What is really the difference between high- and low-performing schools? This question is critical to the work of parents, educators, and policy makers striving to improving student learning. Some will answer that there is essentially no difference in the curriculum, teaching, or leadership of these schools. Rather, they'll argue (often in opposition to some school reform program or policy initiative), that poverty explains the difference. Kids growing up in poverty face all sorts of learning challenges, so it should be no surprise that schools with high percentages of students from poverty will be low-achieving.
There's no doubt that family income makes a huge difference in student learning outcomes. High-poverty schools face an enormous uphill struggle. But in my experience, there are discernible differences in many low-performing schools that have little to do with poverty and could, if addressed boldly and intentionally, make a major impact on student learning.
In recent years I've participated in a number of evaluation visits to low-performing schools. These reviews are part of many states' efforts to provide feedback and support to their lowest-achieving schools. During these multi-day visits, teams of practicing and retired educators observe classrooms, interview teachers, students, and parents, and review data and reams of documentation using a carefully-crafted rubric of indicators that are correlated to student achievement outcomes. The reviews conclude with an extensive report highlighting the school's successful practices and making prioritized recommendations for improvement.
In the last four years I've participated in or lead evaluation visits in seven schools, representing five school districts in two states. These were some of the lowest-performing schools in their respective states. These schools also served very high percentages of students from low-income families. What follows is a summary of the patterns I've observed. This is not a scientific analysis of course, but is rather based on my anecdotal experiences in these schools, as well as countless other schools of all performance levels that I visit while providing professional development services or other supports to practicing and aspiring school administrators.
First, I'll say that the vast majority of educators I've encountered in low-performing schools are dedicated and hard working. Many profess a sense of calling to work with students of poverty. Union contracts often present obstacles to some school improvement efforts, but many of these are surmountable and most individual teachers seem willing to do whatever it takes to help their students succeed.
But despite these good intentions, I see three major patterns that stand in the way of student learning in chronically low-performing schools. These patterns are within the control of teachers and especially school leaders, and they greatly account for low student achievement, above and beyond the effects of poverty.
Basic classroom-level instruction is often weak and ineffective. Classrooms in low-performing schools are often characterized by un-engaging, teacher-driven instruction undifferentiated for student readiness level. Learning tasks suggest teachers have consistently low expectations for what students can do. Lesson learning targets, where they exist, do not seem to be organized into a coherent framework of learning progressions that can effectively inform assessment. Perhaps most importantly, formative classroom assessment data rarely leads to meaningful, descriptive feedback that could help a student improve her performance, and almost never leads to changes in instruction.
Again, it's not that teachers aren't working hard, or that they are refusing to do these things. I think in most cases the teachers have simply never been properly trained or supported to make these changes in instruction, or held accountable for doing so. They think their teaching is good because they've never seen the alternative, or don't believe it could work with their students. And of course there are exceptions. In every low-performing school I've encountered pockets of excellent teaching. But these teachers are usually working in isolation from their colleagues and with little recognition or support from school leaders.
A related issue is that student behavior in some low-performing schools is a real obstacle to learning. This is not universally true, however. I've seen several low-performing schools where students were polite, cooperative, and compliant with teacher directives. But in some schools there is great inconsistency in teacher expectations for student behavior across classrooms, or in enforcement of these expectations. These schools desperately need to faithfully implement Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports or some other framework to address this challenge.
School improvement efforts lack focus and clarity. In many low-performing schools, especially those that have had extensive support from state consultants, numerous well-intentioned improvement initiatives are underway. But schools are sometimes implementing so many different programs they don't have the time to do any of them well, and are often not gathering data that would help them gauge the effectiveness of any initiative. Above all, very few of these initiatives really foster significant changes in classroom instructional practice, which as I've already noted is a key problem in most of these schools. These schools need to narrow their efforts to a highly-focused set of improvement strategies that promote meaningful changes in classroom teaching.
Finally, school leaders not sufficiently engaged in the work of instruction. While many principals in low-performing schools, like their teachers, work hard and desire to do their jobs well, many are also unaware of the relatively poor quality of classroom instruction and are not focused enough on improving teaching practice. They do not invest enough time monitoring classroom instruction, providing teacher feedback for improvement, or holding all staff accountable for implementing improvement initiatives and being consistent with student behavior expectations. And without principals who are sufficiently engaged in instructional improvement, none of the other problems I've seen in low-performing schools can be adequately addressed (See Karin Chenoweth and Christina Theokas' book, Getting it Done, for profiles of principals in high-poverty schools who are, in fact, "getting it done.")
Of course, these patterns can sometimes be found in high-achieving schools too. For many reasons it is simply easier to get good test scores with students from more affluent family backgrounds, and I'm also greatly concerned about schools that appear to be high performing for this reason, but have so much potential to improve teaching and learning (what John Hattie calls "cruising schools").
The bottom line is that, if you work in a low-performing, high-poverty school, the stakes are simply higher to improve student learning. You have to be better than your colleagues in more affluent schools to make up for the negative effects of poverty. And those effects are so powerful, high-poverty schools may even, with the most focused and effective teaching and leadership, still lag behind low-poverty schools in terms of test scores. But there is no question that most-low performing schools can do better, and with skillful, engaged leaders who don't accept poverty as an excuse, real progress can be made.