Who says poor children can't learn?

New research challenges a popular idea that has shaped US education

The notion that poor kids lag behind in learning has been one of the strongest assumptions in American education - and a lot of evidence appears to support it.

But that view is taking a hard hit from two recent studies that highlight the many high-poverty schools that are succeeding.

The Education Trust, a Washington-based research group, identified 366 high-performing, high-poverty schools in 21 states. The conservative Heritage Foundation, on the other side of Washington as well as the political spectrum, located 125. Both groups say they expect to find many more.

"These are not isolated examples. They have proven by simple and sure means that high achievement is not out of reach of any school," says Samuel Casey Carter, who directed the Heritage Foundation survey, released last month.

There have always been isolated examples of schools that break the mold, such as Garfield High School, where teacher Jaime Escalante launched Advanced Placement calculus in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles in 1978; or Houston's Mabel B. Wesley Elementary, where Principal Thaddeus Lott showed that kids who had never seen a book could learn to read in kindergarten.

While lionized, such cases came to be viewed as the exceptions. "Somewhere along the line somebody decided that poor kids couldn't learn, at least not at a very high level. And everyone fell in line," says Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust.

But the truth is quite different. What these new studies show is that success in poor schools is not just for heroes. And their examples make it harder to find excuses for failing to educate poor children.

Reports on education typically view poverty and race as the major predictors of achievement. That conviction could discourage teachers in poor schools from acting as if what they do in class can make a difference - thus undermining a national drive to improve education.

Ms. Haycock calls it a creeping malaise over the last decade. She cites conversations with teachers and principals in high-poverty schools "who often tell us that 'these standards you're talking about may be fine for some kids, but certainly not for the kind of kids that we have in our school.' "

By focusing attention on the exceptions to this pattern, these recent studies could give new impetus to school-reform efforts. They also force the question: Is it poverty that is driving poor performance or the way schools treat poor children? And if schools give poor students a richer, more focused academic curriculum, will achievement improve?

In fact, this turns out to be a tough question to answer. Most states and districts don't track or publicize which of their high-poverty schools are performing well. The Heritage Foundation had to persuade officials to do the extra work of reanalyzing local data with this issue in mind. The Education Trust helped solved this problem by collaborating with the Council of Chief State School Officers, which had its own access to relevant data and the capacity to study it in new ways.

Heritage and the Education Trust take a different slant: Heritage emphasizes the importance of giving principals the flexibility to make decisions; the Education Trust signals the importance of using state standards to guide school activity.

But there is agreement on many of the strategies these schools follow - especially a focus on achievement and good teaching (see story, left).

"When you visit a typical high-poverty school, you sense that they are focused on compliance with rules - with everything but achievement. What we're seeing in high-performing schools is a sense of relentlessness: These leaders will get kids to high levels of achievement no matter what," says Haycock.

Some examples from the Heritage survey:

*When Nancy Ichinaga became principal of the Andrew Bennett Elementary School in Inglewood, Calif., only 5 percent of her students could read. She refocused the school around reading and writing English - and rallied parents to defend her methods when state bureaucrats demanded that the school drop phonics instruction and teach bilingual classes. Bennett-Kew, as it is now known, is now one of the top-scoring school in Los Angeles.

*KIPP Academy founders Michael Feinberg and David Levin took Hispanic kids from the poorest neighborhoods in Houston and helped them become the top middle-school students in the city. The key is no shortcuts, they say - and about 67 percent more time in the classroom than the average Houston public school student spends.

*Send e-mail to chaddockg@csps.com

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