‘Schools that Succeed’ author: It comes down to belief

Karin Chenoweth has spent 15 years visiting and writing about schools that defy expectations: high-achieving and fast-improving schools that serve many students of color and students from low-income families.

Book cover of 'Schools that Succeed'“Going to these schools, and now districts, I’m finding great commonality,” Chenoweth told me. “All of them marshal the power of schools to solve problems that educators face all over the country.”

How do they do it? They start with an unwavering commitment to the belief that all children can meet high academic standards. They develop systems that enable teachers to collaborate and learn from each other. They use data and assessments as tools to improve instruction and curriculum.

That may sound simple, but it’s not easy, as Chenoweth, writer-in-residence at the Education Trust, makes clear in a series of books, most recently “Schools that Succeed.” She also hosts a podcast, “Extraordinary Districts,” on school districts that have raised achievement for disadvantaged students.

Her descriptions get deep into the weeds of how schools operate, the challenging and sometimes frustrating work of figuring out what it takes for all students to learn. The progress she describes is often slow, and there are setbacks. Effective leaders leave or get pushed out. Resources aren’t what they should be. Mandates from the state or the central office get in the way.

Yet teachers and administrators get it done by focusing on both the big picture and the tiniest details — for example, master schedules that include common planning time for grade-level and subject-area teachers to collaborate and for specialists to work with students who need extra help.

“It’s totally not sexy. Who wants to talk about master schedules?” Chenoweth said.

If we know what works, why are so few schools doing it? For one thing, there are a lot of obstacles. Schools serving disadvantaged children are often under-resourced, and they have little margin of error. We glorify “superstar” teachers who overcome challenges, but not everyone can be a superstar.

Yet the schools and districts that Chenoweth profiles are in many ways average, from the outside. Some are large and some are small. Some are rural and some are urban. They are in all regions of the country, including California, Massachusetts, Alabama, Arkansas and Delaware. Their teachers are committed to doing right by their students and their profession but are otherwise everyday folks.

“The work is really very complex and requires deep thinking about every aspect of what schools are doing,” she said. “It requires lot of work, a lot of passion and heart.”

Reading “Schools that Succeed,” I kept thinking of Ron Edmonds, the Michigan State University professor who pioneered the effective schools movement a generation ago. Pushing back against researchers who claimed student achievement was chained to socioeconomic factors, Edmonds searched out schools where students did better than expected and asked what they had in common.

He found that effective schools had a safe and orderly environment, high expectations for all students, a strong instructional leader, a clear and focused mission, adequate time for students to learn, frequent monitoring of student progress and parent buy-in for the mission.

Chenoweth went into her work as a reporter, not focused on the research. “What I eventually realized,” she said, “was that I was really walking in the footsteps of Ron Edmonds and also of Michael Rutter,” a noted British child psychologist who reached similar conclusions about effective schools.

The effective schools movement was starting to have an impact. But Edmonds, tragically, died at age 48. National debates about improving schools moved on, eventually reaching the current ideology-driven stalemates over school choice. Chenoweth sees that as a distraction.

“Charters are not the answer,” she said. “We know this from all the research. We have fabulous charters, average charters and mediocre charters, the same as with traditional public schools.”

Chenoweth, like Edmonds, sees assessment and data as essential to improving schools. That includes the standardized tests that are anathema to many teachers and parents. While there’s plenty of room for debate on test quality and transparency, she said, assessments can show which schools and teachers are effective – and how others can learn from them.

And a willingness to learn and improve is necessary, she said, if schools are going to help all students reach their potential.

“When you study high-performing and rapidly improving schools and districts that serve all groups of children well, you find two things that are absolutely essential,” she said. “One is a belief that all the kids can learn and the other is a relentless organization around that belief: organization of time, of curriculum, of instruction, of culture.

“They are all organized around the belief that all kids can learn. And it really comes down to belief.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s