February 1, 2000

Achievement by Choice

By: AFF Editors

The education establishment would have us believe that poor children can’t learn. The excuses are numerous. But across the nation dozens of principals of low-income schools have demonstrated that poverty is no excuse for academic failure. I recently studied more than a hundred high-performing, high-poverty schools to identify those practices that can make any school a center of academic excellence, regardless of its particular student composition. In general, I looked for schools where at least 75 percent of the students come from low-income families, but which score above the 66th percentile on national exams. Typically, schools of this profile score below the 35th percentile.

The schools themselves are a diverse lot. Three of them are charter schools. Three are private. One is religious. One is rural. Fifteen are public schools that draw a majority of their students from the same local attendance zones where other public schools are failing.

These 21 schools are a foretaste of what choice and competition would bring to education in America. Their success demonstrates that by taking back the freedom that most schools have long-since relinquished to bureaucracies, teachers’ unions, and a hopeless degree of regulation, some schools possess the intelligence, the inventiveness, and the willpower to achieve.

What can these exceptional schools teach us? I identified seven common traits that could be adopted by any school anywhere to improve educational outcomes.

Principals must be free. Effective principals decide how to spend their money, whom to hire, and what to teach. Unless principals are free to establish their own curricula, seek out their own faculties, and teach as they see fit, teaching will not be at its best. Securing this amount of administrative freedom is no easy task. But principals whose schools develop a reputation for academic achievement are usually left alone.

Principals use measurable goals. High expectations are one thing–the relentless pursuit of excellence is another. Whether the goal is calculus by 12th grade, a bilingual fluency, proficient musical performance for all, literacy at the earliest age, 100 percent attendance, or 100 percent working above grade level, great schools set goals that the whole school must strive to obtain.

Master teachers bring out the best in a faculty. Effective principals freely scour the country for the best teachers they can find and design their curriculum around the unique strengths and expertise of their staff. When hired, master teachers bring out the best in a faculty by teaching the others how to teach. Improving the quality of instruction is the only way to improve overall student achievement, and teacher quality–not seniority–is the key. Rigorous and regular testing leads to continuous student achievement. Regular tests at all levels and in all areas insure that teaching and learning of the prescribed curriculum takes place in every classroom. Teachers quickly learn that they too are tested each time they test their students. And students learn through regular testing that competition is linked to success in school–and in life.

Achievement is the key to discipline. In a “command-and-control” approach, discipline is limited by the number of guards hired. But when discipline and order come from within, everybody is part of the solution. Nothing inspires confidence like success and the school’s own success helps create order and discipline among its students. Parents must make the home a center of learning. Achievement is a choice that parents make, too. In high-poverty schools, lack of parental involvement is often the easiest excuse for poor performance. So principals of high-performing schools have parents sign contracts that they will support their children’s efforts to learn. Effective parents read to their children, check their homework, and ask after their assignments.

Effort creates ability. Education is hard work, and great principals demand that their students and their teachers work hard. Longs days, extended years, after-school programs, weekend programs, and summer school are all features of outstanding schools. And in high-performing schools, no student is advanced without a clear demonstration of mastery. Students must fulfill very specific course requirements in order to advance either in class or on to the next grade level. No exemptions. No excuses.

Conclusion. It bears repeating that many of these high-performing, high-poverty schools are public schools. The great tragedy is that all of them achieved their success in spite of the structure of our education system, and not because of it. No educational system can be deemed healthy if it thwarts the efforts of committed reformers, as ours so frequently does. The men and women who buck the system of public education are the kinds of leaders and educational entrepreneurs that America needs more of if we are to improve education–especially for low-income children. Conservatives tend to focus on the benefits of school choice between schools. But few consider the benefits of choice and competition within the schools themselves. When principals and teachers are encouraged to perform at their best, any school can improve. Only by encouraging and rewarding achievement–rather than mediocrity–within the four walls of every schoolhouse will our classrooms provide the kind of opportunity that all children in a free society deserve.