Transforming high-poverty schools into high-performing schools

Far too often, the debate around school reform, poverty, and achievement gets stuck in one of two camps.

The first camp says that teachers have the biggest influence in student achievement. “Poverty is no excuse,” they say. “All children can achieve at high levels.”

The other camp is quick to counter that teaching quality, while being the biggest factor schools can influence, actually only has a modest effect on overall student achievement. The few hours a day that teachers spend with students over the 180-day school year–too often cut even shorter by absenteeism, fieldtrips, and testing–cannot counterbalance the effect of living in impoverished, violent neighborhoods. Yes, this camp admits that some children make heroic efforts to surmount these challenges and to achieve at high levels. However, this camps is quick to ask,”Why is it that only our poorest children and the teachers that serve them are asked to be the heroes?”

William Parrett and Kathleen Budge could easily have picked one camp or the other with their new book Turning High-Poverty Schools into High-Performing Schools. I’m glad they don’t.

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Instead, they choose a middle way, asking school leaders and teachers to consider “both/and” rather than “either/or.”

“Transformation must occur in both the broader society and in schools,” they say. Teachers need to consider not if,“schools can solve all of society’s perpetual problems, chief among them high rates of poverty;” rather, the question is, “Are we doing our part?”

I like this focus. Working in a high-poverty, low-achieving school in Oakland, California, I am often faced with children and teachers who seem to have given up hope. Considering the magnitude of obstacles stacked against us, hopelessness is not an unreasonable response. Often, I hear a child or teacher bemoan the violence of the neighborhood, the rampant alcoholism, drug abuse, poverty, and neglect. They complained about all these things that we cannot control. When I hear them, I say, “Yes. That is true. But what can we control? What can we make just a little bit better than it was before?”

The authors would like us to ask these questions:

  • “Why are some high-poverty schools performing and others not?”
  • “What do we need to do to significantly improve our lowest performing schools?”
  • “What can we learn from high-performing, high poverty schools that can help underachieving students who live in poverty, regardless of where they go to school?”

Here we encounter a sticking point, at least for me. What do we mean by, “high-performing” and “underachieving?” In my opinion, far too many of us define these two labels as numbers on a standardized test. I have written extensively about my concerns with these exams. I especially dislike the bubble-in-the-answer exams that are used to judge schools and teachers throughout this country. You can read about these opinions herehere, and here.

On the other hand, I am not adverse to tests or to accountability. You can read here about a test that I am happy to state my professional reputation and my job on.

Schools that are working on transformation must have some of these aforementioned conversations. If we don’t want to use the numbers on the state-mandated test to define “achievement,” then what measures do we want to use? Once we decide that, then we can still go through the process outlined by Parrett and Budge, finding schools that are achieving in those ways that we can stand behind, and learning from one another.

In their case studies, “high achievement” was not just defined by standardized test scores. They “focus on multiple indicators of high performance including (but not limited to) increased attendance, improved graduation rates, fewer discipline violations, increased parent and community involvement, improved pedagogy, and improved climate.”  Throughout the book, the authors offer inspiration and concrete actions that a school could use as a part of its turnaround plan.

In short, I found this book very useful. I believe the highest recommendation I can give it is this: I am buying five more copies to give to five of my teacher friends so that we can read together, learn together, and use what we learn to transform our high-poverty school into a high-achieving school.