kitchen table math, the sequel: Alternate universe

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Alternate universe

Sometimes I think Catherine lives in an alternate universe that's even crazier than the one the rest of us live in.

- GoogleMaster
It's time to get Richard Elmore's observations on nominally high performing schools posted. Finally.
My work as a researcher and consultant takes me into classrooms in all sorts of schools. My primary interest is improving the quality of teaching in high-poverty, racially diverse schools. Lately, however, I have also been called upon to visit schools in more affluent communities — some of them extraordinarily affluent.

While visiting schools in a variety of districts, I began to notice something that puzzled me. Some of these schools, particularly those with large numbers of poor and minority children, are working against daunting — some would say unreasonable — expectations for improvement in test scores. In more affluent schools, those pressures are much less evident. Yet the kinds of instructional problems that surface in both types of schools are strikingly similar.


I began to examine 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 the level of instruction in their classrooms. These high performing, high poverty schools were not just different in degree from other schools, they were different in kind. School leaders had clearly articulated expectations for student learning, coupled with a sense of urgency about improvement; they adopted challenging curricula and invested heavily in professional development. Teachers in these schools internalized responsibility for student learning; they examined their practices critically, and if they weren’t working, they abandoned them and tried something else.

Most important, school leaders insisted that classrooms be open to teacher colleagues, administrators, and outsiders for observation and analysis of instructional practice. For instance, teachers might review test scores together to pinpoint content areas and classrooms where children seemed to be struggling and then observe the classroom and discuss what changes in teaching practice might help these children succeed. Even high-poverty schools that were in the initial stages of improvement but still classified as “low-performing” seemed to be working in a different way than schools whose performance did not trigger adverse attention under the accountability requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.


When I returned to visit schools in more affluent communities, I began to see them in a very different light. On paper, these schools’ performance usually looked reasonably good. From the inside, however, they looked jarringly different from the improving high-poverty schools I had observed.

One of the most powerful differences was that teachers and administrators tended to define student learning difficulties as a problem to be solved by students and their families, rather than one to be solved by schools. A common response to student learning problems in these districts is to suggest the parents seek private tutoring. At a recent gathering of about 300 educators from high income schools and districts, I asked how many could tell me the proportion of students in their schools who were enrolled in private tutoring. Only four or five hands went up. But among those respondents, the answers ranged from 20% to 40%.

What does this mean for instructional improvement? These schools are outsourcing the task of teaching every student — and from classroom to classroom, teachers may not even be aware of it. As a result, teachers are not challenged to identify shortcomings in their own practice that inhibit student learning, or to share knowledge about which teachers are most successful and why.

In more affluent communities, I also found that variations in student performance were frequently taken for granted. Instead of being seen as a challenge to the teachers’ practice, these differences were used to classify students as more or less talented. Access to high-level courses was intentionally limited, reinforcing the view that talent, not instruction, was the basis of student achievement.

There were exceptions, of course — sometimes dramatic exceptions — to this general pattern, where teachers, principals, and superintendents were willing to challenge the conventional norms and expectations of high-performing schools and take a critical look at their own practice. Leaders in those schools question prevailing beliefs about the differences in student learning, stimulate discussion about the quality of student work, and — like their counterparts in less wealthy schools — focus on content areas where classroom work seems markedly below what students are capable of doing.

While the verdict is still out, I have noticed that challenging expectations in these schools often puts leaders in a risky place. Parents and school boards in affluent communities may not want to hear that the teaching in their schools is mediocre. The accountability system does not call attention to the problems of instructional quality in these schools, nor does it reinforce efforts to solve them. Improvement can be dangerous business in settings like these, and some principals and superintendents have the scars to prove it. Unlike low-performing schools, which may be galvanized by external pressure to improve, so-called high-performing schools must often swim against a tide of complacency to generate support for change.


If existing accountability systems could actually measure the value that schools add to student learning, independent of family background, the schools now ranked as “high-performing” would probably cleave into two categories: schools in which students’ academic performance is related to the quality of teaching and learning, and schools in which performance is largely attributable to income and social class. But standards-based accountability systems don’t operate that way. They put all schools whose students perform at the same level into the same category, regardless of how they got there. Because the existing federal accountability system does not distinguish between schools that produce results through high-quality teaching and those that produce results largely through social class, it is largely rewarding the wrong things.

What (so-called) low-performing schools can teach (so-called) high-performing schools by Richard F. Elmore National Staff Development Council Vol. 27, No. 2 Spring 2006 p. 43-45

nominally high performing schools in a nutshell:

Add Paul Attewell's study into the mix and you've got it: parallel universe.

