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April 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 7

How High-Poverty Schools Are Getting It Done

Principals in high-achieving schools with a high percentage of students in poverty share four characteristics.

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To anyone who cares about ensuring that all children are educated to a high standard, it is depressing to look at one of those graphs that show schools by percentage of low-income students on the x axis and academic achievement on the y axis. The steep slope down and to the right seems to demonstrate an iron law of probability: High-income schools have high achievement; low-income schools have low achievement. Even more uncomfortable for a country that often prides itself on having eliminated institutional discrimination, the same results can be replicated when race rather than income is used.

Below, principal John Capozzi (far right) of Elmont Memorial High School in Nassau County, New York, observes a department chair as he observes a teacher.
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Below, principal Terri Tomlinson bonds with students at George Hall Elementary School in Mobile, Alabama.
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Photos Courtesy of Karin Chenoweth

But if you take your eye to the upper-right quadrant of that graph, you'll often see an outlier or two—that is, high-achieving schools with a high percentage of students of poverty or students of color.
What are those schools like? Are they there because of a one-time fluke? Are their poor kids the children of impecunious grad students? Are their students of color the children of doctors or lawyers?
After eight years of studying schools in the upper-right quadrant, we can say that their presence there is rarely a fluke. Their poor children are like poor children everywhere, burdened with hardships children should not have to face. Their students of color are not primarily the children of upper-income professionals. And many of these schools have teachers trained in the same local colleges that trained teachers who work in less successful schools nearby.
These schools do, however, have something that helps explain their success: They all have excellent school leaders.
This should hardly come as a shock. Research has demonstrated that school leadership is key to school improvement (Louis, Leithwood, Wahlstrom, & Anderson, 2010). In fact, one study concluded that as much as one-quarter of all "school effects" on achievement can be attributed to principals—second only to teachers and far ahead of factors like composition of student body (Leithwood, Louis, Anderson, & Wahlstrom, 2004). A more recent attempt to see how leadership translates into student achievement showed wide variation between the most effective principals and the least effective (Branch, Hanushek, & Rivkin, 2012).
But that raises more questions: What are these effective leaders like, and what do they do to be so effective? Are they simply the exception that proves the rule? We set out to answer those questions.
During the past eight years, the Education Trust has been visiting schools that are high-achieving or rapidly improving and that have significant populations of students of color or students of poverty or both. It was clear that leadership was a key factor in these schools' successes. To fully understand the role of these leaders, we went back to those schools and collected detailed data on the leaders' work.
We ended up with a sample of 33 principals (including three assistant principals) representing 24 elementary, middle, and high schools in rural, suburban, and urban locales in 19 states. (Some schools were represented by more than one leader because successive principals led and sustained the improvement.) On average, 75 percent of students in these schools qualified for free or reduced-price meals, and 73 percent were children of color. All the schools had student achievement comparable to that of middle-class schools in their state, and some were at the top of their state.
In examining the work of these principals, we discovered four qualities that they tend to share.

No. 1. Their beliefs about student potential drive their work.

