Doing More of What Works (and Less of What Doesn't)

Every year The Education Trust identifies a handful of schools that are, as we say, dispelling the myth that schools can do nothing to help students overcome the barriers of poverty and discrimination. Last week I wrote about one of the schools Ed Trust honored last year, De Queen Elementary. Today I'm talking about another of last year's Dispelling the Myth Award winners: Laurel Street Elementary School in Compton, Calif.

Physically, Laurel Street Elementary School is just a bunch of temporary buildings scattered on a large patch of unshaded asphalt on the edge of Compton, Calif.

But inside those buildings, students -- almost all of whom are either Latino or African-American, most of whom meet the qualifications for free or reduced-price meals -- are learning challenging material.

As a result, they are knocking the socks off the state assessments. In fact, as the principal Frank Lozier likes to say, they are performing about as well as students in the wealthy schools of Beverly Hills -- not far as the crow flies, but light years away in terms of the wealth of the students.

Like many other successful high-poverty schools with a high proportion of students of color, Laurel Street isn't doing anything wildly "innovative," which is a buzzword in education these days. Rather, they have clear goals for their students to be educated citizens and they believe every one of their students can at the very least meet state standards.

The mantra of Laurel Street's faculty is, "all students can be successful," but they don't say that out of naiveté about the difficult lives that some of their students have. After all, students at Laurel Street live with all the difficulties that children who live in poverty struggle with. But the faculty and staff believe that schools are the avenue out of poverty.

Here's how Lozier puts it:

As a teenager and an adolescent I had a not-so-good experience with my family, and it was school that was the one institution that was stable for me. My teachers, instead of pitying me or feeling sorry for me, they actually made sure that I learned how to read, write, and solve complex problems. And because of that I was able to determine my own destiny without my circumstances determining them for me. So for me education is about making sure our kids have the same opportunity that I had, that my teachers gave me.

So "Team Laurel," as the faculty call themselves, has a very strong belief in the power of education. But they do something else that is quite wonderful and far too rare.

In Lozier's words, they "do more of what works and less of what doesn't." That sounds simple and straightforward, but it isn't.

Schooling in this country has for a long time been built around the idiosyncratic practices of lone practitioners. This means, as any parent knows, that when kids get great teachers they tend to do well; when they don't, they enter a year of danger.

This is true in schools with good reputations as well as those with bad reputations. This tradition of teachers working in isolated classrooms has made it very difficult to move the field forward in any kind of concerted fashion. Imagine if every doctor had his or her own philosophy of curing pneumonia -- we would still have some people dying of the "sweating-it-out" theory because doctors hadn't learned to share practices and study what works and what doesn't in a systematic and methodologically rigorous fashion.

In education we still have teachers who have been encouraged by their colleges and universities to develop their individual philosophy of reading instruction rather than learning the science and craft knowledge that has been developed over the past couple of decades. That means students and parents can have little confidence that no matter what classroom they are in they will have access to the best knowledge that can be marshaled on reading instruction.

But in schools that are successful, like Laurel Street, teachers aren't left to flounder on their own. Instead they are part of a well-developed team that examines evidence and works to figure out what works and what doesn't so that they can act on that knowledge.

This is how Lozier puts it:

Change in education happens when everyone shares the same mindset that all kids can learn regardless of their zip code and regardless of their circumstance. And even more important than that mindset is when everyone ... makes decisions based on evidence. So just because I like a pet program or a pet strategy, if the data and the results show otherwise I have to be willing to ... say, 'Hey, you're more right than I am because your evidence, your results, are better than my outcomes.'

That's when change happens.

Laurel Street hasn't quite met the goal of getting all students meeting state standards, but it's getting there. In 2012, 76 percent of their fifth-graders met state reading standards (compared to 63 percent in the rest of the state); 89 percent met state standards in math (compared with 65 percent in the rest of the state). That actually understates Laurel Street's accomplishment somewhat because just about all of Laurel Street's students come from low-income families and only about half of low-income students in California are meeting standards.

In future posts I'll be talking about more schools that are just as successful and inspiring.

(If you'd like to catch a glimpse of Frank Lozier, see Ed Trust's latest video. A little after the two-minute mark he says it is incumbent upon schools to live up to the American Dream. If you want a longer look, check out this video, too.)