For years, Americans have been pounded by bad news about public education: Students can't do math as well as Japanese and South Korean kids, high school graduation rates are below those of most other developed countries, and many of the kids who do graduate need remedial courses before they're ready for credit-bearing classes in college.
The news is even worse for low-income and minority children, whose academic performance generally lags so far behind that of middle-class white students that the "achievement gap" is a staple of every school reform discussion.
So what about the schools where low-income students and students of color do as well as their more privileged peers?
Take, for example, George Hall Elementary School in Mobile, Ala. Just five years ago, it was so low-performing that it was being threatened with state takeover. Not that anyone was surprised by its poor performance. Located in a high-poverty, high-crime neighborhood that is entered rarely and cautiously by outsiders, the students there—all of them African-American—are enmeshed in intergenerational poverty. They rarely travel beyond the bounds of their neighborhood, and they start school with limited vocabularies and background knowledge.
George Hall's performance led the school district to take control in 2004, replacing the principal and requiring the other staff members to reapply for their jobs. Today, under the leadership of veteran principal Agnes "Terri" Tomlinson, the school is one of the highest achievers in the state, outperforming much wealthier schools. "I knew academic achievement wouldn't be a problem," Tomlinson says. Her current goal is that all her students be "above average," and, according to the national standardized test that all Alabama students take, she is well on her way.
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Graham Road Elementary in Fairfax County, Va., is another example. As the children of low-income immigrants began enrolling at Graham Road in the 1990s, its white, middle-class students began disappearing into magnet and private schools. Academic achievement dropped until, in 2004, it was one of the lowest-performing schools in its large suburban school district just outside Washington. The school was so low-performing, in fact, that teachers remember thinking that it should be closed and the students dispersed.
Then Molly Bensinger-Lacy agreed to take the job of principal. A longtime educator, she knew her students could achieve. Today, Graham Road is one of the top-performing schools in Virginia. Almost every sixth grader meets or exceeds state reading and math standards, which is more than many wealthier schools can say.
Determination. Bensinger-Lacy doesn't want anyone to think that it's easy. "We sometimes think, 'How can we teach all we have to teach when our students come in so far behind?' " she says. But she and her faculty and staff have figured out how to make sure that their students' disadvantages outside the school don't keep them from achieving inside the school.
And George Hall and Graham Road are not alone. At P.S./M.S. 124 Osmond A. Church School in Queens, N.Y., where more than 80 percent of the students qualify for the free federal lunch program, a majority of the students are African-American or Latino; a substantial minority have parents who only recently immigrated from India and Pakistan. The school's academic performance is almost indistinguishable from that of schools with a much wealthier population.
The students there certainly are engaged. A couple of years ago, as one seventh-grade class discussed a Shakespeare play, the question arose: Did Shakespeare hate women? The debate became so heated that the students demanded that the Shakespeare unit be extended while they read additional plays to answer that question to their satisfaction. "It took on a life of its own," Principal Valarie Lewis said.
Arrie Goforth Elementary, located in the remote Arkansas Ozarks hamlet of Norfork, almost feels like a throwback to the pioneer days. Jobs are scarce in Norfork. People know that unless they get their gardens planted in the spring, they will be hungry in the winter. Faculty members there talk about the solemn responsibility of making sure that their students, most of whom are quite poor, learn a lot so that their lives will be less circumscribed than those of their families. For the past few years, the school has been one of the top-performing in the state.
It's not just elementary schools that are overcoming challenges. Just a few years ago, Imperial High School in California, where most of the students are working-class Hispanics, was in the bottom third of the state academically. Few in the community outside the school were alarmed, says Barbara Layaye, who served as superintendent there for several years. "No one expects a school like Imperial to be an academic powerhouse," says Layaye. "When your football team is winning and the marching band is good, life is good." Today, after years of improvement, the school is in the top third in the state. Just about every student earns a diploma, and almost all of the graduates enroll in a two- or four-year college. Student Adrian Juarez, whose parents are school maintenance workers, said he noticed that at other high schools, it was clear who the smart kids were. "Here," the senior said, "we're all the smart kids."
Not a gangster. Elmont Memorial Junior-Senior High School in Nassau County, N.Y., continues to confound all conventional expectations for its students, who are mostly working-class African-Americans and Latinos. In sharp contrast with the rest of the state, where only about half of African-American and Latino students graduate, 99 percent at Elmont graduate, and 97 percent go on to college. "There are a lot of doubters," said one student. "They expect me to be a gangster." But, he said, "I don't let it bother me." He is planning to enroll in college next year and study physical therapy.
These schools dispel the notion that low-income students and students of color can't achieve at high levels. Their students might arrive with disadvantages, but they leave reading, writing, computing, and achieving at high levels. And their culture of success seems almost palpable.
The existence of high-performing schools where low-income students and students of color do as well as their middle-class peers raises pivotal questions: Why don't all schools succeed? How did these schools turn challenges into triumphs?
Probably the most common thing heard from the educators in these schools is "There is no magic bullet." Rather, they have all developed complex approaches to the complicated task of educating all students. But there is one thing they do share: the deeply rooted belief that all their students not only can learn but will learn—and that it is up to the adults in the building to figure out how to make sure of that.
For example, Graham Road started with its district's "balanced literacy" reading instruction program, meaning that it incorporated both a wide array of literature and phonics instruction into lessons that teach students how to read. "We have a good balanced-literacy program," says Principal Bensinger-Lacy. "But we were finding that it wasn't sufficient." Even though good teachers were teaching a good program, some students were still unable to decode, even when they knew the words.
In some schools, teachers and administrators would throw up their hands and say, "Well, what can you do?"
But at Graham Road, teachers observed their students and their students' academic work closely and realized that many of them (80 percent speak a language other than English at home) were still too unfamiliar with the sounds of English to decode words fluently. So the kindergarten and first-grade teachers focused on helping students recognize the sounds within words. Students play rhyming games, learn nursery rhymes, and play the occasional game of "I'm packing my suitcase, and in it I put . . ." where every item needs to start with a particular letter.
Similarly, in the older grades, teachers noticed that many students didn't have the background knowledge that would allow them to read anything more complex than simple stories. The teachers set up classroom computers where they cue up short documentaries on specific topics as preparation for specific readings. If the class is going to read a book that mentions earthquakes and dump trucks, students watch films on both before reading the book. These approaches at Graham Road helped tackle two of the major obstacles low-income children bring to school: small vocabularies and limited background knowledge. Other schools have different approaches.
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).