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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.

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

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 08/25/2010 - 10:06 am.


    I absolutely agree that we do know what works. Not to get religious but St. Stephen’s (now gone) was doing a fantastic job long ago with a majority of minority enrollees most of whom were not Catholic. We all know of fantastic public and private schools with wonderful teachers – that work! The answer is not teaching to the test and firing all teachers whose students do not make adequate progress – however that is to be defined!

    Also, see Joe Nathan. He knows what works and can prove it.

    But I am disappointed in your piece, Don. You have the wisdom of age and political experience.

    What do YOU think is the answer to your very legitimate question: How do we make it happen?

    Bill Gleason, U of M alum and faculty

  2. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 08/25/2010 - 10:16 am.

    I assume “The Committee On The Achievement Gap” were uniformly dressed…all in brown shirts maybe; the better to educate the committee?

    And is it the progressive Don Fraser? Wow.

    I’m disappointed. Maybe it’s time, or the committee that changes one, who knows…but Fraser and his attendant, well-intentioned group support “uniforms”…uniformity, sameness; one size fits all? If they dress alike, no one will deviate from the norm? So what is the norm for success? And is it really success if we cookie-cutter education with all the same dress code as its hallmark?

    All the answers, all the patterned thinking sustains better school performance?…”We know what works.”…

    My question is…if such uniformity works for kids, then why not test it first on a not always educated legislature, governor and his staff…and the committee itself who have created this not too original list of what makes better students?

    Certainly many ideas on the list are generalized ‘givens’ in the search for better education for all children, rich, poor or middle class.

    But note too, schools, curriculum, teachers (students too?) as is somewhat ‘sloppily’ stated that “middle class schools can afford some sloppiness” than children who live in poverty?…now there’s a value judgment that may imply more than was intended?

    Ah, those nasty little value judgments creep in even when the intention is for the greater good…define, define,define…

  3. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 08/25/2010 - 11:16 am.

    All the kids and most of them are black – in Bermuda – wear school uniforms – and they are not brown shirts.

    Many of the Catholic schools wear uniforms, and last I heard they were doing a pretty good job. No brown shirts there either.

    Brown shirts -> Nazis. For shame…

    Someone wants to have a reasonable discussion and this is what we read? Perhaps you should post on the Strib or the Pioneer Planet?

  4. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 08/25/2010 - 03:06 pm.

    Brown shirts, black shirts, red and blue shirts; take your pick…uniformity of dress goes so much farther than I would expect from Don Fraser who is a most respectable voice coming out of the past and who has so eloquently believed and supported human rights and educational opportunity for every child regardless of race or cultural or economic considerations…so why a consensus now, by committee, suggesting ‘uniforms’? They are more than just a required dress code, exploited for what?…that is my question.

    Gleason’s perspective thinks otherwise…I respect and grant him his choice…but I feel no “shame” in mine, however one wishes to interpret it…interesting perspective either way, whatever ones selective or limited orientation…cheers.

  5. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 08/25/2010 - 03:53 pm.

    Brown shirts, black shirts, red and blue shirts; take your pick…uniformity of dress goes so much further than I would expect from Don Fraser who is a most respectable voice coming from the past and who so eloquently believed and supported human rights and education for every child, regardless of economic or cultural considerations…so why now a consensus by committee suggesting ‘uniforms’? They are more than just a required dress code; exploited for what…this is my question.

    Gleason’s perspective thinks otherwise…I respect and grant him his choice…but I feel no “shame” in mine however one wishes to interpret it. Interesting perspective, either way, whatever one’s selective or limited orientation…cheers.

  6. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 08/25/2010 - 05:15 pm.

    If I say it twice, it must be true?

    Sorry, Ms. John-Knudson, poor attempt to duck the issue.

    “Brown shirts, red and blue shirts, take your pick…”

    Then why exactly did you use brown shirts the first time? I don’t think it was an accident. And I think you are perfectly aware of the connection between brown shirts and Nazis. If not, Google is your friend.

    Why don’t you act like an adult and apologize?

    It’s not hard. Just say, I’m sorry I used that expression and gratuitously insulted the progressive Don Fraser. It’s not hard.

    If you want people to take anything else you’ve got to say seriously, then please apologize asap.

    End of lecture. If you don’t get it by now, I am not going to waste any further time on you.

  7. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 08/25/2010 - 05:39 pm.

    The point about uniforms is not mindless conformity. Rather, it is to remove distractions from the classroom.

    Corporate employees and politicians DO wear uniforms. What else is the “dress for success” look? You don’t see bankers or state legislators showing up for work with dirty, uncombed hair, T-shirt with raunchy slogans, and pants that are practically falling off their hips.

  8. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 08/25/2010 - 10:18 pm.

    How do we staff schools in the most poverty stricken areas with teachers who will have the ability, the inclination, the time, the energy and the stamina to do every single thing with “thought, care, and precision?”

    We already know how to attract and keep the best and brightest in every other field of endeavor. Since our public schools must be paid for with tax revenues, however, it remains highly unlikely that we will ever use the means used throughout the business and professional worlds to attract the the most gifted teachers to our most challenged and challenging schools.

    Those who complain the most loudly and bitterly about the performance of those schools are precisely the same people who would shriek the loudest and figuratively wet themselves if it were proposed that we spend sufficient money to provide those schools with the “best and brightest” teachers and provide those teachers with the resources necessary to their success.

    Those loud complainers are not actually interested in the success of the public schools. Their loud whining is designed to gain public support for their real goal: to dismantle the public schools.

  9. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 08/26/2010 - 07:34 am.

    Goes around, comes around…

    If uniforms are to be required dress in public schools to facilitate sameness; closing of the ‘achievement gap’ among public school students…doesn’t it reasonably follow that teachers in uniform would also facilitate closure of the achievement gap among those teaching within a public classroom?

    …”left, right, left, right…yes sir, no sir…I’m outta here”…

  10. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/30/2010 - 09:55 am.

    Correlation does not imply causation.
    Say it again:
    Correlation does not imply causation.

    We know how ‘successful’ schools (but that’s another problem) differ from unsuccessful ones, but we don’t know which of the characteristics cited above actually CAUSE the difference, and which are the products of third factors, such as demographic factors such as parents’ commitment to their children’s education, which would in turn cause them to both select particular schools AND participate more actively in their children’s education.

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