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 Chenoweth
It is easy for people to think that educators really don’t know what they’re doing. After all, it is possible to read endless stories detailing incompetence, helplessness, and fraud.
But if you just scratch the surface a tiny bit you can find educators who have built enormous expertise about how to help kids learn.
Take, for example, the folks in Steubenville, Ohio.
Steubenville is a small, impoverished city that sits just west of West Virginia along the Ohio River. Once a thriving steel town, it has been devastated by the loss of manufacturing. About half of its population left over the last couple of decades and its rate of poverty is more than twice that of the rest of the country.
Other school districts that have experienced that kind of economic devastation have also experienced downturns in their students’ academic achievement.
But in terms of academic achievement, Steubenville’s three elementary schools are near the top of the nation, according to a national analysis of student achievement by Sean Reardon at Stanford University.
Reardon’s analysis, by the way, is why it is so important to administer standard tests to millions of children – the results allow us to find and learn from those places that have figured out how to help kids of all backgrounds learn.
And that’s exactly what educators in Steubenville have done.
The superintendent, Melinda Young, says that what makes the difference is “always having that belief that we can move these students and that all students can learn.”
To outsiders, that may seem an inadequate basis for success.
After all, life isn’t like Peter Pan where if you just believe and clap hard enough you can save Tinkerbell.
But because the educators in Steubenville believe that they can help all students learn, they never say about a struggling student, “Well, his family is poor and can’t give him much support, so he may never really learn to read well.” Instead they say, “What more can we do?”
That is, they don’t give up on kids. Rather, they dig deeper to figure out solutions.
Do the kids need clean clothes? Do they need social support? Do they need extra instruction about which letters represent which sounds? Do they need help learning the vocabulary and background knowledge necessary to understand a text? If so, what more can the educators do to get them that help?
All that may sound like hard work – and it is – but the educators in Steubenville work together, both within and across schools. Their collaboration ensures that teachers don’t feel they are expected to work miracles by themselves but have colleagues to figure things out with.
One of the many things they have figured out is that high-quality, well-researched programs can help their students. So for the past 18 years, the elementary schools have used Success for All, which is a program that incorporates a great deal of what we know about how children learn and has solid evidence of success, particularly in high-poverty schools.
Some teachers around the country reject Success for All because they think it is too scripted and constrains their creativity, but you would be hard put to find a teacher in Steubenville who thinks that way.
“Once you understand all the components,” one teacher told me, “you can tweak it to fit your personality.” I heard variations of that sentiment from lots of teachers.
I have visited Steubenville several times over the years to try to figure out what they are doing that the rest of us can learn from. The last couple of times I went to capture the voices of students, teachers, and administrators to try to convey their passion, enthusiasm, and smarts in a podcast, ExtraOrdinary Districts, which can be found anywhere you get podcasts.
One of the things that really struck me during my last visit is that when I told the district’s leadership team that Sean Reardon’s analysis showed that even though their elementary students are near the top of the country, their secondary students trail off, none of them were defensive. They knew the data better than Reardon did, and they simply nodded. And then said something like, “Not for long,” or “We’re going to fix that.” They have plans to improve the education their students get in middle and high school, and if those plans don’t work they’ll come up with more.
That is because they believe their students are capable of great things and see themselves as the guardians of their students’ future. They are determined, as Superintendent Young says, “to change the path of poverty” for their students.
The big news here is that Steubenville’s educators are not the nation’s only knowledgeable, skillful educators. In fact, they exist all over the country. It takes a little bit of work to find them, but it is well worth the effort, because they have a lot to teach us.