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Education Desk: How Can High-Poverty Schools Succeed?

This article appeared on the NPRIllinois website on November 17, 2016. The article features an interview with Dr. Haeffele, who was the keynote for our first Continuing Ed. townhall in Decatur. You can find the original article here.


If there’s one thing that most educators agree on, it’s that a school full of low-income students requires teachers to bring their A game if they want to close the achievement gap. But after years of studying high-poverty schools that succeed, Lynne Haeffele has come up with a short list of traits those successful schools share. Haefele directs the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University, and she will be speaking tonight at a townhall-style event in Decatur. Haeffele has been studying “break the mold” schools — high poverty, high performing schools — to discover their magic formula.

“The study that we did went on for several years. It was part of a national study, about 20 states, looking at multiple years of test scores in multiple subjects, and divided them into poverty groups. Then we looked within high poverty groups for the schools that were outperforming everybody else. So we identified dozens of schools that were beating the odds,” Haeffele says.

What they had found out was there’s really five things that they do better than everybody else.

One: They make sure that all their local policies are geared toward student success. “So if you can imagine a policy like three strikes you’re out, like you’re tardy three times, you get suspended from school? That would be an example of a policy that’s not exactly student-centered and trying to help. It’s more of a punishment type of policy,” Haeffele says. “So you’ll see that the local school board policies in these districts don’t have that kind of punitive flavor to them, and so everything is geared toward student success. When you talk about what’s going on in the classroom, they align their teaching, their curriculum and their testing so that you don’t have silly things like trick questions on tests, just to fool somebody. You don’t have once-and-done. If you didn’t learn it the first time, we can re-teach you. It’s not one chance and you’re out. And when you grade the students, it’s based on performance against the standards, not against other students. So you don’t grade on a curve.

“The second is really having a hotshot staff — teachers, staff, leaders, and lots of support for those people, like mentoring for new teachers, continuing education or professional development, allowing teachers time to plan together and look at their results and modify their lesson plans, actually building that into the schedule, and actually terminating poor-performing teachers early on, not waiting until they get tenure. Really make sure that the people you’re permanently hiring fit the culture and are doing a good job.

“The third one is monitoring progress constantly. These schools have really cool data systems. They can be rural schools that don’t have fancy computers, but they have methods to keep track of everything, not just test scores but things like behavior, attendance, extracurricular activities, performance demonstration, just basically trying to know as much as they can about the students and just looking at the data to drive improvements.

“The fourth finding is a lot of attention to both rewards and special intervention — rewarding achievement and positive behavior happens all the time. You’ll just see all kinds of celebrations of the good things that are happening. A lot of interventions like one-on-one tutoring, small group, and in fact the one thing that was really amazing that we saw in so many places were individual education plans for every student. I know in special ed they call those IEPs, and they’re usually only for special education students. But if they work for those students and help to individualize the help they get, why not do it for everybody? Some of these are viewed as sort of elite frills, that only the really rich schools can afford, but we saw these in places like Vienna. That’s not exactly the ritziest place in Illinois. We saw this all over the place and it was just basically saying each student is an individual. It’s that student-centered thing again.

“And then the last finding, which we thought was probably the most important, was that student-centered learning business but going along with that was no excuses. We are not going to allow these children to fail. We are not going to blame them, we’re not going to blame their parents, we’re not going to blame each other. We’re just going to get the job done. We have no excuse if these children fail. If we have a 75 percent poverty school, we’re not going to lower our expectations and blame poverty for the fact that these kids aren’t doing well; we’re just going to make sure they do well. There’s no more to it. I mean, it’s just an amazing attitude that these folks have, and it’s pervasive across the whole community. Lots of mutual trust, lots of holding each other accountable, and it’s just sort of do whatever it takes. One of my colleagues called this the ‘ethos of excellence.’ Just this quality that we’re good, our students are good, these are our students and we’re not going to fail.

“When you talk about education policy, I think it was Tip O’Neill who said ‘All politics are local.’ I’m basically saying all policy is local. So you can have all kinds of laws and support coming from the state and federal government, but unless those policies actually affect behavior at the local level, they don’t matter. So hence we have all these failed national policies…. And those generally get ignored. The most important policies to overcome poverty effects are those that happen at the district and school and classroom level. Policy only makes a difference when it changes behavior and guides your actions. So we have seen schools that have adopted these kind of policies and done these five main things and they get better!”

Dr. Haeffele will be at the Dennis Lab School in Decatur. The event is part of a year-long statewide initiative to move the conversation about public education back to parents. For more information, visit the website