Edu-vangelists cry 'hallelujah' for underperformers

10th July 2009 at 01:00
US turnaround academics preach against culture of low expectations for poor children

It is a message straight out of a televangelist's prayer meeting: you need to believe. With belief, everything is possible; without it, all is lost. (Cue cries of "Ay-men".)

Robert Barr and William Parrett are not televangelists, but they are hoping their credo will transform Britain's underperforming schools.

Drs Barr and Parrett, from Boise University in Idaho, claim that low-achieving schools can be turned around purely through faith in pupils' ability.

Many disadvantaged pupils, they say, are failed by teachers who simply do not have high enough expectations of them.

They claim to have already turned around more than 100 US schools serving disadvantaged communities in states such as Louisiana and Illinois.

This week, the edu-vangelists visited Hackney, east London, to look at ways in which their doctrine could be applied in the borough. The key lesson is that being poor is not the same as being academically unsuccessful.

"Until recently, educators simply did not believe poor children could learn," Dr Barr said.

"There was little a school could do to overcome the disadvantages poor children were bringing to school with them."

Of course, such low expectations are rarely explicit: teachers do not tell pupils "you won't do well because you're poor".

Dr Barr said: "You can observe low expectations when you look at the curriculum, the quality of assignments. Rather than doing intellectually challenging work, poor children are making posters and collages.

"But if you give kids intellectually challenging assignments, you can predict their achievement will improve. Children live up to expectations."

Drs Barr and Parrett have developed an eight-point plan for school improvement (see box).

Once a culture of low expectations has been addressed, schools put in place the rest of the plan. This includes providing a clean and ordered environment and ensuring the behaviour of a few pupils does not affect the entire school.

Teachers must agree on a strategy to help pupils who struggle with work - extra tuition either before school, during lunchtime or at the end of the day.

Dr Parrett says change is often easier if schools are led by inspiring heads. "Masterful, charismatic leaders can make things happen faster," he said.

"But I don't believe they're an essential element. There are a lot of schools where teachers have got together, and it's become a collaborative activity."

If schools adopt their plan, including an absolute commitment to raised expectations, the academics are willing to guarantee results.

"Schools need to work out, first and foremost, how to meet the needs of their kids," Dr Parrett said.

"And they need to put a programme in place whereby those kids can be successful.

"Then we absolutely guarantee that you can teach the kids to read to proficient levels. Even in the most difficult schools in the most challenging areas of the country, you can guarantee it."

All together, say "Ay-men".


1. Understand and hold high expectations for poor and culturally diverse pupils.

2. Target low-performing pupils, especially in reading.

3. Ensure effective school leadership.

4. Align and monitor the curriculum to achieve school-wide expectation of a certain level of achievement by a certain stage.

5. Examine and reorganise use of time so there is commitment to pre or after-school catch-up classes.

6. Create a culture of data literacy so information is easily accessible for everyone in school.

7. Work in partnership with parents and communities.

8. Provide teachers with regular professional development programmes.

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