School & District Management Commentary

Learning From Success

By Robert Maranto & Rod Paige — September 18, 2012 6 min read

President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law in January 2002, which means we’re now a solid decade into the era of accountability. Today, public schools are getting a bit better, with some improvements in literacy and numeracy at the lower grades, particularly for disadvantaged children. Graduation rates have slowly risen. Schools that prepare disadvantaged children for college, such as the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, schools, now number in the hundreds. These are no small achievements when one considers that educating children is very hard work. Yet NCLB’s successes are not what they could have been, chiefly because failing public schools have not learned from their more successful peers.

The two of us spend a good deal of time in successful high-poverty public schools, both traditional and charter schools. Curiously, one thing they all have in common is that they are rarely visited by representatives of their less successful peers, who, one might think, would want to copy their tactics. Why are floundering schools so slow to change? We see at least four broad reasons, four I’s, that explain why schools fail to imitate higher-performing institutions: interests, investment, institutions, and ideology. Allow us to explain.

Interests. Good teaching is hard work, and good teaching in low-income communities is harder still. Creating a high-poverty/high-achievement school requires great effort from “the best and the brightest.” Quite simply, average educators may not be able to duplicate such success, and may even fear to try. But there is a second matter of interests. Concentrating resources on disadvantaged rather than advantaged students might offend elite parents, while sending the most experienced teachers to the highest-poverty schools might offend teachers’ unions. In short, giving special attention to disadvantaged students is unlikely to enhance a superintendent’s job security.

Measurement of result ... is here to stay, made possible by better testing technology and driven by pressures from policymakers."

This explains why per-pupil spending within school districts is far higher in rich schools than in high-poverty schools, as Marguerite Roza has written in her book Educational Economics. Roza asserts: “Inside nearly every urban school district in the country, teachers are paid more to teach middle- or upper-class students than to teach high-poverty students.” In New York City, she says, the $6,000-plus within-district spending inequities dwarf a $4,000 spending difference dividing city from suburban schools.

Investment. To admit that another school, or for that matter another teacher, does something one should emulate is to implicitly reject what one is doing now. Change is difficult enough in the first year or two of teaching, but after that it becomes exponentially harder. Like most of us, teachers take comfort in their routines. As Charles Payne says in So Much Reform, So Little Change and as we have found in our fieldwork, it is not uncommon for experienced teachers to become emotionally invested in doing what works for them, even if at times it fails many of their students. Cognitively, many educators may even find it easier to assume that teachers and schools deemed to be effective must be cheating in some way.


Institutions. Too many schools of education and state and local education authorities are geared to disbursing funds, enforcing rules, and defending their turf—not to making schools learning organizations. Too often, in our view, activities such as professional development are more geared toward adult patronage than helping kids. Indeed, the most omnipresent form of professional development, earning a master’s degree, may be motivated by money more than by a desire to improve teaching. As Teachers College President Emeritus Arthur Levine pointed out in the 2005 report “Educating School Leaders,” few teachers and administrators report that their master’s programs made them better educators, but master’s and doctoral degrees do offer pay bumps.

Ideology. At least three separate ideals widely held by educators more or less assure that schools will underperform. First, as the psychologist Carol Dweck writes in Mindset, seeing intelligence as fixed rather than variable assures that schools and students will put forth little effort to improve. Unfortunately, this has been a tendency of (many or some) educators since the National Education Association issued its Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education in 1918. In the world of those principles, a world we still inhabit, kids are smart or dumb, and there is precious little that schools can do about it. If a school excels on standardized tests, it must be because the school screens children, not because it teaches children, many believe. For just one example, see the book Bad Students, Not Bad Schools by Robert Weissberg. The title says it all.

Second, and related to all this, is the view that all schools must operate in like fashion; thus, a school in a high-crime area should not focus on maintaining order, and a school in a low-income community cannot employ teacher- rather than student-centered instruction. This ignores the work of analysts from Lisa Delpit to the late Jeanne Chall regarding cultural differences in the classroom. Interestingly, the same professors who endorse managing diversity deny that different schools might need different approaches! In our experience, these same professors proclaim their support for the disadvantaged even while practicing academic redlining, refusing to place their own students in teaching posts outside the comfortable confines of wealthy suburbs.

Third, many believe that schools cannot improve student learning because real educational improvement can occur only after broader social changes; schools, therefore, are dependent entities rather than independent actors. On the left, as in many universities, this view takes the form of arguments that schools cannot improve without increased economic equality, even though the relationships between material equity and educational achievement are anything but straightforward. From the right, certain intellectuals argue that broken families alone determine student success, and once again, schools cannot do anything about it. Research shows that neither view is accurate.

But, contrary to the four I’s, four broad trends over time will undermine our reluctance to learn. The large increases in resources devoted to schooling, followed by little or no improvement in student achievement, that characterized the past half-century weakened the authority of educators, causing outsiders like politicians and software magnates to invade education policy. The outsiders are here to stay, and they are pushing us to copy success.

Measurement of results is also here to stay, made possible by better testing technology and driven by pressures from policymakers, as well as the not-always-healthy desire of the news media to keep score. This, too, encourages copying school success.

School choice, which gives conventional educators models to copy, is also here to stay. At least some of those models, such as KIPP, are clearly worth copying.

A final, inexorable trend is exemplified by Teach For America: new entrants into teaching and school leadership. Roughly 60,000 teachers annually now come out of nontraditional training programs, some of which improve the talent pool. In low-income areas, the new entrants are overrepresented at the most successful schools. TFA boasts that more than 570 of its alumni serve as school leaders and superintendents. As Pam Grossman and Susanna Loeb wrote in Alternative Routes to Teaching in 2008, TFA is but one of 485 alternative-certification programs.

More are sure to follow, and many are levers for improvement.

Over the next decade, we can expect ever-increasing pressures for change to reach a tipping point. We educators can—and will—learn.

A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 2012 edition of Education Week as Learning From Success


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