Chenoweth is writer-in-residence at the Education Trust, a national nonprofit advocacy organization that promotes high academic achievement for students at all levels, particularly for students of color and low-income students. She is also the author of the newly published “Schools that Succeed,” which profiles Artesia High School in Los Angeles; and the creator of a new podcast ExtraOrdinary Districts, which profiles the Chicago school district.
By Karin Chenowith
Over the last 20 years, the national conversation about schools and education has gone from complacent to frantic.
Where once we argued about whether schools should improve, today arguments seem to start from the premise that schools are incapable of improving and should thus be reimagined, transformed, and blown up — to use some of the buzzwords that fly around the field of education.
This is especially true when we talk about schools that serve children of color and children from low-income homes. In fact, the term “low-performing” sometimes seems eternally welded to the words “high-poverty schools.”
Yet all over the country are educators who — quietly and without much fanfare — have figured out how to make schools better for students of color and students from low-income homes. Not just a little better — a lot better.
They are ordinary educators in many respects, but they have found ways to marshal the power of schools to help students. They make schools vibrant places of learning and growth — places where teachers want to teach and children want to learn.
For more than a decade, I have found such educators by going to regular neighborhood schools that, given their demographics, are expected to be mediocre or low-performing. That is, they are schools that do not select or screen their students, most of whom come from low-income families and most of whom are children of color. These schools perform at least as well as predominantly white, middle-class schools; sometimes they perform at the top of their states.
In other words, they are doing what we are told over and over is impossible.
I have been in dozens of them, and they belie the idea that schools are incapable of improving without some kind of dramatic structural disruption.
And yet, these highly successful educators are met with a surprising level of incuriosity.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Artesia High School is in Los Angeles County and it serves a neighborhood that is considered one of the most dangerous gang territories in the country. Most of the students are either Hispanic or African American, about 75 percent of whom come from low-income homes.
In 2005, Artesia was a mess. Few students could read or do math at anything close to state standards; fights were common; and graduation rates were embarrassing.
Today, almost all students graduate and students’ test scores match that of the state in math and significantly outperform it in English language arts.
Those might just seem like meaningless facts, but when I visited in 2016 I saw students analyzing “To Kill a Mockingbird;” figuring out the force needed to push a piano up a ramp; identifying whether liquids were acid or base; comparing the Industrial Revolution to the French Revolution; debating evidence of climate change; and taking classes that would lead to careers in bio-medicine and other fields. I didn’t talk to a single student who didn’t have plans to attend either a two- or four-year college, and most of the students I talked with volunteered that they felt “safe” at school.
I saw, in other words, a high-poverty high school that was operating at a very high level.
And yet, when I first called the principal, Sergio Garcia, to ask him what the school was doing that was different from 2005, he said, “You have no idea the smile on my face. No one has ever asked me that question before.”
Artesia’s improvement was there for anyone to see from the numbers, and yet no one had bothered asking about it.
Here’s another example of what I mean.
In 1987, then-U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett declared Chicago to be the “worst” school district in the country and more or less proposed giving up on it. Just about everyone can relate the woes of the city, from its high rate of violence to its well-deserved reputation for corruption.
And yet Chicago Public Schools is the district that was recently identified by a leading researcher as “growing” its kids the most. Sean Reardon of Stanford University found that in third grade, when students first take standardized tests, Chicago students are well below the national average; by eighth grade they are pretty much at the national average. That means that on average Chicago students grow 1.25 academic years every calendar year. No other large or even moderately large district can claim such growth. At the same time, Chicago’s graduation rates have improved dramatically (up from about 50 percent in 1987 to 74 percent in 2016) and ACT scores have risen as well.
Chicago still has a long way to go before it can be considered high performing, but no one looking at the evidence would ever argue it is the “worst” district in the country. For the third-largest district in the country, where 80 percent of the students are students of color from low-income homes, this is impressive.
And yet Chicago’s remarkable improvement has gone largely unremarked, much less examined. Even many Chicagoans are unaware that their school system has undergone such dramatic improvement.
The fact is, we in this country are really good at documenting failure, and it is possible to read endless reports of schools and school districts — including Chicago — failing their students.
But when we ignore the success and improvement that also exists we feed the idea that failure is universal and that no educators have a clue about what they are doing.
The fact is, the knowledge of how to improve schools has grown a great deal in the last 20 years, and the educators who have put that knowledge to work in their schools and districts hold important lessons for the rest of us.
If I had to put into one sentence what the key lesson they hold is, it would be that they focus on improving the knowledge and skill of the adults in schools and give them the time and space to collaborate about what kids need to learn and how to teach it.
There’s nothing flashy in that. It certainly requires an appreciation for complexity and nuance but no real transformations, reinventions, or disruptions.
Educating all children, no matter what their background, is complex and difficult work.
But it can be done, and if we are serious about trying to do so, we might want to stop thinking that no one knows what they’re doing and start studying what educators in schools like Artesia and districts such as Chicago are doing.