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Kids Left Behind, The: Catching Up the Underachieving Children of Poverty

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Examine critical studies on high-performing, high-poverty schools to identify how schools can fulfill the mission of educating all students to proficiency, especially students at risk. The authors compiled the most important research on how low-performing, high-poverty schools achieved radical improvements in learning for their most vulnerable students and also identified eight best practices, breaking them down into specific strategies, often using real-life examples from successful schools.

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14 Chapters

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Chapter 1: A New American Revolution


Chapter 1

A New American Revolution

What does it mean to be an American? Well, to me, it means that no matter who you are or how many problems you have, in America, everybody has a chance.

—Fourth-Grade African-American Student

A revolution is occurring in public education, and it has generated dramatic changes in our nation’s schools and classrooms. This revolution is shattering attitudes and beliefs that have existed for decades and focusing national attention on the need to educate all students effectively. With a high-quality education, almost anyone, regardless of race, gender, social class, or national origin, can gain access to economic prosperity and security. Without an adequate education, the promise of prosperity and security that is the foundation of a democratic society is out of reach. Without a high-quality education, a person can live in the richest nation on earth yet lack adequate job opportunities, housing, and health benefits, and he or she can too easily fall victim to crime, addiction, abuse, and other dangerous behavior. A high-quality education has become so vital that it is now viewed as an essential and guaranteed civil right.


Chapter 2: How Schools Have Failed the Children of Poverty


Chapter 2

How Schools Have Failed the Children of Poverty

“It took me a while, but I figured it out. It’s all about poverty. All of our challenges and problems center on making our system and schools work for all kids.”

—School District Professional Development Director, Oregon

The greatest challenge facing public education in the United States today is educating all students to proficiency and truly leaving no child behind. The most difficult aspect of this challenge is teaching the underachieving children of poverty. These students live on the other side of the apartheid of despair and represent a huge and growing underclass of Americans who have been locked out of the world of abundance and opportunity that characterizes America.

These students are the children of the “other America.” They live in conditions far more typical of a third world nation than what is typical of the vast majority of children and youth living in the richest nation on earth. These are the “forgotten kids”—the disadvantaged, disconnected, and dislocated. Their parents have little education and often work several low-paying jobs, still unable to make ends meet. They are often without adequate health care, nutrition, housing, and clothing. They experience little educational stimulation outside of school. They do not have computers, calculators, encyclopedias, books, and magazines; most do not have even pencils and paper. Many arrive at school with significant deficiencies in their vocabulary and reading readiness and are far behind their more advantaged classmates. Without enormous attention and intervention, they fall even further behind. Few will ever catch up, and most will drop out of school. The children of poverty often comprise a significant portion of a school’s enrollment, and their only hope for escaping the cycle of poverty is a high-quality education.


Chapter 3: Research on High-Performing, High-Poverty Schools


Chapter 3

Research on High-Performing, High-Poverty Schools

“We have much more to learn from studying high-poverty schools that are on the path to improvement than we do from studying nominally high-performing schools that are producing a significant portion of their performance through social class rather than instruction.”

—Richard Elmore (2005, p. 45)

Research has identified a steadily growing number of schools where poor and minority students are learning effectively and achieving high academic standards. In the late 1970s, Ron Edmonds and his colleagues began identifying the traits of effective schools where this phenomenon was occurring. Later, scholars at Louisiana State University analyzed more than 100 separate studies over a 10-year period that identified schools in high-poverty areas where the students were achieving at similar levels as middle-class students. More recently, schools associated with the High Schools That Work (HSTW) program reported that all types of underachieving students, particularly poor and minority high school students, could perform satisfactorily when provided with a rigorous, relevant college-prep curriculum and when better supported in their studies (Bottoms & Anthony, 2005).


Chapter 4: Ensure Effective District and School Leadership


Chapter 4

Ensure Effective District and School Leadership

It had been a great conference. As we returned home, five of us sat at the back of the plane, leaned across the aisle, and actually held hands and committed ourselves to improving the achievement of our low-performing students. We agreed to go over, under, around, or through any barriers placed before us and get the job done!”

—Five Teachers and a Principal, Idaho

Effectively leading high-poverty districts and schools may well be the most challenging work in public education today. The clear difference between high-performing, high-poverty schools and their low-performing counterparts is leadership. When effective leadership is present, a district’s poor and minority students demonstrate a steady improvement in learning and achievement. When effective leadership is absent, the unfortunate cycle of underachievement for our neediest students continues.

