Seven practices that distinguish successful schools
In 1966, the Coleman Report concluded that the most powerful influence on student achievement was the demographic characteristics of the family—in particular, the mother’s level of education. School leaders since then have been presented with a stark choice: pursuing excellence with high academic standards at the expense of excluding disadvantaged students, or pursuing equity—achieving high graduation rates at the expense of academic rigor. Over the decades, exceptions captured the headlines and were featured in movies such as 1988’s “Stand and Deliver” or “Freedom Writers” from 2007. Without these heroic exceptions, schools have only rarely pursued the simultaneous goals of equity and excellence—until now. The accumulation of more than two decades of evidence from multiple sources operating independently and using different research methodologies allows us to conclude that excellence is within the grasp of every school, regardless of the demographic characteristics of students.
The Evidence on Equity and Excellence
The original research that suggested success in high-poverty schools could be replicated came from the 90-90-90 studies that my colleagues and I wrote in the 1990s. We found schools with student populations that were 90 percent low income, 90 percent ethnic minorities, and 90 percent meeting or exceeding state academic standards. These schools had the same budgets, the same teacher assignment policies, the same union contract, and the same administrator assignment policies as their counterparts with similar levels of low-income and minority students, but only a tiny fraction of students who met state standards. What distinguished the 90-90-90 schools? It was not ebullient and dynamic principals. It was, in brief, what their teachers and leaders did.
What have we learned in the intervening 25 years? The latest evidence comes not from a single study, but from a large and growing body of evidence—consider the work of Karin Chenoweth, whose article “For School Improvement, Demographics Aren’t Destiny” appeared in Education Week in 2017; Heather Zavadsky’s 2012 book, School Turnarounds; and my work on Achieving Equity and Excellence in 2019. It is important to note that we operated independently as researchers and used different methods yet came to strikingly similar conclusions.
The Core Competencies of Equity and Excellence Systems
We found five core competencies of educational systems that pursue both excellence and equity, or E-squared, schools. The first of these core competencies was focus. Our research in more than 2,000 schools revealed that most schools—especially those serving high-poverty populations—are drowning in initiatives. It was not unusual to find schools with dozens of priorities rarely implemented deeply. By contrast, the schools with the greatest gains in achievement had six or fewer priorities. They were willing to decline well-intentioned offers of help when those offers would lead to fragmentation and a loss of focus. Fragmentation is caused not only by the imposition of new initiatives by senior leaders but also by the political influences of boards who require one program after another; state mandates; and classroom teachers who, in addition to embracing the latest fads, cling to decades-old programs and practices.
The second core competency is effective feedback, including accurate and timely feedback to students, teachers, and administrators. Despite abundant evidence on the impact of feedback on student achievement, such as John Hattie and Shirley Clarke’s Visible Learning: Feedback or my own Elements of Grading, schools—especially at the secondary level—cling to outdated feedback and grading practices such as the use of averages to calculate final grades and the use of the 100-point scale. By contrast, E-squared schools have documented dramatic reductions in failure rates, along with improvements in discipline, attendance, and engagement, when they reject toxic grading practices.
Most feedback to teachers and administrators remains stubbornly indifferent to evidence, with too many states maintaining widely discredited value-added measures that threaten the careers of teachers and administrators. Consider this analogy: If you stepped on the scale one day, and it showed your weight as 150 pounds on Monday, 200 pounds on Tuesday, and 100 pounds on Wednesday, you could, perhaps, frantically modify your diet. Or, more logically, you would assume that the scale is broken. That is precisely what happens when teachers and schools have wildly varying ratings from one year to the next, a result not of their changes in effectiveness, but because the scale—the teacher and school evaluation system—is broken. E-squared schools are committed to feedback systems that are fair, accurate, specific, and timely, and use accountability for learning, teaching, and leadership, not as a punishment, but as a strategy to improve performance with constructive and specific support.
The third core competency is collective efficacy. This concept has been widely addressed by researchers such as John Hattie in Visible Learning for Teachers and Robert Marzano’s The New Art and Science of Teaching but is often ineffectively implemented. To remedy this, ask this simple question: What causes student achievement? The answers fall into three categories. Factors we cannot control—home life, access to alcohol and drugs at home, food insecurity at home, sleep deprivation, and other factors beyond the influence or control of schools. Second are factors we can influence but not control—attendance, thoughtful use of technology, and self-advocacy. Third are factors we can control—effective and engaging instruction, strong interpersonal relationships at school, and decisive intervention and support for students based on individual needs. Efficacy is about the relationship among these three categories of influence on achievement, and schools with high efficacy focus on the factors we can influence or control.
The fourth core competency of E-squared schools is effective instruction. While most educational systems have attempted to achieve this through evaluation systems of Byzantine complexity, the most effective schools understand that no one is evaluated into effectiveness, but teachers can be coached to become more effective. This requires feedback not in end-of-year evaluations, but in frequent observations with highly specific feedback, as Kim Marshall posits in his book Rethinking Teacher Supervision and Evaluation.
