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What Can the Teaching Profession Learn from High Performing High Poverty and High Minority Schools? You Might Be Surprised--It's Good News

by Karin Chenoweth - May 11, 2010

The author has spend the last six years identifying and visiting high performing schools with significant populations of children living in poverty and children of color. What she has found is that although teachers in these schools work hard, they find their work invigorating because they are successful. And they are successful because their schools are organized with care to ensure that they do everything right, from discipline to curriculum.

When I first began working for The Education Trust almost six years ago, my assignment was simple: find schools where poor children and children of color are doing well on state reading and math tests and figure out what their schools are doing.

We knew the schools must be doing something different from ordinary schools because, as study after depressing study has shown, on average, poor children and children of color don’t do particularly well on state reading and math tests—or on the ACT and SAT, or the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or any other of the tests traditionally given to kids to assess how much they know and can do.

But despite those depressing statistics, there have always been schools—regular, neighborhood schools—where kids have done better than the average, and those were the ones I was looking for.

I honestly didn’t know what I would find when I started out. I feared I would find the dreaded “test prep factories” we hear so much about, where an actual education takes a back seat to endless practice tests.  I also feared finding burnt-out teachers, with their shoulders slumped and eyes glazed by the relentless pressures of getting their students ready for state testing.

I found neither, which I consider excellent news for the teaching profession.

Don’t get me wrong. The teachers in these schools work hard. They sometimes work long hours and they are continually challenged to improve, which can be an exhausting process. But the teachers in the successful high-poverty and high-minority schools I have visited see their work pay off in the success of their students, and they find success invigorating.

So what can the teaching profession learn from schools that are successful with children of color and children from poor families? Most importantly, it can learn that the work of educating just about all children can be done. We know it can be done because it’s being done. And, moreover, this work can be done with the kind of intellectual integrity that holds fast to a rigorous definition of what it means to be an educated person. (Actually, I have a suspicion that this work can only be done with that kind of intellectual integrity, but that’s a hypothesis for another day.)

It is, however, unquestionably complicated work. To ensure that just about all their students learn to high standards, schools need to do everything right, which means they cannot afford to be sloppy about a single thing, from how teachers speak to children to how they organize their instruction.

This is one of the major differences schools that mostly serve low-income children face as compared with schools that mostly serve middle-class students. Middle-class schools can tolerate some sloppiness and still look pretty good on most ordinary measures of success. Middle-class parents are more likely to have the time, energy, and resources to support their children academically, socially, and emotionally, and that support can often compensate for shortcomings in their schools, from inconsistent discipline policies to wishy-washy curricula. But schools that serve children who live in poverty or isolation can’t afford to be sloppy about anything. Every single thing must be done with thought, care, and precision.

So, what does that look like?

It is hard to convey in just a few words, but let me give a few examples.

At Ware Elementary, which in 2001 was the first school in Kansas to be put “on improvement” and which today is one of the top-performing schools in the state, administrators regularly shuffle teaching assignments to ensure that the most effective reading teachers teach the “lowest” readers so that the kids who need the most teaching expertise get it. This is in direct contrast to most schools, where teachers often think of being assigned struggling kids as a sign that the principal is trying to get rid of them, not as a sign that they are being honored as the most expert teachers in the building.

At Graham Road Elementary School in Falls Church, Virginia, where 80 percent of students are low-income and 80 percent don’t speak English at home, kindergarten and first-grade teachers noticed that many of their students were having trouble matching sounds to letters and even hearing all the sounds of English. The teachers took a number of steps to incorporate phonemic awareness instruction into their classrooms, but their students still were having trouble. As a group, teachers identified a few little interstices of time they could use—the times when students line up for lunch or right at the end of the day when they wait for their bus to be called. They then developed materials for games they could play during those times—sound bingo, rhyming games, and “I’m packing a suit case and in it I put…”—so that their students would have additional practice with the sounds of English. That kind of attention to detail and use of every minute pays off: last year, just about every sixth grader met state reading standards, and 60 percent exceeded those standards.

At George Hall Elementary, which in 2004 was the lowest performing school in Mobile, Alabama, and which today is one of the top-performing schools in the state, teachers recognize that their students—all of whom are African American and almost all of whom meet the qualifications for the federal free meal program—enter with smaller vocabularies and more limited background knowledge than their middle-class counterparts. As one teacher said, “They live ten minutes from the bayou and have never seen a boat.” With a carefully planned series of field trips, the school introduced students to new sights, sounds, and vocabulary words to systematically build the background knowledge that many middle-class children develop as part of their family dinner conversations and weekend activities. Last year just about all students met or exceeded state reading and math standards.

At Elmont Memorial Junior-Senior High School, in Nassau County, New York, untenured teachers are observed at least seven times a year, beginning in September, so that department chairs and administrators can help teachers improve their instruction. Teachers are offered concrete suggestions ranging from ideas about managing classroom behavior to how to build engaging lessons and pose challenging questions. Each observation lasts a full class period, and the post-observation conference is essentially a one-on-one lesson. Even after they earn tenure, teachers are observed a minimum of twice a year—more if they are struggling. Compare that to what was reported recently by The New Teacher Project, which found that only one percent of teachers are observed for an hour or more before they are given a final evaluation. “I taught in the city for four years and thought I was a pretty good teacher. But until I came here I had never taught a lesson,” is what teacher Wendy Tague says about Elmont’s observation process.

Tague and other teachers at Elmont credit this process of continually improving instruction for the fact that just about every one of their students graduates and 97 percent of graduates go on to college. With a student body that is almost entirely African American and Latino, the school’s graduation rate far exceeds that of whites in the state of New York, and the school’s high enrollment in Advanced Placement classes gives a sense of the school’s intellectual rigor.  

These few examples give a general idea—the teachers and administrators in these schools are clear about what children need to learn and then they do what is necessary to ensure that happens. They do not assume that all their children arrive at their doors with the vocabulary and background knowledge required for academic success, and they don’t assume that every teacher arrives knowing how to teach every student. They use their time and resources carefully. They have high expectations of their students and teachers—but also provide a lot of support for them.

And the result is that, according to the teachers I have spoken with, these are wonderful, supportive, invigorating, and intellectually stimulating places to work. As one teacher told me, “We’re successful. And we’re like family.”

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 11, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15973, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 4:07:27 PM

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About the Author
  • Karin Chenoweth
    The Education Trust
    E-mail Author
    KARIN CHENOWETH is senior writer at The Education Trust and author of It's Being Done: Academic Success in Unexpected Schools (2007) and How It's Being Done: Urgent Lessons from Unexpected Schools (2009), both published by Harvard Education Press.
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