By Rob Gira, Executive Vice President, AVID Center
I wanted to get to the heart of what makes urban schools successful, so I sought out to interview one of the top thought leaders on urban schools, Dr. Joe Johnson of the National Center for Urban School Transformation. With the annual NCUST conference coming May 22, and a new book from Johnson, along with Lynne G. Perez and Cynthia L. Uline, Teaching Practices from America’s Best Urban Schools, I took the opportunity to catch up with Johnson and ask him some questions about the Center and its work with urban schools.
Dr. Steven L. Weber, president emeritus of San Diego State University, and Dr. Lionel “Skip” Meno, retired dean of education at SDSU, are AVID Center board members and two great thinkers who keep us moving in the right direction. With their involvement, it is no surprise that one of our AVID Center imperatives is to develop more effective strategies to support urban districts.
Increased success for urban families is clearly important for these two educators. In 2005, when SDSU received an endowment from Qualcomm, Inc. to create a center to focus on urban education, they wisely turned to Dr. Joseph Johnson, who became the founding executive director of the National Center for Urban School Transformation and has led that team for seven years.
I am a longtime fan of Johnson, having met him when he was working with Dr. Uri Treisman (MacArthur Genius winner and former AVID Center board member) at the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas in Austin, doing great work with schools and districts in Texas and beyond. We used Johnson’s reports—quantitative and qualitative data – with AVID sites and districts in our Summer Institutes to reinforce the idea that poor students have assets and are not prisoners of their environments, and that urban schools and districts can be places of tremendous learning and advancement.
Since Johnson opened NCUST, I have attended his conferences and always look forward to the recognition that the Center bestows on urban schools across the nation. Since 2006, NCUST has recognized more than 60 schools in 40 districts for “Excellence in Urban Education.” The reports describing the work of the recognized schools are informative and inspiring.
I took the opportunity to catch up with Johnson and ask him some questions about the Center and its work with urban schools.
Tell us a bit about the Center and key influences on your work.
After Drs. Weber and Meno hired me, we worked together to establish an agenda that would add value to what was already underway. We found that there were lots of efforts to emphasize the problems and to underscore the challenges, and even to beat up schools, districts, administrators, and teachers. But we saw little acknowledgement of the successes; nor did we see any powerful effort to understand the factors creating success in urban schools. We cheered the efforts of the Broad Foundation and their work to identify districts doing good work, acknowledging districtwide solutions. But we noticed that districtwide success was rare and, for many districts, it was hard to conceptualize how to become a high-performing district because they needed a vision of a high-performing school. So we began looking at what made urban schools successful and to take what we learned and work with a small number of districts. Our vision was shaped in part by thought leaders in the effective schools work like Ron Edmonds and Larry Lezotte. They did not buy into the notion that schools don’t matter and it is just a question of poverty. We agree with them. How can we have schools with similar demographics that get very different results? Since we were founded, we have included other thinkers about urban education, including Sonya Nieto, Pedro Noguera, and Mike Smoker, as well as organizations like Education Trust and the Annenberg Institute. We are admirers of AVID as well.
You have recognized more than 60 schools from 17 states since 2006. Can you note a few of their commonalities?
Instruction is at the core. When you look at these schools, students learn more because they’re taught more—not just more topics, but more rigor. So they achieve at higher levels because they learn more in-depth. Another strength in these schools is that teachers are students of their craft. They construct learning based on what their students need. They do not assume that ‘If I taught it and they didn’t learn it—so what?’ They think instead that, somehow, someway, they must refine what they do. And within these schools there is a climate and culture that makes it such that students feel understood and appreciated. The adults are about them and want them to succeed. This magnifies student effort. And I would add that if you take the level of rigor, the continuous effort to improve instruction and continuous attention to relating with students and you ask, where is that coming from, there are two key factors. First, you have the key leaders, principals and others, who model attitudes and approaches and create an environment where success is more likely to happen. Secondly, in these schools, we see teachers supporting each other in professional learning communities.
In your book, you focus on eight key instructional practices. For urban schools, are there a couple of practices that are the most critical?
It is difficult to single them out because I have seen places where the substantial absence of one can have a negative impact. Some are clearly more about the cognitive aspects of teaching, while others are about the affective side. This notion of practice on the affective side that makes students feel valued and accepted is huge. Students are not likely to work with you on the cognitive side if you don’t work on the affective side. Overall, if we focus first on mastery of concepts, this can be the umbrella of other cognitive practices.
You note that struggling schools might have a small cadre of effective teachers, but that excellent urban schools manage to create a large group of teachers who deliver excellent practice. How do the best sites achieve this?
Many of the high-performing schools we have studied reported that they did not always have a strong team of teachers. The team was developed over time with steady attention to a small number of powerful practices and principles. Administrators and teacher leaders believed in their faculty, just as they believed in their students. Continuously, they reinforced attention to the practices and principles they espoused. They acknowledged each teacher’s positive efforts. They celebrated improvements and they created a culture in which educators felt like they were part of an amazing team, destined to accomplish great things on behalf of students. Of course, most leaders tell us that the journey was neither smooth, nor easy. Some people did not want to change. Some did not believe change was possible. In many cases, those individuals came to realize that they were in the minority and they chose to leave. In some cases, administrators and teacher leaders are still struggling to deal with those few oppositional individuals.
