Education Equity

5 Questions That Promote Student Success in High-Poverty Schools

High-poverty schools can meet student, professional, and system learning agendas by strengthening instructional framework, targeted interventions, reading proficiency, reflective practice, and data-based inquiry.

June 15, 2016
©Gable Denims/500px

Editor's note: This piece was adapted from Turning High-Poverty Schools into High-Performing Schools by William H. Parrett and Kathleen M. Budge.

Leaders in high-performing, high-poverty (HP/HP) schools know that success requires more than just high-quality teaching and learning. The entire school, as a system, should work together to develop a common instructional framework that provides a vision of what success looks like. When a ship loses its compass, getting to port becomes a game of chance. It's no different for a school. When a school, particularly one characterized by high poverty and low performance, lacks an instructional plan or framework, progress will be anything but systematic, and more than likely patterns of low performance will continue.

Through the collaborative efforts of the leaders and staff, HP/HP schools focus on three kinds of learning: student, professional, and system. These learning agendas influence each other, and leaders in HP/HP schools make the most of this connection to facilitate sustainable improvements in teaching and learning. Professional learning is the adult learning that takes place within a school, while system learning conveys how the school as a whole learns to be more effective. In other words, as people within the school learn, the system learns.

Supporting the Learning Agendas

A rubric with five horizontal columns. First column is progress, second column is no progress, and the following are numbered 1-3. 1 is Getting Started; 2 is Gaining Momentum; and 3 is Sustaining Gains.
Click image to download (PDF). Image credit: ASCD, courtesy of William Parrett and Kathleen Budge.

Is your school focusing on all three kinds of learning? Are you making the most of the links between the three? Use the "Focusing on Student, Professional, and System-Level Learning" rubric (right) to guide your reading and to help you reflect on the current situation in your school.

The following five questions can help support leaders as they make the three learning agendas the focus of their actions:

Question 1: Does our instructional framework guide curricula, teaching, assessment, and the learning environment?

What is an instructional framework? In the broadest sense, it consists of the theories, policies, structures, processes, and practices used in a school to guide what happens in the classroom. A well-designed instructional framework helps provide a common vision of what excellent (or powerful) teaching looks like.

Leaders in HP/HP schools credit much of their success to a high level of coherence in the instructional program. Several of the schools that we studied began their improvement efforts by adopting a Comprehensive School Reform model, but later customized that model to better fit their needs. Schools also used a homegrown approach that emphasized higher-order questioning, development of academic vocabulary, reading across the curriculum, and common classroom-based assessments. Whether using an established model or a homegrown approach, schools commonly developed communities of practice (Wenger, 1998), groups of people who work together over a period of time. These groups are neither teams nor task forces -- they are peers held together by a common sense of purpose and a real need to know what one another knows. This collaborative structure enabled schools to create, implement, continuously improve, and sustain a coherent instructional framework.

Too often, schools continue to use "a pedagogy of poverty" (Haberman, 1991; Padrón, Waxman, & Rivera, 2002): ineffective practices characterized as an overuse of teacher-controlled discussions and decision making, lecture, drill and decontextualized practice, and worksheets. Rather than a pedagogy of poverty, what students who live in poverty need is powerful pedagogy: powerful instruction resulting in powerful (or deep) learning. Such pedagogy is:

  • Consistent with a large body of research related to how people learn (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2002) and is relevant to the learner (Brandt, 1998)
  • Meaning centered (Knapp & Adelman, 1995)
  • Supporting the development of various kinds of understanding (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005)
  • Accelerated, strength-based, and empowering (Levin, 1989)
  • Encompassing higher-order thinking, deep knowledge, and connections beyond classrooms (Newman et al., 1996)

Finally, the school-related factor that makes the most difference in the lives of students who live in poverty (or all students, for that matter) is the quality of teaching that occurs in the classroom. Effective teachers:

  1. Have caring relationships with students
  2. Set high standards and help students reach them
  3. Connect the curriculum to students' lives
  4. Participate in ongoing professional development (Fry & DeWit, 2010)

Question 2: Do we provide targeted interventions for students who need them?

