In the book, It's Being Done, author Karin Chenoweth looks at once-struggling schools that were able to turn around because of high expectations and staff members who were dedicated to helping students succeed. Included: Strategies for helping schools become successful.
While many descriptions of failing and struggling schools include lists of reasons why they cant be successful, education writer Karin Chenoweth set out to find schools that were doing well despite the challenges of educating poor and bilingual students with limited resources.
During two years of doing research, Chenoweth identified 15 schools representing a mixture of grade levels and urban, rural, and suburban settings where students were excelling despite poverty and other obstacles -- and where kids were not spending endless hours on reading and math drills.
Those schools are profiled in her book Its Being Done: Academic Success in Unexpected Schools, published by Harvard Education Press. Chenoweth visited the schools while working as a senior writer for The Achievement Alliance, an organization founded to provide accurate, non-partisan information about student achievement and the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Chenoweth brought considerable experience as an education writer to the project. Prior to joining The Achievement Alliance, she wrote two regular columns on schools and education for The Washington Post, and before that was senior writer and executive editor of Black Issues In Higher Education (now called Diverse). Chenoweth also has written for American Educator, Washington Post Magazine, and American Teacher.
Chenoweth talked with Education World about her research and what she thinks makes the difference between schools that remain underachieving and those that surpass expectations.
Education World: What inspired you to write Its Being Done?
Karin Chenoweth: I was hired by the Achievement Alliance to identify and describe schools that have substantial populations of children of color and children of poverty that are high achieving or rapidly improving. The Education Trust has been identifying such schools for years, but it had never been able to go into those schools and say what they do differently from ordinary schools.
As a long-time education reporter, who has been to many run-of-the-mill and crummy schools, this was a dream assignment for me, allowing me to go to really wonderful schools. Once I had 15 such stories, Harvard Education Press compiled them with some new material explaining how I found the schools and the common characteristics of the schools.
EW: What were some of the common denominators that you saw in the schools described in Its Being Done ?
Chenoweth: The adults in what I call Its Being Done schools expect all their students to learn to meaningful levels, and they work really hard to master the knowledge and skills to teach them. The importance of this cannot be underestimated. Other than that basic commonality, the schools were very different -- some were big, some small, some urban, some rural, some were high-tech, some were low-tech, some integrated, some racially and economically isolated. They were very diverse in all of their external characteristics.
EW: What do you think determines whether a school becomes a soul-deadening test-prep factory as you put it or a place where students are engaged and high-achieving -- and score well on tests?
Chenoweth: One of the big differences lies in the curriculum. A rich curriculum that helps students learn a lot about a lot of things in all the disciplines -- literature, history, science, math, and the arts -- will help students become thoughtful and productive citizens who love to learn new things. Instead, I fear that too many schools have students spending endless amounts of time filling out reading comprehension strategy worksheets and then wondering why the kids are bored and irritable. Some of those schools veer toward being test-prep factories. There isnt good research on this topic, but I dont believe that any school that can be considered a test-prep factory will ever have test scores as high as schools that teach a solid, interesting curriculum tied to a set of high standards. I think schools are really cutting their own throats if they focus on skills instead of rich content.
EW: What were some of the strategies that you saw in these successful schools that you think could be replicated in other schools?
Chenoweth: They all studied their test score data very closely in order to figure out which students needed extra help and to see patterns in achievement. So, for example, Ms. Jones studied the data and saw that most of her kids didnt understand fractions but Ms. Smiths students did. That let to Ms. Jones asking Ms. Smith to show her what she does and maybe sitting in on Ms. Smiths class or asking Ms. Smith to teach a model lesson to her class.
That is a very powerful way to use data to drive instruction, and it all stems from the idea that the students are capable of learning if the teachers know enough and are skilled enough to teach them. That practice requires that teachers teach in a supportive environment where they are encouraged to look deeply at test data, without feeling defensive and sensitive about their weaknesses. It also requires that teachers are given the time and resources to look at data and learn from each other. All the schools in Its Being Done schedule their time carefully to allow teachers to meet regularly and work together on curriculum, assignments, assessments, and looking at student work.
EW: As you note in your book, the benchmarks for students in different states vary widely. How do you think that should be addressed?
Chenoweth: One of the ideas behind administering the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is to provide a national scale against which states can measure themselves. The idea is that if students do much better on their own state assessments than on NAEP, states will be embarrassed and raise their standards. That is, if a state reports that 85 percent of its students are proficient readers based on the results of its own tests, but NAEP only reports that 25 percent of that states students are proficient, states would be embarrassed by such a discrepancy.
Unfortunately, too many states have proven to be impervious to such embarrassment. The folks in states with low standards should be demanding more from their schools. I should note that a few states have raised their standards in the last couple of years -- Georgia and Arkansas spring to mind. Other states continue to post vastly higher proficiency rates than NAEP, and they should raise their standards. The kids will be able to meet higher standards if they are given a chance and good instruction.
Chenoweth: I think Congress should continue to demand that schools teach all their students to state standards and report the results of state testing, but at the same time, Congress needs to tighten up some of the loopholes that states have been able to drive trucks through.
For example, some states have been allowed to say that they wont report on how a group of students performs if there arent 45, 50, or in one state 100 kids in the group. This makes a mockery of the disaggregation requirements of No Child Left Behind. My favorite state is the state where I live, Maryland, where schools are required to report results for groups as small as five (that is, if there are five African American students, schools must report what percentage of those five students meets or exceeds state standards). But I would be willing to live with ten. Larger than that and it starts to be hard to see how well a school, particularly a small school, is doing for all its kids.
I also think Congress should help states develop the capacity to provide real, research-based, and meaningful help to struggling schools. Too many principals dont know how to drive improvement in their schools, and they need help. Congress should also provide incentives to states where standards are really low to raise the standards, and provide incentives to states to develop meaningful measures of teacher effectiveness. Right now we are using proxy measures, such as whether a teacher has a major in the subject he or she teaches, but that doesnt get at whether the students of that teacher are learning.
This e-interview with Karin Chenoweth is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.
Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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