Your focus is on excellent urban schools. What role do urban school districts play in their schools’ success? Can you offer some examples of excellent districts?
Of course, it is important to acknowledge the role of the district, but the truth is that most of the high-performing schools we’ve identified are not necessarily in high performing districts. Some of the schools we’ve recognized are successful in spite of the districts, not because of them. When you acknowledge that, you realize that schools don’t need to wait, in fact, cannot afford to wait for the district to implement effective transformation.
However, what we do see in maybe 40 percent of the schools is that they are part of a high-performing district. It is clear that these districts have acted in a way to make success more likely. What do they do? First, leaders at all levels of the district understand and truly believe that high performing urban schools are possible and they hold themselves accountable—that’s different from just holding the schools accountable. You can hear some superintendents say, ‘We’re getting tough on our principals.’ It’s different for district leaders to hold themselves accountable for the support necessary.
Knowing it can be done is one thing, but knowing the quantity and quality of support necessary is another. For example, if we know at the district level that we need to help schools to go deeper with rigor and inquiry, then we can’t simultaneously ask teachers to cover an increasing number of topics. We can’t send out a district scope and sequence that says, ‘You need to be on this topic on day 40 and on this topic on day 42.’ This will preclude depth. Regarding instruction in some districts, there may be examples of effective teaching, but they might as well be in secret, locked away. We could look at classroom 124 and find great instruction, but the teacher in classroom 122 doesn’t know, and other teachers have no clue about effective practice. Most districts have not figured out a way to tap into their local strength that supports transformation.
It often seems that we are looking just at what is going wrong and not what is going right, so we can build on it. Take the notion of attendance. One of the things we find in our most successful schools, in even our most impoverished areas, is that they have a 97 percent ADA, compared to similar schools with a 70 percent ADA. Leaders might assume that the problem with attendance is parents, and there might be some truth to that, but successful schools and districts know the best way to improve attendance is to create an environment in which students love school, want to be there, and will argue with their parents if they suggest anything other than going to school.
In your book, you describe education in the U.S. as a “caste system.” Can you say a bit about this very disturbing situation?
I think that one thing that perpetuates the caste system is our failure to acknowledge that it exists. We would like to be able to think that, because we live in the U.S., that there are strong opportunities for all children to excel, in spite of race, ethnicity, language background, or family income. We believe this despite evidence to the contrary. Because we believe that the American Dream already exists; then we don’t challenge ourselves to modify our systems, structures, and practices. We don’t fix it because we don’t acknowledge that it is broken.
High schools appear to be vastly under-represented on your list of excellent urban schools. How do we explain this?
They are under-represented, but the good news is that in recent years we’ve found more; in fact, we found four this year. It is fairly easily explained if you look at the three concepts we use in the selection process. But let’s start with the last. One of the big hurdles of traditional, comprehensive high schools is their impersonal nature, and that students don’t feel valued. In too many high schools in America, the adults still have the attitude that ‘This would be a great place if it weren’t for the kids.’ Too often, at high schools, there is almost an eagerness to push students out. With high performing schools, there is obviously an environment that contrasts with this. As far as academics, one of the frustrations with traditional comprehensive high schools is that we still have teachers who feel it is simply their job to present the information, and the students’ job to learn it. If students don’t learn, it’s not the teachers’ responsibility. They put grades in the book and move on. In many of our school cultures, this perpetuates the low performance of urban students. The good news is that those cultures are slowly dying. We see so many principals and teachers who have a new attitude. They act as if they can create a learning environment in which all students can succeed and they are relentless in creating success. Elementary schools might have gotten an early start on this, but high schools are making good progress. The successful ones almost make it a guarantee that all students will be college and career ready. I am optimistic about this.
What role can a system like AVID, which works from district and site stand point to promote acceleration and equity, play in urban settings?
I think there has always been the power of AVID to influence the learning and, more importantly, the lives of students in the AVID elective class. And, of course, that can and should be powerful in terms of bringing rigor to students and supporting the learning through effective instruction and building in poor students the belief that they are capable of great academic success. It is clear to me that the greater potential for AVID is to be a ‘Trojan Horse,’ if you will, bringing a new culture onto a campus sometime in the middle of the night, and that culture gets related to everyone. Thus, systems are changing. If AVID is really well-implemented, it should change everything in the school, where every educator is teaching like an AVID elective teacher. We have seen some schools where this transformation has been engineered by the personal power of the AVID team. They take their fervor for the work and use it to spread it and influence others. In some places, with challenging circumstances, they have thought more systemically about developing more collaboration among teachers so that what is done so well in the AVID elective doesn’t stay contained there. They ask, “How can we support teacher quality so that other teachers will want to do AVID-like practices and establish AVID-like beliefs? How do we shape collaboration so more teachers say they want to do this?” and say, “Tell me more about those Cornell notes, about how those tutors work?”