Even with the development of a comprehensive instructional framework that leads to improvement in the quality of classroom teaching and learning, underachieving students who live in poverty may need additional support. Catching up often means more time and specific strategies aimed at the unique needs of individual students. Too often, for too many students in poverty, the need for additional support has resulted in referral and placement in special education programs (Howard, Dresser, & Dunklee, 2009). With the advent of Response to Intervention (RTI), however, many schools have been able to meet students' needs by restructuring the instructional day to provide them with additional time and support.

High-performing, high-poverty schools have long been systematically providing targeted support for students within and outside the traditional school day, week, or year. All HP/HP schools constantly review data to identify students who need:

  • Before-, during-, and after-school small-group and individual tutoring
  • Self-paced interventions using technology
  • One-on-one academic advising and coaching
  • Homework support
  • Additional assessment time

Question 3: Are all students proficient in reading?

Second only to safety, ensuring that all students develop literacy skills reflects a core priority in high-performing, high-poverty schools. As a principal at a middle school in the South put it, "We start with reading and end with reading. There's a lot of content and important stuff in between, but if our kids can't read at grade level, they'll never do as well as they could or should with the rest." Designing a comprehensive approach to reading improvement entails:

  • Conducting an analysis of students' unique needs (e.g., those of English-language learners)
  • Developing an understanding of the influence of poverty on reading achievement (Neuman, 2008)
  • Examining the research base, especially concerning adolescent literacy (see Slavin, Cheung, Groff, & Lake, 2008)

When students do not learn to read by third grade or develop reading difficulties after third grade, as is disproportionately the case for students living in poverty (Kieffer, 2010), it is critically important that an emphasis on learning to read remain an instructional priority in upper-elementary classrooms as well as in middle and high schools. At the secondary level, this often requires supplanting an elective in a student's schedule to provide explicit reading instruction, which can present a dilemma for middle and high school leaders and teachers.

Reading, like any other skill, requires practice to improve. Although it's not an easy undertaking, HP/HP schools find ways to motivate students to read. After students have read one million words at Dayton's Bluff, the entire school celebrates. Former Principal Andrew Collins explains: "We kick off our Million Word Campaign in the fall. Students pledge to read one million words, and when we've reached the goal, all 400 kids with noisemakers, staff, and community partners parade through the streets."

Question 4: Are we using research-based models for professional learning and encouraging reflective practice?

Leaders in high-performing, high-poverty schools hold a view similar to this one expressed by a superintendent in a Northwest school district: "There is a bright red thread running from every student-learning problem to a problem of practice for teachers, and finally to a problem of practice for leaders." Professional learning and student learning are two sides of the same coin -- they cannot be separated. Many HP/HP schools, including those we studied, are either engaged in the process of developing common assessments or have begun using them within the context of a community of practice. During this work, as students' needs are identified, so too are the learning needs of the adults in the school.

Most of the HP/HP schools were also supporting professional learning through various types of walk-through processes. At Osmond A. Church, principals and teachers were engaged in conducting instructional rounds. The school’s principal used a modified version of the model described in Instructional Rounds in Education: A Networking Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning (City, Elmore, Fiarman, & Teitel, 2009) to meet the teachers' needs.

In addition to the approaches described here, several other structures and processes are effective in supporting professional learning and promoting reflective practices. These include:

  • Action research
  • Lesson study
  • Case-based learning
  • Networks
  • Journaling
  • Portfolio development
  • Tuning protocols

High-performing, high-poverty schools constantly endeavor to enhance professional capacity to better meet the needs of their students. The adults in these schools take their own learning as seriously as their students' learning, understanding they are truly two sides of the same coin. As one teacher explained, "When I learn to do something better, it helps a lot of my kids. We all know this and continually work to find the time it takes."

Question 5: Are we engaging in continuous data-based inquiry as a school?

