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School & District Management Opinion

Is School Success Transferable?

By Randy Ross — January 22, 2008 6 min read
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For 30 years, I have been motivated by the well-worn dictum that we know how to create effective schools for all students, but lack the will to do so. Yet despite periodic surges in the nation’s will, high-performing inner-city schools still account for only a smattering of bright dots on a dull gray horizon. Insufficient commitment may indeed remain central to the challenge of upping these numbers, but our failure to transform underperforming urban schools on a broader scale is fueled first I believe by cluelessness.

Something critical seems to be missing from urban school reform recipes. My mother used to say that she could tell if a watermelon was tasty or not by the sound it made when she thumped it. When I asked her recently how it should sound, she said: “I can’t explain it, but I know it when I hear it.” The nation’s record in educating inner-city children suggests that we don’t yet know the sound of success in these schools—and, more important, how to transfer that sound from school to school.

But then I attended a meeting at which Mikara Solomon Davis, a California elementary school principal, told a remarkable story of success at her school in Los Angeles County’s Compton Unified School District. From 1999 to 2006, Bunche Elementary School enjoyed the highest rate of growth in academic performance of any public school in the state. With virtually all of its 425 students considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, Bunche Elementary performs today as well as any “rich” school.

This was impressive to hear. But experience had taught me not to project my excitement beyond Bunche. Maybe, I reasoned, the school possessed singular qualities that defied widespread cloning.

Despite periodic surges in the nation’s will, high-performing inner-city schools still account for only a smattering of bright dots on a dull gray horizon.

Something I heard during the question-and-answer period that followed, however, raised my antennae. Davis mentioned that she had been mentored by Nancy Ichinaga, the longtime principal of a successful elementary school in Inglewood, Calif., that had been part of a study I participated in nearly 20 years ago. So I dared to ask myself: Is it possible that Nancy Ichinaga has figured out how to transfer school success?

I had to find out more. To validate Bunche Elementary School’s success, I subjected it to a sequence of acid tests. First, does its performance compare favorably with that of other schools with similar students? Yes. Bunche scores much higher than any of the 100 California elementary schools with which it is demographically most similar. This applies to all core subjects across all grades. And Bunche’s phenomenal growth in performance is equally true among the school’s ethnic subgroups (about half African-American and half Latino), English-language learners (40 percent of enrollment), and students from socioeconomically disadvantaged families (nearly all students).

The next series of tests entailed examining other plausible explanations for the rise in achievement—specifically, possible shifts in the characteristics of students over time (selection effects) and/or data problems. After this flurry of dart throwing, I became convinced that something great must be happening at this school. But what? Here is some of what I have since discovered.

When 27-year-old Mikara Solomon Davis became the school’s principal in the summer of 2000, she had six teaching vacancies to fill. She went about it this way: “When I hire teachers, the only thing I care about is if they love kids. I can teach them how to teach, but if they don’t love kids, I don’t want them here. … The [students] I am concerned about have enough barriers against them.”

When the kids came and instruction began, Davis spent all her time in classrooms, observing, assisting, developing, and cheering on teachers—every class, every day. Instruction time had to be jealously guarded.

To give teeth to her strategy of focusing keenly on the work of classroom teachers, she evaluated each instructor twice in the first year. Given the intolerably low performance of the school in the year before she came, she found virtually all its teachers wanting. Some ineffective ones were released; others left the school voluntarily.

A critical element of Bunche Elementary’s approach became ongoing planning and accountability. Every Friday, each teacher administered a skills test to assess student progress. Results were submitted to the principal, who in turn published them by classroom. Teachers for each grade level met weekly to review the results from the Friday skills tests, share student work, create the next skills test, plan for the following week, and address isolated weaknesses in both instruction and discipline.

Davis knew from the skills-test data which students were performing below par. So student-study teams were formed to develop and execute individualized plans for each low-performing student.

We probably would all agree that taken together, such practices could, with sustained, effective implementation, produce a successful school. Yet there remains the hurdle of transporting that success to similar schools. This brings me back to Nancy Ichinaga.

A great story of school-success transferability is one that has no ending; it goes on and on.

Beginning in the fall of 2000, Ichinaga visited Bunche Elementary one day each month. Generally, she would stay for two or more hours, talking with Davis, meeting with her teachers, and accompanying the principal on her classroom visits. Ichinaga offered advice on how to improve instruction—advice that Davis and her teachers often found tough to swallow. But they knew that Ichinaga had credibility. Not only had she been a much-lauded principal since the mid-1970s, but she also headed a successful school, Bennett-Kew Elementary, whose students were demographically similar to those at Bunche.

So what did Ichinaga say to Davis? For one, she told her that kindergartners and 1st graders had to know how to read to standard before moving to a higher grade. Davis should assign the best teachers to the early grades, she advised, and retain pupils who were not able to meet the K-1 standard. This, she said, is what she did at Bennett-Kew.

The relationship between Mikara Solomon Davis and Nancy Ichinaga offers anecdotal evidence that educational success for poor kids can be transferred from one school to another. Given the uncommon passion of these two principals, however, one has to wonder whether the same kind of transfer is possible in other schools. Some history about the Inglewood school district may shed light on this.

Around 1997, Inglewood’s superintendent, McKinley Nash, noticed that two of his district’s 24 elementary schools were performing at exceptionally high levels year after year. One of these schools was Bennett-Kew Elementary, where Nancy Ichinaga was the principal. The other was Kelso Elementary, headed by Marge Thompson. Thereafter, when he met with elementary principals, Nash would ask, “Have you talked with Marge or Nancy?” With this advice, and solid administrative follow-up, elementary test scores in the district began to rise rapidly—so rapidly, in fact, that by the publication of the 2002 report “They Have Overcome: High-Poverty, High-Performing Schools in California,” four of the eight schools the study cited were in Inglewood. The section describing the work of these schools was titled “The Inglewood Miracle.”

A great story of school-success transferability is one that has no ending; it goes on and on. So, happily, the story does not end here. Last year, Davis left her principalship at Bunche and began coaching principals of two Compton elementary schools—Bunche and Jefferson. Consistent with the Compton district’s overall drop in performance on California’s standardized-test results for 2007, Bunche’s scores fell some. But the school remains the highest performer in the district. On the other hand, Jefferson’s academic performance rocketed. Now everybody’s calling the principal at Jefferson Elementary to inquire about the sound of the melon: What did Mikara tell you?

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A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2008 edition of Education Week as Is School Success Transferable?

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