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Surprising gains in 5 school districts you’ve never heard of, plus Chicago

A globe sits in a classroom at Peck Elementary School in Chicago in 2013. In 2011, 48 percent of Chicago’s fourth-graders met basic standards for reading. In 2015, 67 percent of that same group met basic standards for eighth-graders.
A globe sits in a classroom at Peck Elementary School in Chicago in 2013. In 2011, 48 percent of Chicago’s fourth-graders met basic standards for reading. In 2015, 67 percent of that same group met basic standards for eighth-graders. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)
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When Karin Chenoweth began a five-year stint as a columnist at The Washington Post in 1999, she soon became one of the best education writers I had ever read. She has gotten better since. Her latest book takes us to the heart of student achievement, and why we so rarely give our most disadvantaged students what they need.

The title is “Districts That Succeed: Breaking the Correlation Between Race, Poverty, and Achievement.” As she has done in previous books and in her work as writer-in-residence for the Education Trust advocacy organization, she explains in detail how some educators have managed to defy low expectations, despite an undertow of mindless routine in our schools.

The book has six case studies. In Valley Stream 30, a tiny district on Long Island, N.Y., African American students performed 1.2 grade levels above the national average for all students in 2016. In the Seaford district in southern Delaware, Black third- and fourth-graders in 2019 caught up to where White students had been in 2014. Steubenville, a working-class community in Ohio, had some of the best-performing third- and fourth-graders in the country. The Cottonwood and Lane districts in Oklahoma are tiny, but they got together to boost low-income children.

And then there’s Chicago. In 1987, Education Secretary William Bennett declared it the worst school district in the country. Its reputation eventually improved enough to be considered a bit better than Detroit’s.

But Chenoweth detected a startling turnaround in the past decade. In 2011, 48 percent of Chicago’s fourth-graders met basic standards for reading. In 2015, 67 percent of that same group met basic standards for eighth-graders. No other urban district measured by federal tests had shown that kind of increase in that period of time.

Chenoweth sums it up this way: In Chicago, fourth- and eighth-graders “now achieve at levels above many other cities and right around the national average.”

She offers five reasons for big jumps in achievement in unexpected places: Those districts had effective leaders, collaborative teachers, involved families, supportive environments and ambitious instruction.

That’s nice and all, but she also examines the blood-chilling mistakes that have kept so many districts down for so long. These include envy and distrust of successful schools, a crazy love of change for the sake of change and one of the great educational mishaps of modern times: a wrongheaded way of teaching reading called “whole language.” Practitioners of this philosophy of reading thought children learned to read just as they learned to talk: by absorbing their surroundings. Those experts advised exposing kids to great writing as they were first exposed to speech. Sadly, it hasn’t worked very well. Children need to master the sounds of letters.

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By sifting through the research of Sean Reardon, a sociologist at Stanford University, Chenoweth identified districts that overcame such pitfalls. Reardon and his team spent four years plotting on graphs nearly all U.S. school districts based on their students’ socioeconomic standing and academic achievement. Chenoweth looked for districts where achievement was better than socioeconomics would have predicted. She visited those places to see what was going on.

In the Windy City, Chenoweth describes the investment of the Chicago Community Trust in credentialing teachers in math, science, reading and history, so middle schools could rise from mediocrity. The district daringly agreed to expose itself to regular federal assessments of student progress. It trained and sent reading specialists to 114 struggling schools. It put extraordinary emphasis on engaging ninth-graders. Linda Lenz, a veteran Chicago Sun-Times education reporter, started Catalyst Chicago, a specialized publication that, until her retirement in the 2010s, kept track of the details we newspaper people rarely have time or space for.

The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research identified the five factors above as key to district improvement. “In fact,” Chenoweth said, “three of the five would do it, as long as one of them was an effective leader.”

Steubenville benefited from bringing in the heavily scripted, phonics-rich Success for All program, invented by Johns Hopkins University researchers Robert Slavin and Nancy Madden. That imaginative married couple had a quirky but clever requirement: Schools were barred from using their system unless 80 percent of the teachers approved by secret ballot.

Chenoweth saw that the Cottonwood district in Oklahoma had an elementary school that was performing at the top of the state. It was too small to show up in Reardon’s research, but its superintendent pointed Chenoweth toward Lane, a district on Reardon’s list that was only 25 miles away from Cottonwood. Lane adopted Cottonwood’s methods after the Lane superintendent displayed the humility that Chenoweth considers crucial. He said to the Cottonwood superintendent: “I’ve been doing it wrong.”

Seaford’s achievement level dropped after a downsizing at the local DuPont plant sent well-paid technical staff elsewhere. Poultry, where pay was lower, became the dominant local industry. A reform-minded superintendent at Seaford brought in principals who found solutions to a rise in suspensions and gave struggling students more than just standard special-education services. A complex program called Bookworms showed the power of reading with partners, choral reading and documenting happenings in each book.

At Valley Stream 30, ingenuity took hold. For instance, a teacher discovered that a unit on baseball player Jackie Robinson was incomprehensible, because students from South Asia and the British Caribbean didn’t know baseball. The school had them view a game in the gym with popcorn, hot dogs and explanations of terms such as “pitcher’s mound.”

Chenoweth emphasizes that the programs used to raise achievement aren’t as important as good staff, challenging lessons and community support. What she reveals about what can go wrong is often as important as what can go right. I will devote a future column to those horror stories.

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