For School Improvement, Demographics Aren’t Destiny

Karin Chenoweth of Education Week recently wrote about lessons learned from schools with “unexpected” success. Excerpts of the article appear below:

Educators in unexpected schools change the fundamental way schools have traditionally been organized.

Back in 2000, Harvard researcher Richard Elmore argued that because teaching has primarily been an isolated, autonomous, and idiosyncratic practice, school improvement is nearly impossible. “Privacy of practice produces isolation; isolation is the enemy of improvement,” he wrote.

As Elmore wrote, traditional school structures keep schools highly dependent on the social capital students bring to their classrooms, allowing schools that serve a majority of middle-class and upper-middle-class families to appear reasonably successful. But if they begin enrolling low-income students or new immigrants, they are often exposed as schools that were not “good” in and of themselves. Rather, they had relied on the strength of their wealthier students’ vocabulary and background knowledge, and parents’ ability to provide extra help. Unfortunately, the common assessment is that low-income students and students of color cause schools to “go downhill.”

In contrast, unexpected schools have system after system to marshal the power of schools—systems as prosaic as master schedules that permit uninterrupted instruction and teacher collaboration—to help teachers work together and focus on the best ways to teach what students need to know. Most important, they have systems of information that let the adults in the school know what is working and what isn’t so they can continually adjust their practice.

These systems don’t require enormous amounts of money. What they do require is thoughtful professionalism on the part of educators and school staff who are given the time, knowledge, and resources to work together in a quest to ensure that every student is successful. That should be within the grasp of every school in the country.

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