Beating the odds

A pretty African American university woman reading at the parkThe Excellence in English Project studied middle and high schools with large numbers of poor and minority students as they attempted to improve their students’ performance in language arts.

Judith A. Langer, State University of New York/Albany, analyzed those schools that were achieving better than expected on standardized tests in reading and writing.

In a five-year study, Langer identified features of instruction that make a difference in student performance and contrasted those schools where test scores were higher than expected with comparable schools where they were not.

The study encompassed 25 schools, 44 teachers and 88 classrooms in four states — Florida, New York, California and Texas. Each class was studied over a two-year period for five weeks per year. The sample included both urban and suburban schools with poor and ethnically diverse student bodies.

Analyses revealed six features that permeated the schools that “beat the odds” and earned significantly higher scores on standardized tests. Although some of these features were present to varying degrees in all the English programs studied, what distinguished the higher-achieving schools was the presence of all six features all of the time. Although each of the higher-performing schools had its own distinctive emphasis, all were marked by active and engaged students.

Skill instruction

Three distinct approaches to skill instruction were identified. These included isolated drills on individual skills; simulated instruction in which a skill was practiced in prepared exercises, usually involving reading or writing short pieces of text; and integrated instruction in which skills were practiced in the context of a purposeful activity such as writing a letter, report, or school-newspaper article.

The primary focus in the integrated practice was on completing the project well. Instruction in higher-performing classes revealed that all three types of instruction were used continually, while lower-performing classes tended to be dominated by only one of the approaches.

Test preparation

Eighty percent of the more successful teachers integrated the skills and knowledge that were to be tested into the ongoing curricula. Teachers in the higher-performing schools used the tests as an opportunity to revise their literacy curricula. Teachers often worked in groups to deconstruct and analyze test items in order to understand the literacy skills, strategies and knowledge students would need to achieve at high levels.

Working with administrators, they developed instructional strategies that would create yearlong experiences in different types of reading and writing activities. Before a test, the format was generally practiced to ensure students’ familiarity with it. However, not much teaching time was devoted to this.

Test preparation looked very different in the lower-performing schools. Teachers in these schools treated tests as a goal separate from their literacy curricula. They offered practice on old editions of the test or teacher-made materials with similar formats.

Test-taking practice either took weeks before the exam or was sporadic and unconnected across longer periods of time. Teachers in these schools often expressed their lack of confidence in students’ ability to do well or in their own ability to help students achieve at higher levels. Administrators in these schools sometimes purchased professional test services or programs, but these were not integrated into the curriculum.

Overall, higher-performing schools seemed to focus on students’ overall literacy learning, using tests to be certain the skills and knowledge that would be tested were learned within the framework of the students’ language arts instruction.

Connecting learning

In three different ways, teachers in higher-performing schools overtly showed students connections between concepts and experiences. They pointed out connections within lessons, across lessons and classes, and between in-school and out-of-school knowledge and experiences. These teachers worked consciously to weave a web of connections between the ideas to be learned.

Conceptions of learning

The more successful teachers went beyond students’ acquisition of skills or knowledge to engage them in deeper understanding through discussion. In contrast, lower-performing schools tended to stop an activity once the correct response was elicited or the assigned task completed. These activities consisted mainly of recalling names, definitions and facts.

Classroom organization

Higher-performing classes were organized to provide students with a variety of opportunities to learn through substantive interaction with one another. Teachers helped students engage in thoughtful dialogue. These teachers expected students not just to work together, but to sharpen their understandings with and against each other. The most successful educational programs in this study emphasized high expectations coupled with effective support systems. Teachers segmented new and difficult tasks for students. They provided models, lists and even evaluation rubrics to guide them. Students challenged each other intellectually while working toward a common goal.


By studying schools that beat the odds and comparing them to more typically performing schools, Langer concluded that it was the “whole cloth” environment — the multilayered contribution of all of these features to the teaching and learning interactions — that distinguished the higher-achieving programs from the others. Some of these same features were seen in lower-performing classes, but with less consistency or pervasiveness.

Teachers in high-achieving classes made a concerted effort to offer extremely well-conceived and well-delivered instruction based on identified goals about what was important to learn. Langer concludes that it is not enough to teach to the test or to add tutoring sessions, mandated summer school, test-prep units or extra workbooks on grammar.

The overriding contributor to higher achievement was the whole-scale attention to students’ high-level literacy needs and development throughout the curriculum. Learning experiences in these successful schools were shaped into a web of connected learning.

“Beating the Odds: Teaching Middle and High School Students to Read and Write Well” American Educational Research Journal Volume 38, Number 4, Winter 2001 Pp. 837-880.

Published in ERN March 2002 Volume 15 Number 3

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