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Achieving against the odds;International;Briefing

UNITED STATES: Can schools break the link between poverty and poor performance? Tim Cornwell reports

A new report claims to have isolated effective strategies for raising the performance of students from low-income homes.

Raising standards rather than "dumbing down" the curriculum, increased learning time for basic English and maths, more on-the-job training for teachers and close monitoring of individual students' progress are among the keys to success, it is claimed.

The report, from the Education Trust, a Washington foundation, collected data from 366 US elementary and secondary schools - in 21 states - that have succeeded in delivering above-average results in poor rural or inner-city areas.

These "myth-busters", whose students rivalled the best in better-off suburbs, provide a road map to academic gains, it says. "What the schools are doing works ... These are common-sense - and replicable - policies and practices that work. Others interested in boosting student achievement should take notice."

They include schools such as Desert Heights elementary in Reno, Nevada, a "highly transient" school in a 24-hour casino town where about half the 500 students move on in an average year.

While Desert Heights still lags behind most schools in the state, it dramatically improved its reading and maths performance over the space of a year with reading "chains", where students at the same reading level gathered in small groups for up to half-an-hour each day to read and study.

"We started to put the focus on reading, and when that happened, all the other grades started to improve," said school secretary Debbie Cadigan.

The school is now following a similar strategy in maths. Nearly 70 per cent of pupils come from low-income families, measured by those who qualify for free lunch.

Stevens elementary school in Seattle, with a high percentage of students for whom English is their second language, drew on Americorps volunteer and student teachers to design an individual teaching programme for each child based on need, pushing up reading scores.

The Education Trust's report was in part a response to the argument that "schools will never be able to get poor kids to meet high standards", and pointed to five major strategies.

Nearly 80 per cent of the successful schools provided extended learning time, focused mostly on reading and maths, because "early mastery of these skills is crucial to learning in other subjects". The same proportion had "comprehensive systems" to identify and support individual students in danger of falling behind.

They typically devoted more money to professional development of teachers, intended to improve the teaching of reading, writing and maths. They focused on parent involvement.

But they also often shared accountability programmes. "Nearly half the principals in these schools were subject to some kind of sanctions if their students failed to show measurable academic achievement," the report said.

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