Equity Lessons from the Outliers - ASCD
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November 18, 2021

Equity Lessons from the Outliers

One straightforward research approach—identifying successful outlier schools— has much to tell us about where to start when trying to overcome racial and socioeconomic inequities.

Equity
Leadership
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Back in the December 1982 issue of Educational Leadership, educator and researcher Ronald Edmonds explained how he identified the characteristics of what he called “effective schools”: “First, you identify schools that produce the outcomes you are interested in. Then you watch them and try to figure out what makes them different from ineffective schools.”

With that simple and straightforward research method, Edmonds was directly challenging the idea that there wasn’t much schools could do to help kids from all backgrounds learn. Edmonds was working in the shadow of The Coleman Report, which the National Center for Education Statistics had commissioned to provide an intellectual basis for supporting federal investments in local schools. Instead, researcher James Coleman found that academic achievement was more highly correlated with family background than with such school characteristics as funding and teacher-to-student ratios.

That is to say, rather than supporting the idea that better funded and staffed schools made kids smarter, the Coleman Report had undermined it. Recognizing the implications, President Lyndon B. Johnson tried to bury the report by releasing it on July 4th weekend. But his subterfuge didn’t work; the 1966 report went on to become one of the most influential educational studies ever.

An Issue Worth Reexamination

Ronald Edmonds, who believed in the power of schools to educate all children, reanalyzed Coleman’s data for schools in Michigan and found schools where Black and Brown students did as well on Coleman’s achievement test as white students, and where children from low-income homes did as well as children from high-income homes. These were outlier schools that broke the correlation Coleman had found between students’ socioeconomic backgrounds and their academic achievement. Edmonds studied those schools for the lessons they held.

He found that the schools shared several characteristics: an atmosphere that is “orderly without being rigid,” a focus on academics with frequent assessments to measure progress, and “strong administrative leadership without which the disparate elements of good schooling can neither be brought together nor kept together.” Those straightforward observations weren’t exactly a prescription for running an effective school, but they proved to be a powerful motivator for many educators. Yet, in the decades since Edmonds’s death in 1983, remarkably little American education research has followed his basic approach.

In general, education research tends to fall into two categories: correlational studies, like Coleman’s, which keep the big picture in mind, and studies of individual programs, policies, and practices. Both are useful. But if there’s anything that’s become clear over the last couple of decades, it is that we cannot rely on individual programs, policies, and practices to drive school or district improvement. Even the best-researched program, policy, or practice, with good evidence of success in one context, often fails in a new context—leaving researchers and program developers to blame “faulty implementation.” Worse, the running catalogue of failure serves to discourage educators and feeds the idea that public schools are doomed to fail and thus unworthy of tax dollars.

But we can tell a very different story if we revive Edmonds’s research method to try to understand success in schools that serve children from low-income families and children of color and see if they have something to teach us.

Organizing for Success

Though I said earlier that little American research follows Edmonds’s advice, one notable exception is the work of the UChicago Consortium on School Research. The Consortium’s researchers spent two decades identifying Chicago schools that had improved and schools that had not. Some of those schools were more or less identical in their outward characteristics—demographics, funding, staffing. So, what made the difference? The researchers followed Edmonds’s advice and watched the improvers.

In 2010, they published their observations in a seminal study, Organizing for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago (Bryk, et al, 2010). What they had found was that “school organization drives improvement, and individual initiatives are unlikely to work in isolation.” That might seem a modest return on two decades of work, but the implications challenge the education world’s ongoing focus on individual programs, policies, and practices. Instead, it puts the emphasis on organizational structures and systems that work together to make programs, policies, and practices effective. And that, in turn, puts the emphasis on school and district leaders who create the organizational structures and systems within which teachers teach and students learn.

In light of the Consortium’s findings, Chicago Public Schools began assessing schools for what the Consortium called the “five essentials” of improving schools:

  1. Effective leaders

  2. Ambitious instruction

  3. Collaborative teaching

  4. Involved families

  5. Supportive environment

Today, Chicago’s school report cards show how well each school is doing on those elements, as assessed by careful surveys of teachers, students, and—occasionally—parents, on schools’ websites. The district and the city put time and energy toward ensuring that every school has a principal who understands how to involve families and help teachers collaborate on delivering ambitious instruction and providing a supportive environment, so that students and teachers felt like contributing parts of their communities. That was a tall order, but slowly, people with the right kind of training and experience were given the right jobs.

There is a lot more to the story, but the short version is that Chicago Public Schools have improved over two decades more than many districts that have tried to make radical change. Just to give a few data points, in 2006 only 57 percent of Chicago’s students graduated; in 2019, 82 percent did, approaching the national average of 88 percent. And early indicators are that Chicago held onto those gains in 2020 and 2021, despite the pandemic.

Academic achievement has also improved, as measured both by state assessments and the National Assessment of Educational Progress. For example, in 2003 the average 8th-grader scored at 254 on the NAEP math assessment, 22 points below the national average; by 2019 they scored at 275, only 6 points below the national average. Today, Chicago’s students perform above the level of many urban districts and approach the national average, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

That might not seem noteworthy unless you remember that the U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett in 1987—with some reason—called Chicago the “worst” school district in the country. In contrast, thirty years later, Sean Reardon, a professor of poverty and inequality in education at Stanford University, said that Chicago “grows” its students more than any other large or medium district in the country. That is to say that although 3rd grade students score below the national average, 8th grade students are right around the national average, meaning they gain six grade levels in five calendar years. No other large or even medium-sized district can boast of such growth.