The leaders we studied had spent, on average, more than a decade teaching in classrooms where they developed the clear and unwavering belief that all students can learn to high levels and that it is up to the schools to help them do so. Long-time educator Molly Bensinger-Lacy said, "Through my teaching experiences, I learned that my students were capable of learning just about anything I was capable of teaching." Bensinger-Lacy became principal of Graham Road Elementary School in 2004 when it was one of the lowest performing schools in Fairfax County, Virginia. When she left in 2009, it was one of the highest performing schools in the state.
The principals' belief in the capacity of all students pushes them to set a rigorous performance standard and honestly discriminate between excellence and mediocrity. We need to be clear here: That kind of honesty is tough. It is all too easy to accept mediocre work, particularly when you know that mediocrity represents enormous progress.
Graham Road's students are mostly children of low-income families that have recently immigrated to the United States, and they do not speak English at home. Most of the students arrive in kindergarten not knowing any of their letters or numbers. Kindergarten teachers would often be thrilled if, by the middle of the year, their students knew half their letters and could count to 10. At grade-level data meetings, they would, understandably, brag about such progress. Bensinger-Lacy would cheer the progress, but she would also talk about what she called the "elephant in the room": If students didn't make faster progress, they would be at risk of not learning to read, never graduating from high school, and living in poverty for the rest of their lives. That was tough for the kindergarten teachers to hear, and tough for her to say, but Bensinger-Lacy considered it her job.
This same drive appears among the leadership at Elmont Memorial High School in Nassau County, New York. Elmont is a large comprehensive high school with just under 2,000 students, almost all of whom are students of color—mostly black. Elmont graduates almost all of its students, with just about half graduating with an advanced designation, and its results on most of the New York Regents exams compare well with the rest of the state. It is an exceptional school, and it has refined its practice in many ways, not the least of which involves being willing to discriminate between mediocrity and excellence. Take a look, for example, at this recommendation a school leader gave to a teacher following an observation:
At one point in the lesson you took a sub-standard response that was not elaborated on. … You admitted that, in the interest of time, you took the response and moved forward with the lesson. As we discussed, setting standards and having students meet those standards includes the proper responses. In the future, make it a point to ensure that students have a true grasp of the concept.
What teacher hasn't glided over an inadequate answer from a student? With dozens of students in the class and lots of material to get through, it sometimes seems unavoidable. But it also leads to students developing misunderstandings and doesn't help them learn at a high level. If students are going to meet high standards, those standards need to be present at all times in classrooms. As uncomfortable as it is to call out this seemingly minor episode, these occurrences are opportunities for school leaders to help staff understand the standard they are working toward.

No. 2. They put instruction at the center of their managerial duties.

Over the years, the expectations of principals have changed. Where once the job was primarily defined as a managerial one, principals are now expected not just to run a smooth operation, but also to be change leaders and improve achievement. When we asked the leaders how they defined the job, 76 percent defined themselves as instructional leaders. The rest emphasized their responsibility to set a vision of high achievement. But no matter how anyone defines the role, the managerial part of the principalship has not disappeared.
So how do these school leaders find time to improve teaching and learning? The answer is that instead of adding instruction to their to-do lists, they tightly manage their time, as well as student and staff time, putting instruction at the center.
Here's an example of what we mean. Many students begin school behind and need every minute of instruction they can get, and their teachers often need more time to collaborate than their districts provide. Therefore, leaders must ensure that master schedules maximize both instructional time for students and collaboration time for teachers.
At the same time, these principals establish schoolwide routines—and work with their teachers to create classroom routines—to ensure that fumbling with materials and getting caught up in unnecessary discipline issues don't distract from instruction. One former principal, for example, said she always bought her teachers a lot of pencils: "I didn't want any teacher fussing with students over a dang pencil."
Bensinger-Lacy arranged the schedule at Graham Road so that teachers from each grade level met weekly for one hour at the beginning of the contractual day (15 minutes before school started and continuing for the first 45 minutes of the school day). Back in their classrooms, aides began the day—supervising breakfast, collecting homework, and starting the students on their work. This routine gave teachers a solid hour of professional collaboration, with the topic alternating between reading and math. One teacher would spend about 20 minutes presenting research related to a problem the teachers were experiencing, and the teachers—including the special educator, coach, and English language teachers assigned to that grade level—would spend the remainder of the time working on how to put those findings into practice—sometimes even producing actual materials during the meeting.
On one such day, the literacy instructional coach presented research on phonemic awareness and phonics to the 1st grade team. Even though the teachers were spending classroom time on the sounds of the English language and how they map onto the alphabet, their students were still not successful. After reviewing the research, the teachers discussed its implications and began developing activities that they could use with students during the little interstices of time that even the most organized teacher finds during the day, such as when buses are late or the media specialist runs long with an earlier class. These included "sound bingo" cards they could keep in their pockets and a list of other activities, such as playing "I'm packing my suitcase, and in it I put something that begins with … ."
Key to the success of this process was that Bensinger-Lacy usually attended these meetings, thus demonstrating their importance.

No. 3. They focus on building the capacity of all the adults in the building.

