Needles in a Haystack

Too often in education we hear “These kids can’t learn” or “We have to deal with poverty before you can fix the schools.” Such sentiments seem to be backed up by bleak data that show that last school year almost half of the quarter million students in Ohio’s eight major urban districts attended schools rated “D” or “F” by the state.

And the 2009 data are no aberration -- academic achievement has been stagnant in these schools for years. Just 60 percent of students score proficient in reading on state tests, and only about half score proficient in math. That’s not counting the tens of thousands who fall by the wayside, drop out of school, and vanish from the achievement statistics.

This education storm pours down on both district and charter schools. Yet a few glimmers of sunlight manage to shine through. Every year we see a handful of outlier schools that buck these bleak trends and achieve significant results for disadvantaged youngsters from inner-city communities.

Fordham’s latest report, Needles in a Haystack: Lessons from Ohio’s high-performing, high-need urban schools, examines eight of these outlier high-performing schools and distills lessons that should inform district and state policies and practices in order to foster more such schools – without making it harder on the few we now have.

The good news is that these Needles schools are terrific. The bad news is that there are so few of them.

You can read more about our school-selection methodology in the report. But, in brief, we identified public schools that were high-performing during the last three consecutive school years– 816 schools statewide met this threshold. Next, we looked among them for schools serving a predominantly low-income population (schools where 75 percent or more of the students are economically disadvantaged). That shrank the pool dramatically, down to 55 schools statewide. Of these, we chose to focus on Ohio’s “Big 8” cities, and ended up with just 16 high-poverty schools that were both high-performing and high-need. Thus, the title of the report, Needles in a Haystack, isn’t just proverbial.

The eight Needles schools are:

  • Citizens’ Academy, charter school, Cleveland
  • College Hill Fundamental Academy, magnet school, Cincinnati Public Schools
  • Duxberry Park Arts IMPACT Alternative Elementary School, magnet school, Columbus City Schools
  • Horizon Science Academy – Cleveland Middle School, charter school
  • King Elementary School, Akron Public Schools
  • Louisa May Alcott Elementary School, Cleveland Metropolitan Schools
  • McGregor Elementary School, Canton City Schools
  • Valleyview Elementary School, Columbus City Schools

To study these schools and report on what makes them tick, we called on two seasoned educators who share our curiosity and passion for this work. Theodore J. Wallace, a former teacher, school principal, education analyst, and author, was joined by Quentin Suffren, a former teacher, literacy specialist, and curriculum coach who is now chief academic officer at the Learning Institute in Arkansas. Both have experience working in Ohio, working with Fordham, and working in high-need schools.

Wallace and Suffren braved brutal winter weather and countless travel delays in February and March to spend 16 days in eight schools in five cities. They spent several hundred hours observing classes and interviewing district administrators, school leaders, teachers, parents, and students, and discovered 10 shared traits of success across the schools.

Common Traits of Needles Schools

  1. They are schools of choice (two were charters; two, magnets; the remaining four district schools had high degrees of “open-enrollment” and thus represent a district-choice school).
  2. Their administrators and teachers exhibit strong leadership and ownership over school policies and practices.
  3. Teachers and leaders make no excuses for what they or their students “can’t do.”
  4. Expectations for teacher performance are data-specific and teachers have the autonomy they need to meet performance targets.
  5. Behavioral management policies are clearly articulated and consistent, feature positive incentives as well as consequences, and are deeply embedded in the school culture.
  6. Teamwork defines these schools; they have few if any “independent contractors.”
  7. There is little turnover among administrators and teachers.
  8. Staffing is a function of meticulous recruitment and a culture of high-expectations that attracts and retains talent.
  9. These schools strive to engage parents and develop relationships with them.
  10. In unionized Needles schools (six of eight), staff regard their collective bargaining agreements as the floor of their teaching responsibilities, not the ceiling.

These findings, along with individual narratives describing each school, are enough to inspire hope even among the most skeptical. These schools prove that it is possible to do right by high-need youngsters. One has a student population that comprises 34 percent students with disabilities. Several serve much larger percentages of minority students than their home district. Yet they all achieve at consistently high levels. Some outpace their district on reading and math tests by 40-some percentage points.

We realize that improving student achievement, especially for our state’s neediest children, is no small task. But we’ve identified six policy lessons that we think, when applied in tandem, can create the conditions in which more of these sorts of schools can develop and thrive. Likewise, policy makers should not settle for following just one or two of the six policy lessons that follow, for the truth is that all of these conditions are essential. The lessons are inextricably entwined, meaning that if Ohio wants more such schools to serve its neediest youngsters successfully, it must go about the hard work of creating all six of these conditions.

Policy Lessons Learned from Needles Schools

  1. Encourage and expand school choice to ensure that poor youngsters have real access to quality schools.
  2. Encourage school-based principal training programs.
  3. Adopt a “tight-loose” approach to accountability by setting clear, data-specific goals for schools, then directing funds to schools, relaxing mandates, slashing regulations, and cutting strings so that school leaders have the control and operational freedom to meet those goals using strategies that work for them, their teams, and their students.
  4. Discourage administrative churn in high-achieving schools.
  5. Empower schools to hire and retain the best talent available.
  6. Reduce bureaucratic barriers and regulatory constraints through “innovation zones,” contract waivers, regulatory waivers, and other strategies that free schools to succeed.

Implementing these policy changes (see the report for a full discussion of them) can help create the conditions for more schools to develop Needles-like cultures – defined by teamwork; rigorous expectations; and autonomy and freedom in exchange for accountability and performance.

Implementing such changes would face its own set of political challenges, as many of our recommendations undermine established interests in education and flip on its head the way we think about school funding, management, and accountability. But one thing is for certain – what we’re currently doing isn’t working for the state’s neediest children. The Needles schools prove all children can learn and that the people leading these schools and teaching in them are mortals and their successes can be emulated. But such schools don’t happen by accident. If we want more of them to serve more kids successfully, grown-ups have to make it happen.

Visit our website for the full study, to view companion videos featuring interviews of staff members and leaders at each of the Needles schools, and for links to media coverage of the report.

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