April 26, 2018

These High-Poverty Kentucky Schools Figured Out How to Help Kids Succeed

By Patricia Kannapel & Rachel Belin

In 2005, the Prichard Committee sponsored a study of a small number of high-poverty Kentucky public schools that were successfully educating their students at high levels. Their success was unexpected because schools with many poor students have historically struggled to help them succeed.

Research on “break-the-mold” schools that defy this trend has consistently identified the same set of characteristics: high expectations for students, strong and stable leadership, effective teachers, safe and orderly environment, focus on academics, and frequent monitoring of each student’s progress.

Our study was unique in using the state audit process to systematically compare eight Kentucky break-the-mold schools that had once been low-performing with eight chronically low-performing schools. We wanted to understand how schools serving the same kinds of students could have such different results.

Our findings confirmed what other researchers had found but underscored that the schools’ primary stakeholders—principals, teachers, parents and students themselves—drove improvement. We were captivated by three findings in particular:

  • No one was “brought in” to turn the schools around. The schools’ turnaround did not come through replacing the principal or “re-staffing” the school. Instead, the principal and staff had painful discussions about their low-performing status and engaged in collaborative, intensive self-study—often with district or other external support—to figure out how to improve.

  • Schools were led by collaborative principals. Principals in the successful schools were not authoritarian or top-down but engaged with their school communities to collaboratively address the problems.

  • School climate was the single most distinguishing feature. High-performing schools differed most strongly from low-performing schools on measures of school climate, particularly high expectations for everyone (not just students); a commitment to equity and appreciation of diversity; and caring, respectful relationships among all stakeholders.  

Sadly, not all of the schools in our study have maintained their high performance. In 2017, only two of the six schools had achievement results in the top third of Kentucky elementary schools. One more was slightly above state average, and three were in the bottom third, based on all subjects tested (two schools have closed). Why are we not able to sustain high performance and learn from schools that have seemingly solved public education’s most chronic problem?

Based on what we learned in 2005 and our work since then, we suggest four promising strategies for eliminating chronically low-performing public schools:

  • Learn from and build upon success: The two schools that have maintained high performance are in districts with several high-performing schools, suggesting a district role in improvement that includes ensuring that success does not walk out the door with effective principals and staff when they move on to other opportunities.

  • Support school-led improvement efforts: Do we really need to make the case that for schools to improve, the faculty, staff and students inside the school must understand what is going on, figure out how to address the problem, and lead the improvement effort? External expertise will likely be needed, but improvement should be done by the schools, not to them.

  • Engage the students: School improvement efforts for far too long have been led and implemented almost exclusively by adults. As recent youth mobilization efforts around school safety in Kentucky and across the country have shown, students sometimes have the best-informed voices about what is going wrong in their schools, and how to fix it. Improvement efforts going forward must involve students in meaningful and ongoing ways.

  • Focus on climate: Our findings about the importance of a respectful, caring school climate focused on every student’s learning has been validated by a growing body of research showing a direct correlation between positive school climate and improved learning for all young people. Improvement efforts, then, must focus on creating a safe, engaging, and inclusive culture where high performance by everyone in the building is expected and supported. School-led climate audits are a promising first step to building this culture. The Prichard Committee’s Student Voice Team has been piloting a student-led climate and culture analysis and sharing results to spur rich, solutions-oriented conversations about how to improve schools from the inside out.

Our research and practice suggest that we don’t have to look outside our public schools to break the cycle of chronic low performance. Kentucky’s own success stories teach us that improvement can—and probably must—begin with our schools’ primary stakeholders. That includes administrators, teachers, parents, and yes, what is arguably the most overlooked resource in chronically low-performing schools: students.

This op-ed originally ran in the Courier Journal.

Rachel Belin

Rachel Belin

Rachel is the Managing Partner and a co-founder of the Kentucky Student Voice Team.

Patricia Kannapel

Patricia Kannapel

Dr. Kannapel is the Director of REL Appalachia and an education researcher based in Louisville who led the Prichard Committee study “Inside the Black Box of High-Performing, High-Poverty Schools."