The fifth core competency is leadership effectiveness. In a study of leadership evaluations in more than 30 states, we found that most leadership evaluations are ambiguous, late, and unrelated to the purported goals of the system. An alternative leadership assessment and feedback system is the Leadership Performance Matrix, a free instrument in wide use that provides specific feedback and becomes a road map for improvement by individual leaders and teams of leaders.
Professional Practices in Equity and Excellence Schools
Schools desperate for a quick fix often seek products and programs that offer exceptional promises. Our research, however, did not find support for products and programs, but rather for a consistent set of seven practices that distinguished the most successful schools, regardless of their demographic characteristics.
- Pursue a laser-like focus on achievement. While everyone claims to focus on student achievement, the acid test question is, “What’s in your trophy case?” E-squared schools have athletic trophies but also display great student essays, science projects, artwork, musical compositions, and other examples of student work in their trophy cases. The trophy case, especially for secondary schools, reflects the culture and values of the school.
- Build comprehension with nonfiction writing. There is a deep and robust body of research that concludes that writing—and nonfiction writing, specifically—is strongly related to improved student achievement in reading comprehension, math, science, and social studies. In the most effective E-squared schools, we observed nonfiction writing not only in English language arts classes but in all academic subjects—every class, every subject, every grade. English-language learners in particular should have the opportunity to write, expressing themselves at their own pace and in an emotionally safe manner.
- Consider collaborative scoring. When teachers engage in the practice of looking at the same piece of student work and evaluating it against a scoring guide or rubric, they can increase both their level of agreement and the speed with which they evaluate student work. In the absence of this degree of collaboration, the same piece of student work can receive widely different marks from different teachers. This variation strikes students as inherently unfair and explains why students are often unable to articulate the reasons they receive a particular grade. Think of it this way: When the same student with the same work can receive an A in one class, a C in another, and an F in the third (it happens all over the country, as mentioned in Elements of Grading), it’s like the high school athletic team encountering a different set of rules, different size of field, and different shape of ball every time they play an away game.
- Focus on the variables of teaching and leadership with constructive data analysis. Most schools engage in a process of looking at data, but it is a remarkably frustrating exercise. People look at test scores and essentially announce that the firings will continue until morale improves. Constructive data analysis, by contrast, focuses on causes—that is, variables in teaching and leadership—that we can influence, rather than just test scores that are too often blamed on teachers in the previous year or insufficient support at home.
- Explore formative assessment. This term has been widely misused, as if it applies to any test that was not summative and administrated at the end of the term. In fact, formative assessment deserves the label only if it informs teaching and learning. My observation is that many low-performing schools are drowning in tests labeled “formative” that only divert time away from instruction and learning. They are generally too long, take too much time to grade, and have little or no influence on students and teachers. The formative assessments used by E-squared schools, by contrast, are very brief—four or five items—and can be immediately scored to provide feedback to students and teachers.
- Invest in cross-disciplinary instruction. A critical morale issue for nearly every school is that the teachers in the tested subjects and grades feel as if they are under the microscope, while their colleagues in other grades and subjects can escape scrutiny. In E-squared schools, there is a spirit of camaraderie in which all share ownership of student achievement.
- Delve deeply into the implementation of professional learning communities (PLCs). In the last article Richard DuFour wrote before his untimely death, which was published in Phi Delta Kappan in March 2016, he lamented the prevalence of “PLC lite.” It is not the label of PLCs that matters, but the practices associated with them. These include collective responsibility for all students, not just the students in a teacher’s classroom, and a relentless focus on the four questions that are at the heart of PLCs: What do we want students to learn? How will we know if they learned it? What will we do if they have not? What will we do if they already have? My shorthand for these four questions is learning, assessment, intervention, and extension, and these four words should form the basis for reflection in every collaborative team meeting. E-squared schools understand that poor students need enrichment and challenge, not just the delivery of content.
The Essential Question: What Would We Do if They Were Rich?
The most astonishing finding of the new E-squared research was the commonality between high-performing, high-poverty schools and high-performing, low-poverty schools. The core competencies and professional practices that characterized great schools were prevalent not only in successful high-poverty schools, but in the world’s most elite independent and international schools. This observation led me to ask leaders and faculty members in every school, especially those serving disadvantaged students: What would we do if they were rich? Students in elite, expensive private schools, where parents are paying in excess of $50,000 in tuition and fees, have difficulty in reading and math, in organization and behavior. But no one says, “Sink or swim, kid—you should have had those skills at home.” Rather, they exclaim, “My goodness! We can’t let these kids fail, and we will move heaven and earth to ensure their success in this school and in college. Their parents are paying 50 grand, and we can’t let them down!” After all, we reason, that’s what rich kids deserve, right?
That’s my challenge to every leader, teacher, and policymaker. What would we do if our students were wealthy? What assumptions would we make if they had difficulty? What extra effort would we make to ensure their success? Isn’t it time that we started treating all our students, regardless of the language they speak or the economic and social status of their parents, whether or not they had a decent breakfast or a good night’s sleep, as if they were rich? If we are to pursue the twin visions of equity and excellence, that is precisely what we should do.
Douglas Reeves is the founder and CEO of Creative Leadership Solutions and the author of more than 30 books, including Achieving Equity and Excellence.