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‘Successful schools in deprived areas are not a miracle: it’s about hard work and leadership’

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There is still a pervading assumption that schools that are successful in educating poor and minority children to high levels are somehow “miracle” establishments.

According to Karin Chenoweth, educational author and writer-in-residence at the Bill Gates-funded Education Trust, divine intervention has nothing to do with it.

Expert leadership stands out as a key feature of schools performing above their counterparts, she told the first researchED conference in New York. ResearchED was set up by London Teacher and TES columnist Tom Bennett to improve reseach literacy among school staff. 

Ms Chenoweth cited two schools in the United States as prime examples of turnarounds. The urban PS124 in Queens, New York, had 97 per cent low-income students and followed the Core Knowledge curriculum. The rural George Hall Elementary School in Alabama had 99 per cent low-income students and had to “fumble its way through with a process of trial and error.”

Both schools were vastly different but each had strong leaders – both now retired – with the same fundamental beliefs.

“They believed all students could learn to high levels. They believed in collaborative teaching. They believed in treating teachers and students with respect. They brought the dispassionate approach of a scientist to everything they did and they had a growth mind-set; a belief that if you work hard enough you can achieve your goals,” said Ms Chenoweth.

They also put structures into place that assessed students frequently and found the ones who needed additional help and put an emphasis on personal relationships so that pupils could trust teachers and parents, teachers and administrators trusted one another.

“It’s not complicated to say but it’s difficult to do,” said Ms Chenoweth.

She quoted research by University of Washington academic Ken Leithwood and his colleagues who studied 180 schools in 45 districts in nine states in the US, and concluded: “To date, we have not found a single case of a school improving its student achievement record in the absence of talented leadership.”

“Theoretically, it might be possible for teachers to go it alone but survey after survey shows how much difference a competent senior administrator can make,” Ms Chenoweth said.

Knowledgeable school leaders who ensure that curricula, lessons, professional development, budgets and discipline go hand in hand with high-quality instruction and who have a deep understanding of both the research and the craft knowledge of education are the single biggest key to turning around failing schools, she said.

“They are not doing anything terribly innovative, they are just running schools successfully and producing children who love to be smart and who love to learn,” said Ms Chenowth, co-author, along with Christina Theokas, of Getting It Done: Leading Academic Success in Unexpected Schools. 

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