Slithery snakes. At George Hall, teachers know that their students haven't had the opportunity to travel. "They live 10 minutes from the bayou," said one teacher about her students. "But they've never seen a boat. We take them on a boat." In fact, George Hall students go on an average of one field trip a month, each one carefully selected to help students learn a great deal about the world around them. Each trip comes accompanied by writing, videotaping, and blogging assignments. Not only do students get to hold a snake, for example, but they have multiple opportunities to use snake-related words such as slithery, slippery, and scales.
At P.S./M.S. 124 in Queens, the faculty became aware that no matter how hard they tried to teach their students to make inferences and draw conclusions from facts they already knew, if students didn't have the background knowledge, "it didn't stick," as Principal Lewis put it. So the staff voted to adopt Core Knowledge, a program developed in part by scholar E. D. Hirsch, author of Cultural Literacy and The Knowledge Deficit. Hirsch's work is based on the premise that educated people have internalized a lot of information, which allows them to read sophisticated materials that then help them learn more. Core Knowledge was developed to help low-income students build a large storehouse of information. So they study the history of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and their fiction reading supports social studies and science. When students study Europe during the Middle Ages, for example, they also read the adventures of Robin Hood.
Each successful school approaches the challenges of educating students a bit differently. But many share the kind of atmosphere and structure that not only permits but also requires teachers to work together to improve instruction. The faculty agrees that no one teacher can possibly know everything about the subject being taught, all the ways to teach it, and all the students in the classroom. Each teacher must bring knowledge and expertise to the enterprise. So, for example, at Elmont High School, if a department chair notices that a new teacher is having trouble structuring lessons, he might suggest that she go down the hall to observe one teacher's opening activity, a second teacher's transition to the main lesson, and a third teacher's closing activity.
A different kind of collaboration takes place every year before school starts at Imperial High School. Faculty members meet to look deeply at all the data that measure student achievement—reading levels, math knowledge, performance on classroom tests, and so forth. One year they noticed—with some surprise—that it wasn't just their low-income students and recent immigrant students who had weak vocabularies but also their middle-class white students. They decided to address the issue as a staff, and even the technical arts teachers became part of the solution. Now, as part of woodshop, agriculture, and computer design classes, teachers are carefully introducing new words and making sure students have opportunities to practice them and use them in different contexts.
This kind of collaborative, supportive culture remains surprisingly rare in American schools. Yet it may be the most distinctive thing about schools that succeed with low-income students and students of color.
Working collaboratively does not always come naturally to teachers, who have long been trained to teach behind closed doors. That tradition of isolated teaching has meant that kids are very dependent on which teacher they get: A good teacher means a good year of learning; a weak teacher means a bad year.
For the most part, middle-class students—with strong academic support systems in their families—can survive a weak teacher or two in their school lives. But for low-income students, whose parents are less likely to be able to take them on family trips and to museums, even one weak teacher can set them back for years. And a recent long-term study commissioned by the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development found that low-income students have only a 10 percent chance of consistently being assigned a good teacher. It turns out that when teachers and administrators pool their knowledge with an eye to ensuring that all children master a rich and demanding curriculum, remarkable things happen. Not only are the schools described here educating their students, who have been characterized as hard to teach. They also are keeping alive the ideal that our public schools can be an engine of opportunity for all children, no matter what their background.
Karin Chenoweth is the author of How It's Being Done: Urgent Lessons From Unexpected Schools (Harvard Education Press, 2009).