What's striking to me is how similar very affluent schools are to (some) schools with very disadvantaged students. No one thinks the kids can do any better than they're doing now and everyone blames the parents. Our current superintendent has actually duplicated of the classic features of urban schools here in this tiny village: guards at the school doors, centralized authority, adversarial stance toward parents and kids, hostile relationship with the union - the works. At school events, teachers thank "central administration" for attending.

I'll tell you my story about the urban principal sending her kids to a Westchester school later on.

a certain level of confidence
wealthy schools & the decline at the top
cranberry on wealthy schools & the sorting machine
how math departments in wealthy schools treat students

a grandfather takes a stand

*comment selected from Comment Bank for by C's 6th grade math teacher


eduprobe said...

I've just scanned the postings & discussion here regarding affluent and high-performing schools.

I live in an affluent, high-standardized-test-scoring school district. Some of the observations made here (e.g. pervasive use of private tutoring, learning problems often pushed onto parents) absolutely describe our district. Opposition is likely to be fierce from all sides to any change that might threaten the all-important (for neighborhood reputation and property values) test scores.

As a parent, how can I tell whether the schools are good or the teachers are good? The only measures we have available to us are the standardized test scores, which are high. If we don't have the means to measure the contribution of the school & the teachers to our kids' learning, then it seems unlikely that any significant changes would be introduced in the schools. We'll continue to address concerns about learning by going outside the school system, i.e. more tutoring, more "enrichment", more online supplementation, etc.

Is there a way out of this box?

Anonymous said...

I'd love to see real data on parent supplementation/outside tutoring, with the reason(s)documented, available on the internet for every school in the country. I know it's a pipe dream, but it would be really useful and easy to do with a well-designed questionaire. It sure would raise a red flag about school quality if a highly-rated (test scores) school had 40% of students receiving regular instruction from parents or other tutoring sources.

I know many parents in affluent, highly-rated districts who have been saying for decades that the schools are riding on the student demographics/parent efforts.

VickyS said...

In affluent families, and by extension affluent districts, it almost seems like a zero sum game doesn't it? Maybe as the schools deteriorate academically, and the parents step in, the end result (test scores) is about the same. So to the outside observer, it appears the schools are doing just as good a job as they ever did.

Taken to the extreme, if the parents' after-school contribution to the kids' education is more effective than the school's instruction, the worse some of these schools are, the better they may look on paper as academics are increasingly outsourced to the family.

Ben Calvin said...

BTW there is a long discussion regarding this going on in the comments at this Megan McCardle post.

Catherine Johnson said...

Taken to the extreme, if the parents' after-school contribution to the kids' education is more effective than the school's instruction, the worse some of these schools are, the better they may look on paper as academics are increasingly outsourced to the family.

I would love to see that hypothesis put to the test.

My guess is that you're going to max out at some point. Remediation of ineffective classroom instruction is akin to buying a lemon and sending it to the shop: you spend a lot of time not getting where you were planning to go.

Richard DuFour says, repeatedly, that you can't rely on intervention to achieve results.

I'll find some of those passages...

Catherine Johnson said...

Ben - thanks!

I had no idea this was going on, although Amy P had sent me an email I promptly lost track of before reading...

LSquared32 said...

Aha! This is what has been bothering me ever since we moved from a highly motivated, excellent, low SES school district, to a high SES, pretty good, but it depends a lot on the teacher you happen to get school district. The commitment to making sure students are learning (and using all of your resources in a focused way to make sure children have what they need to learn) is really missing here.

Catherine Johnson said...

Lsquared: I believe that absolutely. Your only hope of getting your kids into a good public school is to get them into a "highly motivated, excellent, low SES school district" -- or to find a middle class school in the Midwest -- or a middle class school that also has a significant number of disadvantaged kids with whom it is doing a good job.

At this point I wouldn't trust any affluent suburban school district. I'm sure there are good ones but I don't know how I would be able to figure out which ones are good and which ones rely on tutors and parents for high mean scores.

concernedCTparent said...

To my amazement, at yesterday's state board of ed meeting, a high school student, during his part of a group presentation, referenced Richard Elmore of Harvard. I just about fell out of my chair. This group of very elite student representatives from across the state had worked together to develop a student survey of high school teachers. They were quite impressive in their own right. The reference to Elmore just floored me, nonetheless.

Catherine Johnson said...

That's interesting.

What did they quote?

concernedCTparent said...

They mentioned Elmore in passing as they expressed how the survey of teacher quality (to be completed by their students) would look at different variables than what had traditionally been looked at in the past. Their objective was to add another dimension to what someone like Elmore, for example, would have to say about effectiveness.

The fact that these students were aware of his work at all was suprprising.

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