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We know what works in schools; it’s a question of making it happen

Over the past three years, the Committee on the Achievement Gap has heard from school leaders in Minnesota and other states who report success in narrowing or closing the learning gap. These include both charter and public schools.

Over the past three years, the Committee on the Achievement Gap has heard from school leaders in Minnesota and other states who report success in narrowing or closing the learning gap. These include both charter and public schools.

Many schools, however, are not making significant progress. The committee has sought to understand why and has identified some tentative conclusions: 

Children who arrive at school from a home culture supportive of education, and/or have had a quality preschool program, are more likely to succeed in school. Surrounding the school with a community of support helps. But in-school factors that result in a positive difference include:

• Schools with strong leadership more able to choose teachers.

• Longer school hours.

• Vigorously pursuing connections with parents.

• Use of school uniforms.

• Teachers work as a close-knit team taking responsibility for the progress of all students.

• Students’ progress is closely and continuously monitored with prompt action for a student falling behind.

In sum, in effective schools there is a consistent, rigorous commitment to all students.

The concept of teachers working together has been described in several recent studies. The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future reported that teachers who are in “engaged, school-embedded professional learning teams” hold themselves to a “higher standard, improve their practice, and lift student achievement.”

Karin Chenoweth, who writes for the Education Trust, spent the last six years identifying and visiting high-performing schools with significant populations of children living in poverty and children of color. She reports that although teachers in these schools work hard, they find their work invigorating because they are successful. “And they are successful because their schools are organized with care to ensure that they do everything right, from discipline to curriculum.”

She goes on to say that “It is, however, unquestionably complicated work. To ensure that just about all their students learn to high standards, schools need to do everything right, which means they cannot afford to be sloppy about a single thing, from how teachers speak to children to how they organize their instruction.”

And note this statement: “This is one of the major differences schools that mostly serve low-income children face as compared with schools that mostly serve middle-class students. Middle-class schools can tolerate some sloppiness and still look pretty good on most ordinary measures of success. Middle-class parents are more likely to have the time, energy, and resources to support their children academically, socially, and emotionally, and that support can often compensate for shortcomings in their schools, from inconsistent discipline policies to wishy-washy curricula. But schools that serve children who live in poverty or isolation can’t afford to be sloppy about anything. Every single thing must be done with thought, care, and precision.”

We now know what works. How do we make it happen?

Don Fraser, former Minneapolis mayor and member of Congress, is the co-convener of the Committee on the Achievement Gap. This article reflects the work of the committee over the last three years. ©2010 Don Fraser