These leaders know that teachers hold the greatest power over a student's achievement. But they also know that many teachers are underprepared. Further, they know that no one teacher, no matter how brilliant and experienced, can possibly reach every child all the time.
And so they have systems in place to build the capacity and problem-solving ability of their teachers and create a professional culture where knowledge and expertise are shared. Teachers are no longer expected to all be experts who shut their doors and work in isolation.
When Barbara Adderley became principal of M. Hall Stanton Elementary School in north Philadelphia in 2001, it was one of the lowest-performing schools in the city, which made it one of the lowest in Pennsylvania. Before setting foot in the door, Adderley went to the district office to look at teacher attendance data. Two of the most reliable teachers were Kathleen Shallow and Chrissie Taylor. When Adderley visited their classrooms, she found competent, caring educators. She quickly made them the literacy and math coach, respectively, and sent them to every district training that seemed promising.
Adderley used data from state assessments, student work, classroom walk-throughs, and student attendance and discipline rates to identify the most pressing needs and plan professional development accordingly. She found that most teachers didn't know how to do such basics as lead guided reading lessons and use math games. She began by leading professional development sessions on those topics herself but soon asked Shallow and Taylor to take over, bringing back what they had learned from district training sessions. As the entire faculty became more comfortable in the role, other teachers led professional development sessions in their classrooms on specific topics that they excelled in—setting up activity stations, organizing materials for smooth transitions, and so forth.

No. 4. They monitor and evaluate what leads to success and what can be learned from failure.

These leaders are unsentimental empiricists. They want to see evidence so they can, as one said, "do more of what works and less of what doesn't." They set measurable interim goals to track progress, assess the rigor of instruction through student work products, and engage their staff with data to discuss instruction. The principals rely on evidence to know whether something is working, and they help teachers do the same.
For example, when Terri Tomlinson became principal of George Hall Elementary School in Mobile, Alabama, in 2004, few students in the school could read or do math at a level approaching the state standards. Her students live in a fairly isolated neighborhood and rarely leave it. Her teachers, recognizing that their students brought little background knowledge to school, argued that they should go on field trips. As one teacher said, "They live 10 minutes from the bayou and have never seen a boat."
Tomlinson, knowing that field trips are often massive time wasters, was initially wary of the idea. She asked the teachers to demonstrate how field trips would work with the curriculum, how they would build vocabulary and background knowledge, and how students would apply what they had learned. Satisfied with the teachers' work, she approved a few test field trips and asked the teachers to demonstrate that they had had the desired effect. Formative assessments, summative assessments, student essays, and blog postings were all examined as evidence of success, and today most students at George Hall go on monthly field trips, which Tomlinson and faculty members believe have helped the school become one of the highest-achieving schools in the state.
If the evidence had not supported continuing the field trips, that would not have been cause for recrimination; after all, Tomlinson and other principals want their teachers to continually look for new ways of doing things. Instead, it would have been cause to rethink and go in a different direction. "We don't look to place blame in this building," Tomlinson said. "Instead, we look for solutions."

The Next Step

It took years of research demonstrating the power that effective teachers have in changing students' lives to shift the conversation from "schools can't do anything" to "we need to make sure kids have good teachers." That was a step forward, but to ensure that kids have good teachers, the next step is to understand the role school leaders play both in helping ordinary teachers become excellent and in creating schools where excellent teachers want to work.
The existence of such leaders—and their commonsense approaches to problem solving—stands as a powerful argument that schools can do better not only for their most vulnerable students but also for all students.
Authors' note: We describe our research sample, methodology, and findings in more detail in Getting It Done: Leading Academic Success in Unexpected Schools (Harvard Education Press, 2011).
Copyright © 2013 Karin Chenoweth and Christina Theokas

Branch, G. F., Hanushek, E. A., Rivkin, S. G. (2012). Estimating the effect of leaders on public sector productivity: The case of school principals (CALDER Working Paper No. 66). Washington, DC: National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research.

Leithwood, K., Louis, K. S., Anderson, S., & Wahlstrom, K. (2004). How leadership influences student learning. New York: Wallace Foundation.

Louis, K. S., Leithwood, K., Wahlstrom, K. L., & Anderson, S. E., et al. (2010). Learning from leadership: Investigating the links to improved student learning. New York: Wallace Foundation.

Karin Chenoweth is a long-time reporter and education writer. Her latest book is Districts that Succeed: Breaking the Correlation Between Race, Poverty, and Achievement (Harvard Education Press, 2021). Chenoweth is writer-in-residence at The Education Trust, a national education advocacy organization that works to improve the academic achievement of all children, particularly children of color and children from low-income backgrounds.

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