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NEA News

The Secret to High-Achieving Schools: ‘I’ve Never Felt Unsupported.’

What do "positive outlier" districts have in common? They support well-qualified, experienced educators and focus on equity.
Published: September 20, 2019

It turns out that it’s not magic, or expensive curriculum, or great social media. The key to high-achieving classrooms, where students across racial and ethnic groups achieve at higher-than-predicted levels, are…teachers.

Earlier this summer, the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) in California identified more than 100 school districts where white, black and Hispanic students outperform similar students in other districts on reading and math assessments that measure higher-order thinking. This month, LPI released a follow-up study, called “Closing the Opportunity Gap: How Positive Outlier Districts are Pursuing Equitable Access to Deeper Learning” that identifies and consolidates lessons learned at seven of those successful districts, and provides five areas where federal, state and local policy can be helpful.

What they found will not be a surprise to most NEA members: Well-supported teachers make a difference. Teachers who stay make a difference. And what students need to succeed is more than just reading and math. It includes social-emotional learning, restorative justice, and wrap-around services for health and well-being, provided by education support professionals.

Some of the “lessons learned” that emerged from LPI’s research, which included two-day site visits to the districts, examination of local school schedules and program descriptions, and 30- to 60-minute interviews with 226 district- and school-level staff members, include:

  • Prioritize learning for every child. In these districts, leaders set a clear vision for teaching and learning, and equity is a central part of this vision. For example, in San Diego, their strategy has included expanded access to advanced coursework and new restorative justice approaches. “We look at everything we do through an eye to equity and access,” a staff member told LPI.
  • Build relationships and empower staff. A report summary says “district leaders… intentionally built trusting relationships with teachers. Teamwork and collaboration were elevated as shared values.” In Gridley, a former teacher told researchers: “I don’t ever feel like I’ve been unsupported by any of my administrators. There’s nothing I’ve asked for, for my classroom, to do what’s good for kids, that I’ve been denied in all those years.”
  • Value and support stability and continuity. Researchers found low levels of turnover among teachers and district leaders, and “long-term coherence to programs.” Teachers described these places as good places to work—just 1.8 percent left the seven districts in 2017. In Hawthorn, a union leader told researchers: “I think it’s because you feel like you’re in a family…I think people stay because they feel like [they’re] part of something.”
  • Attract, develop, and retain well-prepared teachers and leaders. Although many of the “positive outliers” are high-poverty districts, LPI researchers note that they have rarely hired un-credentialed, under-prepared teachers. Instead, these districts have partnered with local universities to create a pipeline for young educators, such as Long Beach United School District’s partnership with CSU Long Beach. According to the report, “[These districts] were regarded as attractive places to work, largely due to positive working environments and support for teaching.”

Well-supported teachers make a difference. Teachers who stay make a difference. And what students need to succeed is more than just reading and math. It includes social-emotional learning, restorative justice, and wrap-around services for health and well-being, provided by education support professionals."

Other shared themes include: collaborative professional learning that supports teachers and administrators, and often includes teacher coaching; a developmental approach to new standards that provides time and professional development for teachers; support for inquiry-based instruction; and targeted interventions for specific students.

Importantly, researchers also found that these successful districts also don’t use test scores and other data to punish teachers or students. They use it to improve practice: “to inform teaching and learning, identify students in need or supports, and evaluate the effectiveness of programs and interventions.”

"We hope that other school districts and states will focus on the lessons from these case study school districts to ensure all students have access to deeper learning regardless of the size, location, and wealth of the district where they go to school. We know it can be done," said LPI President Linda Darling-Hammond.

What’s Next?

Based on its findings, LPI also outlined five policy recommendations to improve student learning. They are:

  • Develop a stable supply of well-prepared, intentionally engaged teachers and learners. The positive outlier districts focused on building pipelines for teachers — and then making sure to keep them in their districts through supportive mentoring and ongoing professional training. LPI encourages state and federal policymakers to adopt the same focus. One possible action is “forgivable loans.” [To urge Congress to fix the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, visit NEA Education Votes.] Meanwhile, NEA also has undertaken the work of building great teachers through NEA Great Public School grants that support teacher pipelines from Alaska to Nebraska, plus professional development programs from Florida to North Dakota.
  • Support capacity-building for high-quality instruction and focused instructional change. LPI urges states to “select and develop high-quality assessments and use them for information and improvement, not for sanctions and punishment.” To help this happen at a local level, take a look at NEA’s Time to Learn campaign materials.
  • Use assessments and data strategically to support continuous improvement.
  • Create coherent systems of support based on student needs, including academic, social and emotional learning. The report notes that successful districts include social-emotional learning programs; wrap-around services for health, mental health, and social supports; as well as culturally responsive teaching and learning, and trauma-informed teaching and restorative justice practices. None of this is new to NEA members and advocates, and most of these practices are modeled in NEA’s community schools. They do require adequate funding from local, state, and federal policymakers.
  • Allocate resources for equity. Federal policymakers need to enforce the equity provisions in the Every Student Succeed Act (ESSA) that require equitable distribution of resources and staff, say LPI researchers, while state policymakers must take into account the need for well-prepared educators and wrap-around services. To help, check out NEA’s My School, My Voice website, where educators can fill out a school checklist, browse federal grants, and find out how to start a conversation at their schools.

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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.