the end the year for summative assessment results based on a single test on a single day to take corrective action to help students.

Faculty members at these schools maximize professional development by strategically assessing their greatest needs, locating high quality providers to meet those needs, and training as many staff as possible. Those who get the training are then called to share with others what they have learned. They also read and discuss the best books on teaching, observe their colleagues’ teaching techniques, mentor new teachers and those who are less effective, and participate in professional union activities.

Those who work at high poverty and high performing schools also create robust and vibrant family and community involvement programs. They are willing to visit the homes of their students, invite parents to be their partners, and assure them that their children are getting a great education in a nurturing and safe environment. Parents are welcomed and involved at the school site. Cultural differences are celebrated and used as assets.

High poverty and high performing schools are consistent about genuinely recognizing the successes of students and staff. These schools are safe and satisfying places to be. The satisfaction shows on the faces of staff and in the smiles of students. It is also present in the tone of conversations and the management of student behavior.

Now, did you notice what I have not mentioned? In my experience, success at high poverty and high performing schools is not based on merit pay, high stakes testing, vouchers, bureaucratic personnel evaluations systems, alternative certification, or any other glitzy idea that politicians seem to embrace so easily. Maybe we need to try some new reforms based on what really works!

Let’s trust and respect the principals, teachers, and education support professionals. Let’s recognize that staff work longer and harder in high poverty schools and pay them accordingly. Let’s give them 11 or 12 months of employment to create and manage a different system of educating high poverty students. Let’s assure that class size does not exceed 15 in any classroom at a high poverty school. Let’s guarantee a per pupil expenditure equal to or exceeding the most affluent public school in the state. Let’s assign students based on socio-economic factors or student achievement to balance all schools in a system.

Share your ideas for making all high poverty schools high performing. America can afford to do this for all children. Let’s turn our collective will into the best way to educate all children!

The opinions expressed in John Wilson Unleashed are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.