The Old World of Education


Chapter 5: Engage Parents, Communities, and Schools to Work as Partners


Chapter 5

Engage Parents, Communities, and Schools to Work as Partners

“I had never worked much with parents. I didn’t really think that it was my job. Even the parents seem to feel that their role was mostly for the elementary years. But wow… the more I have engaged parents in my teaching the more my students have improved.”

—Algebra Teacher, Oklahoma

Developing and sustaining effective partnerships between the home, the community, and the school is critical to improving the education of children and youth. More advantaged parents tend to be more involved with teachers and schools, often choosing their families’ place of residence to ensure high-quality education and athletic programs. Or, if they are unhappy with the quality of their neighborhood school or the teacher assigned to their children, they have the financial ability to choose private or parochial schools. They are often the backbone of parent/school organizations, volunteer mentoring and tutoring programs, school fundraising projects, and campaigns for bond elections.


Chapter 6: Understand and Hold High Expectations for Poor and Culturally Diverse Students


Chapter 6

Understand and Hold High Expectations for Poor and Culturally Diverse Students

“Man, this teacher is so tough! She will not let me say ‘can’t’ in this classroom. She really believes we can learn all of this stuff and she won’t even let us say we can’t do it.”

—Fifth-Grade Student, Hurst, Texas

In so many ways, today’s teachers are more prepared than ever before. Every year they enter their classrooms with up-to-date training in pedagogy and human development. But too often they have little or no understanding of the different cultural groups that make up their student population. They lack an understanding of the backgrounds, languages, religions, cultures, social structures, community norms, and social classes of the students they work with every day (Epstein, 2001). And most significantly, they fail to recognize the strength and resilience of their underachieving students of poverty, and as a result, many fail to teach these children successfully. The children of poverty cannot learn effectively unless educators have a thorough understanding of the nature, extent, and impact of their poverty—not to excuse their absence of learning, but to ensure that student needs are addressed so they can achieve success in school.


Chapter 7: Target Low-Performing Students and Schools, Starting With Reading


Chapter 7

Target Low-Performing Students and Schools, Starting With Reading

"Well, it was pretty straightforward…. We decided to really focus on the needs of our low-performing students and do whatever was necessary to get them up to proficiency. We’ve made huge strides in the first year"

–Superintendent, Michigan

Educators have long understood that students live up to or down to the expectations set for them. If educators expect students of low socioeconomic status to achieve high levels of academic proficiency, they must provide them with a comprehensive umbrella of support. A growing body of research documents that students will achieve high academic proficiency if this support is available. Research has also documented the reverse: Students will underperform if schools and school districts are not clearly focused on ensuring that poor children and youth learn effectively. To ensure that specific student subgroups achieve high levels of academic proficiency, the entire school district must be mobilized and focused on increasing achievement. If the school board, superintendent, school administrators, and teachers remain focused primarily on the gifted and talented students, advanced placement classes, and the percentage of students going to college, then only those students will flourish. If similar attention is focused on poor and minority students, they too will achieve, graduate from high school, and go on to college.


Chapter 8: Align, Monitor, and Manage the Curriculum


Chapter 8

Align, Monitor, and Manage the Curriculum

“Five years ago, we started contacting every publisher of algebra textbooks we could find. We asked one question: ’If we adopt your text, can we expect student achievement in algebra to improve?’ We were often met with either a stammered reply of some confusion or silence. The most common response was, ’Well, our text has been adopted in 14 states.’ Only two replied that their text was linked to our state standards. Not a single textbook publisher at the time had any statistical evidence, let alone independent reviews, regarding the effects of their instructional material on student achievement. Thankfully, that is now changing, and more and more publishers are recognizing that to survive, they must demonstrate the positive effects of their textbooks on student achievement.”

–Curriculum Director, Kentucky Department of Education

Curriculum is the support structure–the steel girders–in the high-rise of K–12 education. Curriculum is made up of what is taught, when it is taught, to whom it is taught, and how it is tested. It is what is written, taught, and tested in our schools. Curriculum is a complex mixture of aspects that are formal, informal, and even “hidden” (English, 2000). The written curriculum includes guidelines and textbooks (formal aspects), tracking or flexible grouping plans (informal aspects), and the unwritten rules that are used to manage the curriculum (hidden aspects). For the taught curriculum, there is content that is taught (formal), the personality variables of the teacher (informal), and the authority role of the teacher (hidden). In the tested curriculum, there are standardized and teacher-made tests (formal), the test behavior of students (informal), and the cultural norms relating to socioeconomic status (hidden). All of these aspects affect how the school curriculum is developed, written, taught, and tested. These complexities of the school curriculum greatly affect student achievement–especially the achievement of low-performing students of poverty.


