Why Would You Call Them 'Miracle Schools'?

03/13/2015 04:41 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2015

A recent online kerfuffle* raised the question -- yet again -- of whether it is possible for schools to help children of color and children from low-income homes learn to high standards.

I'm always a bit surprised that it's still necessary to have this conversation, but I guess it is.

This one began when someone tweeted about George Hall Elementary School, which earned Education Trust's Dispelling the Myth Award in 2009. The tweet reported that George Hall is "99% black, 98% student poverty, all proficient."

Responding to that, a person who says he makes it his business to debunk false claims of success tweeted back that he would have to look into such a "miracle school."

Before I say anything else, I want to stress that I think debunking is important. The field of education is awash with people claiming success for programs, policies, technology -- you name it, some huckster is touting it, often with very slim or non-existent evidence. Bringing a skeptical eye to claims of success is exactly the point of independent scholarship.

But it would be nice if debunking were based on evidence and not just an assumption that the success of African-American children is automatically suspect.

As someone who has visited George Hall multiple times, I can say that I have never, ever heard anyone in the school label what they're doing a "miracle." The folks there tout no program; they promulgate no magic bullet. They're not selling anything.

They do devote a lot of time and effort developing their knowledge and skill to ensure that their students master the standards the world has set for educated people.

"Our children can't help what they come from," Terri Tomlinson told me when she was the principal. "It's our job to teach them. And I think we do a pretty good job of it."

At George Hall I have read student essays, heard students read, and talked with them about what they're learning and what they hope to be when they grow up. The children at George Hall are not "miracle" children but children who have ambitions and -- like all humans -- are hardwired to learn.

I believe the faculty and staff would find deeply offensive the idea that the only way that their students can achieve at high levels is through divine intervention.

So if it wasn't a miracle, how did George Hall go from one of the lowest-performing schools in the state in 2004 to one of the highest-performing?

By following what research indicates is important and ensuring that curricula, lessons, professional development, schedules, budgets, discipline -- everything -- are aligned to support high-quality instruction.

As a public we are so used to schools that are not coherent that we have become complacent about accepting discipline systems that punish without reference to whether students need to be in class, professional development unrelated to what teachers need to work on, and curricula that don't match the standards students are expected to meet. But each of those things robs schools of the coherence that can ensure that all children learn to high standards.

Bringing coherence to schools is possible when there is a knowledgeable school leader who has a deep understanding of both the research and the craft knowledge of education.

Tomlinson was such a leader, and when she retired last year, she left the school in the capable hands of Melissa Mitchell, who had been the writing coach and Title I coordinator and is now continuing the work as the principal.

If you are interested in reading about Tomlinson's leadership of George Hall, you might be interested in reading the book my colleague Christina Theokas and I wrote, Getting It Done: Leading Academic Success in Unexpected Schools (Harvard Education Press, 2011). The book studies not just Tomlinson but 33 leaders of 24 high-performing and rapidly improving schools with significant populations of students of color or students from low-income families.

None of them thinks of their school as a "miracle" school. They think of them as the kind of schools all children could have if educators were to follow the evidence.

*Thank you, Joanne Jacobs, for alerting me to this exchange.