Inside the Black Box of High-Performing, High-Poverty Schools

Patricia J. Kannapel and Stephen K. Clements, Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence
February 2005

Kentucky's useful Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence is the source of this worthy 30-pager, the latest in America's endless effort to ascertain why some schools do better with poor kids than others. Decades of research on "effective schools," a couple of terrific books, multiple databases and number-crunchers, innumerable profiles of successful schools, and all sorts of articles and studies with titles like "against the odds," "despite the odds," and "no excuses," comprise a veritable cottage industry of analysis of this tantalizing topic. In this manifestation (paid for by the Ford Foundation), the Prichard Committee's researchers identified 26 Kentucky elementary schools that manifest key signs of strong performance despite lots of low-income students, then selected eight of them for close-up audit by visiting experts. These schools' characteristics were then compared with eight low-performing, high-poverty schools. Much of what they found in the good schools was typical of this genre: high expectations "communicated in concrete ways"; a "caring, nurturing atmosphere"; a strong academic focus combined with much use of assessment data at the individual student level; collaborative decision-making; a strong faculty work ethic; and close attention to who is teaching what in the school. What surprised the analysts is that school leadership (i.e., the principal) didn't seem to matter much from high to low-performing schools and the district's influence upon the school "was less direct than had been anticipated." No policy recommendations follow but you may want to dig around in these findings on your own. You can find the report here.

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