Learning from Unexpected Schools

01/29/2014 07:58 am ET | Updated Jun 19, 2015

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the redevelopment of a neighborhood I went to in Atlanta.

Today I thought I'd tell you why I was in Atlanta in the first place. The organization CREATE (Consortium for Research on Educational Assessment and Teacher Effectiveness) had asked me to come to their annual conference to reflect on the work I have been doing for the past 10 years.

I called my talk "Learning from Unexpected Schools," and I would like to think I settled an argument that has been going on in the field of education for a long time. I would like to think that, but I know better. That's not how arguments get settled. But I invite you to let me know if I moved the argument forward a little.

Here's the issue I was addressing:

Most schools that educate large percentages of children who live in poverty are low-performing. In fact, "high-poverty" has almost become a synonym for "low-performing." To some people, this demonstrates the inextricable link between poverty and low achievement. In fact, they argue, to expect high-poverty schools to raise achievement is not just foolish, but cruel because it puts unbearable pressure on educators to do the impossible.

Those who make this argument either ignore the relatively small number of outlier schools that don't fit the overall pattern or dismiss them as the result of exceptional humans whose abilities can't be replicated.

I argued that it is a mistake to dismiss high-performing and rapidly improving high-poverty schools -- I call them "unexpected schools" -- because when we study them, we can see ordinary people doing work that holds hope for all of us. The folks in those schools are doing extraordinary work, but it is work that is within the grasp of other ordinary humans -- when they work together to make schools coherent institutions.

The idea of a coherent institution may sound abstract, but teachers in incoherent schools know exactly what I'm talking about. Incoherent schools are schools where textbooks and materials don't match state standards; where expensive computers sit in closets and empty shelves line the library; where teacher time is wasted in faculty meetings devoted to reading announcements and kid time is wasted in random activities. Talk to any unhappy teacher and you'll hear a litany of examples of ways incoherence undermines the work of teachers.

Unexpected schools -- I have written about some previous Huffington Post blog posts -- give us a clear vision of how to create coherence by making sure all systems, processes and practices aim at one thing: making kids smarter.

It isn't that unexpected schools all use the same program or teach in the same ways. But they all focus closely on what kids need to learn, work collaboratively on how to teach it, have clear ways to measure whether kids have learned it, and put systems in place to intervene with kids who haven't learned and extend the learning of those who have. The culture of support at these schools makes them places where teachers dream of teaching.

If we, as a nation, could harness the lessons these unexpected schools have to teach, we could move toward repealing what right now seems to be the iron law of correlation between poverty and low academic achievement.

To read the full argument I made in Atlanta, click here.

As I say, I welcome comments.