All high-performing, high-poverty schools engage in some form of data-based decision making at the school level. This process typically involves:

  • Identification of a problem
  • Data gathering and analysis
  • Goal setting
  • Strategy selection and implementation
  • Evaluation

Although this form of planning is likely to be used in many schools, what distinguishes HP/HP schools from others is the manner in which such a cycle of inquiry has become the norm. Second only to the development of caring relationships in the schools that we studied, the use of data was credited for much of their success. These schools are places where people tend to be very curious about their practice and are eager to innovate. They continuously seek or create solutions to the challenges posed by poverty and are encouraged to take risks. Principals of these schools play a key role in driving this work.

Action Advice

  • Create coherence in the instructional program. Is your curriculum aligned to state and district standards? Have you articulated the curriculum across subjects and grade levels? Have you identified benchmark standards?
  • Employ a powerful pedagogy. Are students primarily engaged in meaning making, developing various kinds of understanding, problem solving, reasoning, inquiry, and critical/creative thinking?
  • Develop a shared vision of what good teaching looks like. Can all teachers describe a community-held understanding of good teaching? Can they list a core set of indications related to what teachers do and what students do when good teaching happens?
  • Use research-based teaching strategies that specifically address the needs of students living in poverty. Do teachers know which instructional strategies have a solid research base? Do teachers have the required expertise to employ research-based strategies?
  • Develop assessment literacy. Do teachers understand and employ sound assessment practices? Do principals have the competencies necessary to improve assessment practices schoolwide?
  • Involve students in assessing their learning. Are students engaged in activities that help them assess and monitor their own learning?
  • Develop and use common formative and summative assessments. Have benchmark standards been identified? Have teachers been provided collaboration opportunities to both develop assessments and use the information gained to inform instruction?
  • Ensure that teachers develop and demonstrate attributes and functions leading to success with students living in poverty. Do teachers know which teacher attributes and functions lead to success? Do teachers possess these attributes and fulfill such functions?
  • Provide targeted interventions when needed. Does your school use data to identify students who need additional support? Has time been scheduled during, before, or after the school day to provide extra help for students?
  • Develop reading proficiency in all students. How many students are not proficient in reading by fourth grade? Is reading taught when needed after the elementary years?
  • Link professional learning to student learning and employ research-based models. Do students' learning needs drive the content for professional development? Do professional development models support the development of communities of practice, prompting reflection and inquiry?
  • Engage in continuous data-based inquiry. Is inquiry embedded in how the school does business? Are people curious, eager to innovate, and encouraged to take risks?


  • Brandt, R. (1998). Powerful learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
  • Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (Eds.) (2002). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
  • City, E.A., Elmore, R.F., Fiarman, S.E., & Teitel, L. (2009). Instructional rounds in education: A network approach to improving teaching and learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
  • Fry, S., & DeWit, K. (2010). "Once a struggling student." Educational Leadership, 68(4), pp.70-73.
  • Haberman, M. (1991). "The pedagogy of poverty versus good teaching." Phi Delta Kappan, 73(4), pp.290-294.
  • Howard, T., Dresser, S.G., & Dunklee, D.R. (2009). Poverty is not a learning disability: Equalizing opportunities for low SES students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
  • Kieffer, M. (2010). "Socioeconomic status, English proficiency, and late-emerging reading difficulties." Educational Researcher, 39(6), pp.484-486.
  • Knapp, M.S., & Adelman, N. (1995). Teaching for meaning in high-poverty classrooms. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Levin, H.M. (1989). Accelerated schools: A new strategy for at-risk students. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Education Policy Center.
  • Neuman, S.B. (2008). Educating the other America: Top experts tackle poverty, literacy, and achievement in our schools. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.
  • Newmann, F.M., & Associates (1996). Authentic achievement: Restructuring schools for intellectual quality (1st ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Padrón, Y.N., Waxman, H.C., & Rivera, H.H. (2002). Educating Hispanic students: Obstacles and avenues to improved academic achievement. Santa Cruz, CA: Center for Research on Education Diversity & Excellence.
  • Slavin, R.E., Cheung, A., Groff, C., & Lake, C. (2008). Effective reading programs for middle and high schools: A best-evidence synthesis. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
  • Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Wiggins, G.P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (Expanded 2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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