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‘Schools of Opportunity’ – a new project to recognize schools that give all students a chance to succeed

We all know about the many efforts to rate and/or rank schools by student standardized test scores and other data points — but without any of the out-of-school factors that play an enormous role in how well young people fare academically. Now two veteran educators are spearheading a new pilot initiative to identify and recognize public high schools that seek to close opportunity gaps through practices “that build on students’ strengths” — not by inundating them with tests and not by evaluating them with scores.

The people behind the Schools of Opportunity project are Carol Burris, principal of South Side High School in the Rockville Centre School District in New York, and Kevin Welner, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder’s School of Education who specializes in educational policy and law. Burris, a frequent contributor to The Answer Sheet on New York’s troubled school reform efforts, was named the 2010 Educator of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York State, and in 2013, the same organization named her the New York State High School Principal of the Year. Welner is director of the National Education Policy Center at UC Boulder, which produces high-quality peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions.

The Schools of Opportunity project will start as a pilot this year in  Colorado and New York. In this post, Burris and Welner explain why they have launched their new effort and how it will work. This blog will exclusively publish the announcement of the schools selected to be recognized next spring.

By Kevin Welner and Carol Burris

The Answer Sheet has over the years published many pieces about how test-based accountability systems have unintended and negative consequences for schools and students. One of the negative consequences occurs when judgments about school quality are largely based on test scores. Such judgments can obscure a critical part of the school-quality story. This can do real harm to our schools and students. As schools chase scores, it is easy for us all to lose sight of the factors that truly matter in providing all students with a high-quality education.

Such is the storyline of education and education reform over the past couple decades. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The first step in changing the conversation on school quality requires us to acknowledge that achievement gaps are a predictable and inevitable consequence of opportunity-to-learn gaps, which arise in large part because of factors outside of the control of schools. Factors that include poverty and deficits in school resources strongly influence school outcomes, yet they are outside of the control of our schools. To pretend that these out-of-school factors don’t exist while shouting “No excuses!” is to do a great disservice to our students and our nation.

Even while being buffeted by larger societal forces, however, our schools and educators can make decisions that either widen or close opportunity gaps. While schools cannot, for instance, directly integrate neighborhoods by race and class, they can do their best to integrate their classrooms by race and class. While it is difficult for schools to make neighborhoods or homes physically and emotionally safe, they can strive to ensure that students are physically and emotionally safe when they pass through the school doors.

When schools and communities focus resources and efforts on closing the opportunity gaps, they should be recognized, supported and applauded. They should also serve as models for those who wish to engage in true school improvement.

To this end, we are proud to announce the launch of the Schools of Opportunity project, which is being led by the National Education Policy Center, housed at the University of Colorado Boulder, with financial support from the Ford Foundation and the NEA Foundation. The Washington Post’s Answer Sheet by Valerie Strauss will exclusively announce schools that receive recognition in the spring.

The project will recognize public high schools that demonstrate an extraordinary commitment to equity and excellence by giving all students the opportunity to succeed. It’s about rewarding schools for doing the right things, even if they do not enroll the nation’s top students. It’s also about highlighting the practices of schools that are energetically closing the opportunity gap by engaging in research-based practices designed to make sure that all students have rich opportunities to succeed.

Existing lists of best high schools undoubtedly identify many high-quality schools. But the approaches underlying these lists inevitably reward schools that are selective or affluent (or both). In contrast, the Schools of Opportunity approach will be based on schools that practice principles identified by experts in the 2013 book, Closing the Opportunity Gap (Oxford Univ. Press). The project will recognize schools for creating inputs that help close opportunity gaps and report improved outcomes.

The identification process will highlight practices such as effective student and faculty support systems, outreach to the community, health and psychological support, judicious and fair discipline policies, little or no tracking, and high-quality teacher induction and mentoring programs. Eleven practices in all are identified and set forth on the Schools of Opportunity website.

The process is designed to allow applicants to explain how and why their school should be recognized, and the project will provide any assistance needed to help applicants easily complete and submit their information.

Excellent schools reach their students in ways that will never be recognized by simple measures of outcomes. The Schools of Opportunity project is grounded in the belief that there is an urgent need for recognizing schools that close opportunity gaps, and the three of us hope you will bring your excellent schools forward. Applications are now open, found on the website.

For this school year (2014-2015), the project is being piloted in New York and in Colorado. The following year, it will expand nationwide. If you’re a principal, teacher, student, parent, school board member, or community member of a high school in New York or Colorado that you think deserves recognition for closing opportunity gaps, please visit the website or email the organizers at These are the stories we need to tell. These are the practices that should be emulated.

Let’s change the conversation and engage in true school improvement.