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December 1, 2022
Vol. 80
No. 4

What “Failing” Schools Really Need

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High-poverty schools need more resources and teaching specialists—not more blame and stigma.

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Credit: HALBERGMAN / iSTOCK
Our principal beamed as she unfurled the banner at our staff meeting. The navy-blue banner's gold lettering announced that our school had been awarded the status of an Exceptional School by our state for the fourth year in a row.
It didn't surprise me. All but two of my 4th grade students had scored in the exceptional category on the state tests. I'm guessing this happened in most other classrooms as well in our sparkling, beautifully kept school with a new playground, classroom sound systems, and an updated, well-resourced library.
Then our principal said something that triggered an emotional response from me: "And this great honor is all due to the capable teachers we have here."
Six years earlier, I had been teaching in our district's lowest income school. As a high-poverty school with a highly transient population, this school was deemed a "failing" school, like similar schools across the country. We did not get banners there. We were not called "capable." Thinking about the often-Sisyphean hard work my colleagues and I did at that school—the lowest scoring school in the district—my new principal's comment really hurt.
Just before I'd left my former school, state tests had revealed that just one of my students had scored in the exceptional category. Most were in the lowest quartile of the test results. So, at the high-poverty school, did my students score so poorly due to my less-than-capable teaching? I doubt it. I was the same teacher at both schools. And what about my former students? Might they have had a better shot at succeeding if their school building, their course offerings, and their rating as a "failing" school were different?

When a school is labeled 'bad,' it puts an additional burden on the staff already coping with a poverty-stressed population and teaching with fewer resources.

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Although that banner was unfurled a decade ago, the terms "exceptional" and "failing" schools remain part of the common language. "Bad" schools—as one person at a party I attended recently referred to them—are often characterized by low test scores, dilapidated buildings, high staff turnover, and economically stressed families. When a school is labeled "bad," it puts an additional burden on the staff already coping with a poverty-stressed population and teaching with fewer resources. It also perpetuates the inequities in our school systems. How can we begin to break down the barriers these types of labels create?

Are There "Bad" Schools?

I had friends who taught in a nearby sister school that served a similar population to my former school. It was also considered a "bad" school. The staff and students suffered through a series of principals with aggressive turnaround plans using a series of canned programs to cram "the basics." These plans demoralized the core group of experienced teachers by insisting they stick to the turnaround plans with fidelity—often demanding that every teacher in a certain grade teach the same lesson on the same day. As we know, morale plummets when teachers are told not to use professional judgment to decide what their students need (Bottiani et al., 2019).
The most common element of all these turnaround plans was to separate students into intra-class ability groups or clusters and send them around to different teachers all day to learn the "skills" that would translate to better test scores. This schoolwide ability grouping kept an ever-changing parade of poverty-stressed elementary school children—some as young as five years old—in and out of different classes every day. These kinds of groupings only occurred at the highest poverty schools in the district. When visiting these schools as part of a crew of new teacher mentors, I observed that these students seemed joyless. Marching through a complex assembly line of "skills" instruction was not igniting any enthusiasm.
To make things worse, rigid schedules are needed to facilitate the movement of these students, who spend many precious instructional minutes each day lined up waiting for the signal to move to the next classroom. Teachers are never sure what their homeroom students are doing for math or reading, nor can they adequately explain specific learning issues or grades to parents at conference time.
It must also be hard for students to bond with their teachers with all that movement. When homeroom students are scattered among many classrooms, they share few learning experiences or even a common vocabulary. They are like strangers on a bus. And research shows student academic achievement benefits little from such class-to-class skills training (Steenbergen-Hu, Makel, & Olszewski-Kubilius, 2016), and that negative social-emotional outcomes such as hyperactivity and conduct problems can result (Papachristou et al., 2022).
When these ability-grouped students are tested, they often do score higher on phonics or certain "skills" questions, but no higher in overall reading achievement. In a 2016 meta-analysis of the effects of various reading interventions, comprehension interventions appeared particularly effective versus phonic interventions (Suggate, 2016). In other words, students with intensive phonics skills training often don't read any better, but they sure know the difference between a hard and soft "g."
So, what do these "bad" schools need? Based on my experiences and research, students in low-achieving, high-poverty schools need these four elements to start with.

1. Specialized Training and Professional Status

We need to staff poverty-affected schools with highly trained teachers who specialize in educating students from economically stressed families. There's only one state that offers a certification for "Teaching Children of Poverty" and that's South Carolina. I called up the state credentialing office there and asked how many teachers get this certification. The woman who answered the phone said she's been working there for 13 years and so far as she knew, no one had gotten that certification during that time.
I contacted a professor at South Carolina's Francis Marion University Center of Excellence to Prepare Teachers of Children of Poverty to ask about interest in the classes that lead to this certification, and she said it's one of the most popular programs for practicing teachers. It's a puzzle as to why these dedicated teachers generally do not take the extra step in applying for the certification.
Teachers with expertise in teaching poverty-affected students would understand how to manage their students' academic needs without resorting to destructive practices such as ability grouping (McGillicuddy & Devine, 2020). These schools would become places where top teachers with specialized knowledge worked to mitigate the profound effects of poverty instead of just being part of the staff of a "failing" school.
In addition, a certification in teaching poverty-affected students can add prestige to a teachers' resume. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards' program shows that teachers are willing to work an extra 15 months to become Board-certified. Over 130,000 teachers have become nationally certified, despite sometimes gaining little or no pay benefits. Teachers complete this program to become more effective teachers and to boost their resumes, often bearing most or all of the costs.
That said, states and school districts should add financial and honorific incentives for teachers to become certified and work in poverty-affected schools. If the pay and job satisfaction were higher for specially certified teachers, competition for jobs in low-income areas could make the job of hiring strong teachers much easier.

