02/26/2015 05:47 pm ET Updated Jun 18, 2015

Learning From Improvement or Not

Whenever I see that a low-performing school's students have improved their performance on state tests, I am curious. What happened?

That is why I was eager to visit a school that was one of the lowest performing in the state three years ago, but last year showed dramatic improvement.

Other than to say it's located in a mostly affluent exurb of a major metropolitan area, and that just about all the kids qualify for free and reduced-price meals, I'm not going to identify the school. Interspersed with a sprinkling of African American and white children, most of the school's students are from families of recent immigrants, chiefly from Central and South America.

When I visited it was clear that a lot of things had spurred school improvement, but it had all started with a change in leadership. This is completely in line with all the best research -- school improvement almost always starts with a new principal.

The principal who took the job almost three years ago was the only person to apply for the position. In fact, some other principals in his district tried to commiserate with him, saying, "I would never go there."

He told me that the school he arrived in was broken in a lot of ways, with the most visible being that it was filthy. The maintenance staff, the principal said, had felt little investment in the school; their disengagement was in many ways symbolic of the entire operation, from the teachers to the kids.

When I visited recently, the building was pretty much spotless -- you could practically see your face in the shiny floors.

In all the classrooms I saw, the kids were engaged and working. When I asked any of them to tell me what they were doing I never once heard one say, "A worksheet." They said things like, "I'm converting improper fractions to mixed numbers," or "I'm identifying which statements are true and which are opinion." I didn't see a single disciplinary problem; in fact only 47 kids were referred last year to the office for disciplinary problems -- down from almost 300 two years before -- and the principal said the school was on track to have even fewer this year.

The principal describes his first year as a difficult one. He had to put in place a lot of systems to support the improvement of instruction, from scheduling to budgeting to a positive behavior system, and he had to change the way a lot of things were done. One of his first acts was to require that teachers spend two days a week of their planning time in collaborative grade-level meetings. He or his assistant principal sat in -- and continue to sit in -- on every one of those meeting to ensure that teachers focused on unpacking standards, mapping out instruction, and planning lessons, assessments, and interventions. This was a change to the way the teachers had been working, and not all of them welcomed that change -- quite a few transferred to other schools.

This year the teachers themselves decided that they would meet five times a week -- in other words, teachers have made every one of their planning periods a team meeting because they have seen how they and their students benefitted from collaboration.

In terms of results on the state tests, the principal's first year was disappointing -- there was no real change in how the kids performed. But the second year saw a huge jump in proficiency rates, particularly in math. By huge jumps I mean that instead of 30 percent of students meeting math standards, 60 or 70 percent did, depending on the grade level. In one classroom every single student was proficient, including the students with learning disabilities.

The school still has a ways to go. But teachers are focused on instruction and bring a sense of urgency to their collaboration meetings and their classrooms, a sense that is matched by the enthusiasm of the students.

Because of the school's dramatic improvement, some area teachers and administrators ask to visit so that they can understand what the school is doing. To my mind, those educators represent the hopes of the field. They want to see for themselves the kinds of things that make a difference, presumably with the idea that they have something to learn from the success of their colleagues.

But the reaction of other educators represents one of the reasons it is so hard for education to improve. For example, fellow principals have directly asked the principal how he managed to game the system to get improved test results. When his teachers go to district meetings they are being treated as pariahs by their colleagues. "They get all these remarks designed to bring them down and make them feel as if they are doing something wrong," the principal said. Instead of being asked how they achieved the kind of growth they achieved, they are isolated.

I'm not sure why that happens, but I think some educators have firmly internalized the belief that children from low-income families and children of color can't achieve at high levels. They so accept the inevitability of failure that they would rather believe that high-performing high-poverty schools are cheating than make the effort to figure out what helps them succeed.

"Nobody expects our kids to do it," is the way the principal put it.

I have talked with enough educators from high-performing high-poverty schools to know that he is not describing an isolated phenomenon. Instead of being consulted for their knowledge and expertise, educators in high-performing and rapidly improving schools are often subject to suspicion and accusations.

I am not arguing against skepticism. All proclamations of success should be greeted with healthy skepticism. But sometimes success is actually solid, built on research-based practices and the craft knowledge of expert educators.

If the field of education is to move forward, it needs to identify and learn from those successes.