Turn & Talk / William Parrett and Kathleen Budge on PD for Improving High-Poverty Schools - ASCD
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February 1, 2021

Turn & Talk / William Parrett and Kathleen Budge on PD for Improving High-Poverty Schools

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Professional Learning

William Parrett and Kathleen Budge are internationally recognized for their work studying high-poverty schools that are also high-performing and improving outcomes for students who live in poverty. They consult frequently in districts throughout the United States and are authors or coauthors of many books, most recently Disrupting Poverty: Five Powerful Classroom Practices (ASCD, 2018) and Turning High-Poverty Schools into High-Performing Schools (2nd edition, ASCD 2020).

One action you say is essential for high-poverty schools to become high-performing is building teachers' leadership capacity. Why is this so key?

William Parrett: In studying high-poverty/high-performing schools, talking with practitioners in these schools, we found several key actions happened in all the schools that improved—and at the heart of improving was always professional learning. We didn't find any schools where professional learning wasn't a key part of improvement. There were a few components to that learning. One was a sense of urgency; they believed their kids could do better and were committed to it happening. And successful schools always looked at their data, facing the "brutal facts" about aspects of students' achievement, and let those brutal facts lead them to changes in practice.

Kathleen Budge: These schools couldn't have improved their achievement—to the point that they did better than state averages for all students in all areas of required testing—without a systemic approach. We've known for decades that in all high-poverty schools there are great teachers here and there. But building collective capacity is so important. That can't happen without building the leadership capacity of more than the principal. It has to be a collective vision and belief of what their school can become. One piece is to strengthen teachers' skills and body of knowledge, to change their practice. When teachers improve their practice and see kids doing better, their beliefs begin to change.

Do teachers need to learn certain realities about poverty?

KB: I do think there's a basic set of knowledge teachers should have. In our new book, we have a "poverty primer," basics we think educators should understand. A good chunk of that is about challenging stereotypes and myths about poverty that are deeply embedded in our culture. It's not just teachers, it's all of us living in the U.S.; our "mental maps" have been impacted by stereotypes of people who live in poverty. Challenging those sets of beliefs is one key aspect we incorporate in our PD—and we think is paramount to a school turning around.

When leading a workshop, we always ask the group, "What do people in the U.S. believe about people living in poverty?" 99.9 percent of the time, the first answer is "most people think they're lazy." There's a prevalent belief in the U.S. that people who live in poverty don't work. And that's inaccurate: People who live in poverty on average work more hours than the middle class. Other myths are that they abuse drugs and alcohol more and they don't value education. These myths are destructive when we try to build relationship with kids and families.

WP: The most common request we receive when we go to schools is to help change the mindsets of teachers. When we ask what's up with teachers' mindsets, it's always that teachers don't believe these kids coming from poverty can achieve as well as others, that they can catch up. If that belief is common in a school, it can have insidious impacts. Research has exposed the kind of dumbed-down assignments teachers give students when they don't believe the kids can do the work. So unfortunately, too often students coming from poverty don't receive the same high-quality instruction. But teachers' and leaders' low expectations of students is something we know can improve. Many educators have talked with us about what they did to create a culture of high expectations. It always includes professional development.

But can you teach someone to have higher expectations?

WP: We've found a powerful influencer for adults is to "see what good looks like." It helps to portray not just the current status of the high-performing/high poverty schools, but the journey these schools endured and took on. None of them started as high-performing schools; they all went on a journey from low to high performance. When people can see this—and we use video from the schools and other visuals—it's easier to get to, "If it can happen in those schools, what's preventing it from happening in any school?"

KB: Another important thing: None of the schools we studied told us, "We went in and changed people's minds or hearts first." It doesn't happen like that. To become high-performing, you don't spend all your time on beliefs and culture—it's an interweaving of that work with the actual work of becoming a more skilled professional. It's both/and, dealing with people's hearts and beliefs, but also their skills at the same time. A successful school won't just deal with culture, they'll also deal with reading and other areas of core instruction. It's an interwoven combination of beliefs and behavior that creates collective efficacy.

What are key characteristics of PD that helps a high-poverty school improve?

WP: One important word is frequency. Sometimes, schools build a plan and goals, but spend months deciding on it and maybe check in in three months to see how they're doing. That's not what happens in high-poverty schools that improve. They have a palpable sense of urgency. Building leadership teams, PLCs, or whatever structure, meet very frequently, often weekly, to deal with issues related to achievement.

KB: Frequency is important. But I'd say the most important thing overall is to do the learning in some kind of community, and have it entail making teachers' practice public. And this all assumes the learning is embedded in the workday.

WP: Also, the principal's role is very important. In every successful school, there was a principal actively leading the effort, who saw themselves as the lead learner.

What PD do principals in high-poverty schools need?

WP: When we talk about what principals most need to learn, we often say they need to really consider how well they know all their students. Do they have good data on all students in terms of the kids' individual circumstances and needs? Do they, and teachers, work hard to match their instructional approach and interventions to what those kids need? Principals also need to learn how essential high expectations are, and how to monitor, vigilantly, that all teachers and building adults maintain high expectations for all students.

KB: Another overarching component is "place-conscious social justice leadership." Principals not only know their students well, but also know their families, know the neighborhoods they serve. They know who lives on "wrong side of the tracks" and why that's come to be, historically. They know their teachers well, who needs more support than others. They have a big radar about who they're serving.

Editors' note: This interview has been edited for space.

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