There are lessons to be learned from studying high-poverty schools, writes Richard F. Elmore, Harvard Graduate School of Education. He makes some interesting comparisons between poor, low-performing schools and some affluent ones.
In both poor and wealthy schools, Elmore sees the same recurring patterns: considerable variation among classrooms in the degree to which students are challenged; an emphasis on procedural knowledge and factual recall at the expense of analysis, reflection and understanding; a tendency to focus more on students who are “easy to teach” than on those who are struggling; and low estimates of students’ capabilities.
High performing schools with poor student populations
Elmore began to study successful schools with high concentrations of poor and minority children–those in which students were doing as well as or better than those in affluent schools on statewide standardized tests–to see what they were doing to improve classroom instruction.
In these high-performing low-income schools, leaders had clearly articulated expectations for learning as well as a sense of urgency about improvement. These schools had adopted challenging curricula and invested heavily in professional development. Teachers in these school felt responsible for student learning; they critically analyzed their teaching practices and changed them if they weren’t working. And classrooms were open to colleagues, administrators and outsiders for observation and analysis of instructional practice.
Affluent schools, Elmore found, tended to outsource problems. If a student was having difficulty, teachers recommended outside tutoring to parents. These schools tended to define learning difficulties as a problem to be solved by students and their families. Teachers in more affluent schools were not challenged to identify shortcomings in their own practices that inhibited student learning or to share knowledge about which teachers were most successful and why. Variations in student performance were frequently taken for granted.
These differences were used to classify students as more or less talented and access to high-level courses was intentionally limited, reinforcing the view that talent, not instruction, was the basis of student achievement. Challenging these assumptions can put administrators at risk. Parents and school boards in affluent communities may not want to hear that the teaching in their school is mediocre.
Unlike low-performing schools that are pressured from the outside to improve, so-called high-performing schools are complacent and there is little support for change. Elmore contends that educators can learn more from studying high-poverty schools that are on the path to improvement, rather than higher-performing schools that produce a significant portion of their performance through social class, not through instruction.
“What [So-Called] Low-Performing Schools Can Teach [So- Called] High-Performing Schools,” Harvard Education Letter, Volume 21, Number 5, October 2005. pp. 7-8.
Published in ERN October 2005 Volume 18 Number 8