2. Additional Staff

Many children from highly stressed homes have special needs that can only be addressed through additional staff. For example, if I had an available social worker when working at my former school, I would not have needed to take time away from lesson planning to find a place for my student Maria's homeless family to live. If a nurse had been readily available, he could have found a dentist to help my student Jason with his serious dental problems. A family counselor might have been able to help my student Jon's time-strapped parents develop strategies to help him with his behavior issues. If teachers who serve high-poverty students are relieved from dealing on their own with these urgent problems, they can have more time to develop engaging units of study, which will help their students thrive in learning.

When working at my former school, I had gotten used to windows that didn’t open, broken toilets taped shut, and poor ventilation.

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Besides the benefit of giving these teachers more time to do the job they were trained for, evidence exists to support adding staff. For example, a 2014 study showed just adding one counselor to a high school positively boosted four-year college-going rates for its students (Hurwitz & Howell, 2014).

3. Effective Classroom Environments

When working at my former school, I had gotten used to windows that didn't open, broken toilets taped shut, and poor ventilation. At my new, wealthier school, students benefited from a high-quality learning environment that included a beautiful parent-funded playground and track, impactful art and drama programs, and newer facilities.
My last year at my "bad" school, our parents held three fundraisers, all of which required teachers to use instructional time to do things like keep track of candy bar sales, prepare carnival decorations, and manage gift-wrap collections to earn enough money to put a new computer in nearly every classroom. The parent volunteer leading these fundraisers was a single mom working as a motel housekeeper. She had no spare time to run fundraisers, but nobly did her best to help her children's school.
At the new school, the PTA had just put a power cart of 30 new computers in each classroom, along with new document cameras, sound systems, and just about any technology a teacher asked for. Taking advantage of a bountiful parent-volunteer base unavailable at the high-poverty school, the PTA raised tens of thousands of dollars at an after-school auction that took no time away from classroom instruction.

'Failing' schools need adequate resources, equipment, and facilities—and districts need to make sure this is a reality.

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"Failing" schools need more adequate resources, equipment, and facilities. Making this possible should be a fundamental responsibility of school systems. It should not have to fall on financially struggling parents—or the teaching staff—to find creative ways to supply students with materials they need to learn.

4. Engaging Curriculum

Students learning in high-poverty schools are often behind in "the basics" but also need much more than phonics exercises and rote-learning drills. They need art, drama, science, music, sports, and social studies. In one study, for example, adding a robust music program for students with low socio-economic status demonstrated achievement gains in math, reading, and writing scores (Holbrook et al., 2022).

Closing the Gap

The financial costs of closing the achievement gaps between well-funded schools and not well-funded schools are great. And yet, money matters in education. It takes money to attract and hire top-notch teachers and provide these teachers with what they and their students need to thrive.
There are no easy answers, but school leaders can help close the gap by continuing to pressure policymakers to equitably fund schools and reduce economic segregation by drawing more middle- and upper-income families to poverty-affected schools (Fahle et al., 2020). They can provide other resources so poverty-affected students can have a robust and diverse curriculum, a support staff to boost instructional and teacher planning time, a clean and inviting facility, modern technology, and sensible class sizes.
I recently visited my old school. The district has turned it into a Career Technical Education Center and Dual Language Bilingual Center, which they hope will draw in higher income families who can boost community support with parent volunteers and robust fundraising. A facelift changed the school from outwardly looking like a 1940s derelict building to a modern education center. It's on the right path.
Perhaps one day the highly competent staff members at these lower-funded schools will receive a banner based on their exceptional results. And perhaps this staff, with adequate resources, will create a more level playing field and narrow the achievement gaps.
References

Bottiani, J., Duran, C., Pas, E., & Bradshaw, C. (2019). Teacher stress and burnout in urban middle schools: Associations with job demands, resources, and effective classroom practices. Journal of School Psychology77, 36–51.

Fahle, E. M., reardon, s. f., Kalogrides, D., Weathers, E. S., & Jang, H. (2020). Racial segregation and school poverty in the United States, 1999–2016. Race and Social Problems12(1), 42–56.

Holbrook, H. M., Martin, M., Glik, D., Hudziak, J. J., Copeland, W. E., Lund, C., et al. (2022). Music-based mentoring and academic improvement in high-poverty elementary schools. Journal of Youth Development (Online)17(1), 33–53.

Hurwitz, M., & Howell, J. (2014). Estimating causal impacts of school counselors with regression discontinuity designs. Journal of Counseling and Development92(3), 316–327.

McGillicuddy, D., & Devine, D. (2020). ‘You feel ashamed that you are not in the higher group'—Children's psychosocial response to ability grouping in primary school. British Educational Research Journal46(3), 553–573.

Papachristou, E., Flouri, E., Joshi, H., Midouhas, E., & Lewis, G. (2022). Ability‐grouping and problem behavior trajectories in childhood and adolescence: Results from a U.K. population‐based sample. Child Development93(2), 341–358.

Steenbergen-Hu, S., Makel, M., & Olszewski-Kubilius, P. (2016). What one-hundred years of research says about the effects of ability grouping and acceleration on K-12 students' academic achievement: Findings of two second-order meta-analyses. Review of Educational Research86(4), 849–899.

Suggate, S. P. (2016). A meta-analysis of the long-term effects of phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, and reading comprehension interventions. Journal of Learning Disabilities49(1), 77–96.

Bruce Hansen taught in public schools for over three decades. He’s been training teachers for over 20 years and is now a faculty member of Lewis and Clark College. His latest book is Teaching the Students of the 2020s (Mt. Hood Press, 2022).  

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