Take a Look at What’s Working by Etienne R. LeGrand, SED ’78
Drew Charter School, Atlanta Public Schools’ first charter school, has become the state’s number one ranked school for educating low-income, black students. It’s one of the first schools to integrate a comprehensive birth to four year old early childhood component into its elementary school experience. Its commitment to professional development and innovation is fueling student and teacher learning. What we can learn from them provides tantalizing glimpses of a success model for the most challenged of our nation’s schools.
Fundamental to their successes is great leadership from the principal and teachers who are adept at aligning the people connected to the school – parents, educators, and the students themselves – around a common purpose. Armed with a unified approach, everyone works cohesively in pursuit of shared, positive values. These values coexist alongside critical shared beliefs: all students have the capacity to learn, poverty is neither a disability nor destiny and teachers are responsible for learning.
Together, the people in these schools act routinely on these values and beliefs by: celebrating the accomplishments of teachers, students and parents; allocating time for teachers to collaborate, innovate, and improve; inviting parents to contribute their ideas and opinions about how to continuously improve the school, in addition to contribute their resources; and coalescing necessary partners to support the myriad needs of poor students have, and that research proves if left unattended, can undermine the performance of these children.
Here’s my point. Research on school culture finds that schools with a positive culture foster improvement, collaborative decision-making, motivation, innovation, communication, professional development, and staff and student learning. Even as we tend to overlook it because we can’t adequately measure it, school culture influences what the school cares about, the way people behave, what the people in the school spend time doing, and what they celebrate. Those schools whose leadership does the best job of intentionally influencing culture, do a better job at producing student and teacher learning than those that do not.
Recognizing the need to turn our attention to what’s working rather than what’s not, The Education Trust launched “Dispelling the Myth”, an annual award program honoring schools that serve large populations of poor or minority students. Schools recognized under this award program prove it can be done. Their stories work to silence the dangerous belief that student achievement has more do with a child’s background than with the quality of education a child receives. Schools recognized by The Education Trust have made significant strides narrowing gaps in academic achievement between different groups of students; produce at rates that exceed that of the state; or are making improvements at a rapid pace.
Let’s call a cease-fire on improving instruction through scripted curricula that is boring our children to death, on monitoring teachers based on test scores that are killing creativity and teacher learning, and on making schools safe by disproportionately disciplining children of color that is fueling our pipeline to prison rather than college.
It’s not that we don’t know how to teach children to learn, but that we haven’t yet figured out how to replicate the winning formula of turning failing schools into successful ones. We can and should look more closely at the success of high performing schools that serve our most vulnerable students and at the correlation between the positive culture in these schools and the student and teacher learning that is produced when there is alignment between purpose and action. It’s critical that start acknowledging the important role school culture plays on performance in addition to structural reforms.
We know enough to turn the most challenged of our public schools into higher performing ones. It will take all of us, even those whose children don’t attend public schools, believing to generate the energy we need to improve. There has never been a sports franchise whose play spirals downward that successfully rebuilds fan confidence before it starts to win again. Let’s learn from our winners and celebrate their accomplishments to create a tipping point in our confidence. Success breads success.
Etienne R. LeGrand is president and co-founder of the Atlanta-based W.E.B. Du Bois Society and winner of the 2012 Ida M. Johnston Alumni Award. Read more about Etienne and SED’s other alumni award winners in the most recent issue of @SED.