Via Laura, I see this kitchen table math post on Richard Elmore’s paper on “high performing” schools. Elmore observes that so-called high performing schools in affluent communities that he works in often seem very similar to low-performing schools in low-income communities, and very unlike successful schools in low-income communities. Here’s Elmore on successful high-performing schools:
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.
In affluent “high-performing” schools by contrast:
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%……
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.
Laura thinks, like me, that none of this is very surprising, but unlike me she thinks it is not alarming:
First of all, you should not rely on your schools to educate your kids. I spend a lot of time with my kids teaching them random things. If Jonah’s doing his homework, I will be there in the room using the homework as a jumping board for my own lesson. If he does sloppy work, I make him redo it. I reteach the math lessons. We’ll go up to the computer to look up a country in Africa. No school does this.
Secondly, the parents in the rich schools aren’t all that upset. They can afford the tutors. The reputation of the school is enough to get their kids into Dartmouth. And that’s all they care about.
Third, the schools, by whatever method, are getting the kids into college. My high school (ranked top five in the state) sent 90% of the student body to a four year college. The top 20% went to an Ivy League school. So, it’s hard to get all that worked up about the average instruction in these districts. If I have to get upset about something, I choose to get upset by the 90% dropout rate in some schools in Philadelphia.
I think it is more worthy of attention than Laura says, for two reasons. First, these schools are typically lavished with public money, relative to other schools which could make much better use of that money. States should be shifting money from such schools to schools with high-need students, and using at least part of that money to fund reform and improvement efforts. Second, these schools typically have some, and sometimes have a good number, of students from low-income families; and these students are typically seen just as problems, and are in the lousy situation of being in a school where their achievement doesn’t matter much. KTM points to this excellent paper by Paul Attewell arguing that in affluent “star” schools attention is lavished on those most likely to attend Ivy League colleges, at the expense of all lower-achieving students. (Attewell’s paper was written prior to implementation of NCLB, and it would be interesting to see whether the dynamics he identifies have changed at all).