A Closer Look

Reardon has spent years gathering the achievement data from every school district in the country in order to put them on a common achievement scale that takes into account socioeconomic background. Like Coleman before him, Reardon’s research demonstrates that in general, as poverty increases, achievement tends to decrease. But because of the way Reardon has organized the data, we are easily able to do what Edmonds urged years ago: find schools and districts where students are improving and achieving and then watch those districts to see what they do differently.

As a writer who has spent more than a decade visiting, learning from, and writing about high-performing and improving schools that serve children of color and children from low-income families on behalf of national advocacy organization The Education Trust, I used Reardon’s work to look for national outliers. I found districts that have important expertise to share—like Chicago.

But I also found outlier districts in very different contexts. Take, for example, Seaford in southern Delaware. Mostly rural and dominated by the poultry industry, Seaford showed up as a district where Black students were growing academically more than white students. When I looked at the state report card data on the district’s elementary schools, it was clear that all groups of students were improving, but the students who had begun further behind—Black students, Hispanic students, and students with disabilities—were improving faster.

Seaford has twice the level of poverty as the rest of Delaware. In 2013, it was considered one of the state’s lowest-performing districts. Two of the four elementary schools were on the “priority plus” list, meaning they were among the lowest-performing schools; a third was about to be added to the list. Many people, accustomed to the idea that low achievement accompanies poverty, were not surprised. But superintendent David Perrington, who arrived in December 2013, decided the low performance was something he could fix.

He brought in expert school leaders who believed in the capacity of their students to learn and their teachers to teach. They reworked master schedules—sometimes several times a year—to ensure that students got uninterrupted instruction and teachers had time to collaborate. They brought in reading experts from the University of Delaware to provide training to paraprofessionals and teachers. They celebrated every small victory to bring a sense of joy and community, and they deliberately built a culture of trust and respectful accountability.

"We can tell a very different story if we revive Edmonds’s research method to try to understand success in schools that serve children from low-income families and children of color and see if they have something to teach us."

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In other words, they led improvement—improvement that can be seen now in the data, in the calm ebullience of the classrooms and lunchrooms, and in children’s love of reading. Long-time teacher Tammy Steele put it this way: “You see so many more kids just immersed in reading, carrying books with them to the buses, to the cafeteria, to the playground—you know, enjoying reading.”

Chicago and Seaford are just two of many districts where educators have had the expertise to improve schools so that children learn, no matter their background. They do so by organizing their districts and schools in ways that ensure that teachers are able to continually improve their knowledge and skills. Some of what they do is simple—they stop piling program after program, initiative after initiative, on schools. They know that there is a finite amount of time schools have with children, and they need to not waste time on the fads and fashions that sweep through the education world.

They also know that they need to monitor and evaluate all the initiatives they do start, to see if they solve the problems they were supposed to or simply cause more problems. If a program promises that it will help children read on grade level, teachers and leaders need to verify that it actually happens.

The Road to Progress

We are at a bit of a crossroads right now. We’ve tried scripted programs and open classrooms; incentive pay and assessment-based teacher evaluation systems; consolidating schools and breaking them apart; vouchers, charters, and governance changes; zero-tolerance policies and restorative justice circles. That’s just the short list. And only some of the changes work in only some of the places, sometimes. The endless parade of initiatives has left us with lots of tired educators and an ongoing correlation between socioeconomic background and academic achievement. And that was before a worldwide pandemic threw a monkey wrench in lots of schools’ best-laid plans.

If we really want to see progress in reducing inequities, maybe we should study those places that have broken the correlation between race, class, and achievement, and build the knowledge base among educators of what works, where, under what conditions, and in which contexts. Or, as Edmonds advised, seek out schools that have the outcomes we want and study them to see what makes them different.

To those who say that a few outlier districts don’t prove anything, and that we will always be stuck with low performance, Ronald Edmonds had a response in the October 1979 issue of Educational Leadership that cuts into the deep race and class prejudices baked into people’s assumptions:

How many effective schools would you have to see to be persuaded of the educability of poor children? If the answer is more than one, I submit that you have reasons of your own to believe that basic pupil performance derives from family background rather than school response to family background.

I can say, having been in dozens of schools and districts that serve what the education world calls “challenging” demographics, that there is no silver bullet or magic formula to improve schools. But there is hard-won knowledge and expertise. If we can expose it and share it, educators around the country can use the resulting knowledge to improve their schools and districts. That, at least, gives us a place to start.

This article is adapted from Districts that Succeed: Breaking the Correlation Between Race, Poverty, and Achievement (Harvard Education Press, 2021).

References

Bryk, S., Allensworth, E., & Easton, J. (2010). Organizing for improvement: Lessons from Chicago. University of Chicago Press.

Chenoweth, K. (2017). Schools that succeed: How educators marshal the power of schools for improvement. Harvard Education Press.

Edmonds, R. (1979, October). Effective schools for the urban poor. Educational Leadership.

Grissom, J., Egalite, A.J., and Lindsay, C.A. (2021). How principals affect students and schools: A systematic synthesis of two decades of research. The Wallace Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.wallacefoundation.org/knowledge-center/pages/how-principals-affect-students-and-schools-a-systematic-synthesis-of-two-decades-of-research.aspx

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