Chapter 9: Create a Culture of Data and Assessment Literacy


Chapter 9

Create a Culture of Data and Assessment Literacy

“On the surface, it would appear that the most important assessments in schools are the annual standardized tests. After all, they command the attention of the President of the United States, who demands more of them to be sure ’no child is left behind.’ They receive major attention in news reports… . They command an investment of tens of millions of dollars annually as communities across the nation hold schools accountable for student learning. But the fact is that these politically important tests pale in their contribution to school success when compared to the assessments teachers develop, administer, and use day to day in the classroom. Given the decisions influenced by classroom assessments, it is not an overstatement to contend that a child’s academic well-being hinges on the quality of these assessments and on the manner in which they are used.”

–Rick Stiggins (Chappuis & Chappuis, 2002, p. i)


Chapter 10: Build and Sustain Instructional Capacity


Chapter 10

Build and Sustain Instructional Capacity

“High-performing districts and schools know that good teaching matters more than anything else.”

—Kati Haycock (2005)

“As many of my colleagues retire, change jobs, or contemplate doing something different, I find myself reinspired. The changes we are making, the support from our principal, and most importantly, watching the faces of kids who were used to stumbling in school now succeeding has caused me to enjoy teaching more than ever. So much is different, but for the first time ever, I know I’m reaching all of my students. They will go on to the fourth grade equipped to succeed.”

—Third-Grade Teacher, Iowa Elementary School

Building and sustaining the instructional capacity to teach students of poverty requires changing long-held mindsets and institutional structures. It requires an understanding of the culture of poverty and a belief that all children can achieve proficiency. Schools that have demonstrated sustained success with high-poverty students have reversed past trends of low performance by improving the way their days are structured and equipping each classroom with a competent, caring teacher—a dedicated professional who holds high expectations for all students and is relentless in fostering an environment in which every student achieves the state-required grade-level proficiency. Accomplishing this work requires leadership, time, and support.


Chapter 11: Reorganize Time, Space, and Transitions


Chapter 11

Reorganize Time, Space, and Transitions

“It took our school awhile to get it, but we finally figured it out. If we really wanted to teach all kids effectively and leave no one behind, then one had to abandon our old, failed programs and practices and really get creative in finding ways to provide remediation and enrichment. This led us immediately to reorganize the school day, the school week, and the school year.”

—Superintendent, Arkansas

The organization of time in most public schools is a product of history, tradition, and a variety of internal and external pressures. The school schedule originated during a time when agriculture was the dominant lifestyle and children and youth were needed to work on family farms during the growing season. This situation continues to exist in a few agricultural areas today, but for most of the United States, there is little or no need to organize the school year around a 9-month schedule; it is simply how we have always scheduled public education in the past.


Chapter 12: Educating the Kids Left Behind: A Matter of Personal Conscience


Chapter 12

Educating the Kids Left Behind: A Matter of Personal Conscience

“I have never been so hopeful for our students… for every one of them. The changes we have put in place over the past couple of years have changed not just the lives of our students, but their futures. These kids are breaking the cycle…. They’ll get out!”

—Principal, High-Performing and High-Poverty School, California

The new American revolution that has swept across the political, social, and educational landscape of our country brings the promise of personal civil rights and economic justice to an ever-growing number of American children and youth. Its impact has left no community untouched and no parent, educator, or student unaffected. Yet for all the drama surrounding No Child Left Behind, the most significant policy change ever to occur in public education is progressing in a surprisingly quiet and business-like manner. While concerns continue regarding No Child Left Behind policies, classrooms all across the country are posting remarkable gains. Many schools enrolling poor and minority students are achieving high levels of academic proficiency. But while more schools in every community and state are meeting adequate yearly progress, others are still failing and continue to need significant improvement.


Appendix A: The PLC Continuum


Appendix A

The Professional Learning Community Continuum*

By Robert Eaker, Richard DuFour, and Rebecca DuFour

When school personnel attempt to assess their ability to function as a learning community, they are likely to create a simple dichotomy—the school either functions as a professional learning community or it does not. The complex process of school improvement cannot, however, be reduced to such a simple “either/or” statement. It is more helpful to view the development of a PLC along a continuum: Pre-initiation, Initiation, Developing, and Sustaining. Each element of a PLC, as shown in the following pages, can be assessed during the four stages of the continuum:



The school has not yet begun to address a particular principle of a PLC.


An effort has been made to address the principle, but the effort has not yet begun to impact a “critical mass.”



Appendix B: NSDC Standards for Staff Development


Appendix B

NSDC Standards for Staff Development (Revised, 2001)*

Context Standards

Staff development that improves the learning of all students:

Process Standards

Staff development that improves the learning of all students:

Content Standards

Staff development that improves the learning of all students:



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