When you live in a school district that seems forever on the cusp of breaking out of being so-so, you are always on the hunt for secrets. How do other schools (or countries, for that matter) slog past mediocre to the top of the academics heap? What is the secret “sauce” that turns bland to spectacular?
On quests like this, certain headlines become come-hither invitations: “The Secret of Finland’s Success with Schools, Moms, Kids — and Everything,” promised an article this summer in The Atlantic. “Global Study Identifies Promising Practices in Top-Scoring Nations,” said a story in the Oct. 9 edition of Education Week.
I have chased down a few such articles over time, and I always come away with the same feeling: What’s the new thing here? You know, Solomon was right. “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” when it comes to getting the most out of school children.
In the global study, researchers analyzed data from two international tests in math, science and reading. Coinciding in the same year, 2011, for the first time, the tests enabled researchers to look at the question of “a culture of educational excellence” in all three subjects at the fourth-grade level. From the data, the top five nations that achieve high levels in educating more than 35 percent of fourth-graders in all three subjects are Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Finland, Hong Kong and Russia.
The researchers teased out some school and home factors that correlate positively with high achievement in fourth-grade math, science and reading (I imagine the factors would hold true for children in first, second, third, fifth, sixth … grades).
What practices are common across the countries? Briefly:
— Principals, teachers, parents and students are equally invested and work together to support academic success.
— Schools offer a safe and orderly environment.
— Teachers know the curriculum goals, are good at engaging students; and expect high achievement.
— Students want to succeed.
— Good reading skills in the primary grades are pivotal.
— Parents support high achievement. They create an environment for learning, with lots of books at home, and engage children in early literacy activities, including reading, talking, telling stories and singing.
We can’t say truthfully that we haven’t heard any of this before. Nothing on the list is a stop-dead-in-your-tracks revelation. The same practices come up time after time, highlighted in one analysis after another. But for a practice to become “a culture,” it has to become all pervasive, second nature to everyone associated with the activity.
It seems to me that where a culture of educational excellence exists, you are likely to find a school or a district that can count on a critical mass of people who buy wholly into the enterprise (are “equally invested”) and play their separate, complementary roles consistently and effectively.
It seems to me that the Akron Public Schools struggles to create an all-pervasive culture of excellence in part because the partners in the enterprise are not all equally invested in the idea of excellence. Yes, the elements for excellence have come together in a few places, the Akron Early College High School, for instance.
In a recent conversation about the “secrets” that have propelled the high school to national recognition with a Blue Ribbon award this year, Cheryl Connolly, the dean of students, described a system that aligns point for point with the findings of the researchers. All teachers and students are admitted by application, establishing a degree of like-mindedness that is an advantage in developing a culture. The goals are clear; expectations are high; and student and parent contracts define responsibility.
The staff of educators focus on creating a “culture of support,” which means personal connections and supervision to keep students focused and on track. “They can’t escape us,” Connolly said. In a school small enough to simulate the intimacy of a family where someone is on the lookout for each child, students get to understand they are part of a partnership working toward A-1 performance. They are accountable to their partners for their performance.
Ofobike is the Beacon Journal chief editorial writer. She can be reached at 330-996-3513 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org,