Characteristics of High-Performing, High-Poverty Schools

ASCD Research Brief
March 15, 2005

The Question
Do high-performing, high-poverty schools share common characteristics or practices that differ from those found in lower-performing schools?

The Context
Research has long documented the link between student poverty and low general academic performance. The link is so well-established that a mythology has risen around it: that students in poverty are destined for low academic achievement. Although most educators reject this myth, high-poverty schools do face real challenges. Research suggests that such schools have difficulty attracting and retaining highly trained and experienced staff, lack many of the learning resources that low-poverty schools may have, and face added health and welfare challenges that come with poverty. Research into successful high-poverty schools carries with it a number of interesting policy and political implications. Some advocacy organizations have used effective school research to identify successful high-poverty schools as an argument that such schools don't need additional resources to overcome the effects of poverty. More careful scholarship, however, has found that resources do indeed matter, and that increased support appropriately targeted can significantly improve student learning (see Other Resources). The research highlighted in this brief aims to examine the practices in high-performing, high-poverty schools that differ from those found in lower-performing, high-poverty schools in an effort to determine some of the strategies that may result in increased student achievement.

The Details
Patricia Kannapel and Stephen Clements, along with Diana Taylor and Terry Hibpshman, conducted the study highlighted in this issue of ResearchBrief (see below for full citation). They looked at schools in Kentucky and sought to answer two primary questions:

What common characteristics that may positively affect student learning do high-performing, high-poverty schools share?
What characteristics appear to differentiate high-performing, high-poverty schools from lower-performing, high-poverty schools?

The researchers defined successful high-poverty schools as schools with a score of 80 or higher on the state's accountability index (based on test scores and other indicators, including retention, attendance, and dropout rates); at least 50 percent of students at the elementary level in the free or reduced priced lunch program (40 percent at the middle school level, and 35 percent at the high school level); evidence of improved performance on state assessments over time; and an achievement gap of less then 15 points between minority and white students, as well as between high-poverty students and their lower-poverty peers. Twenty-six elementary schools, seven middle schools, and no high schools met the stated criteria. Because of the small number of middle schools and absence of high schools, the researchers elected to focus on elementary schools only. From the 26 schools, researchers narrowed the sample to 15 by intentionally selecting schools from a variety of regions within the state, from rural and urban locations, and from a range of minority and nonminority populations. Ultimately, eight schools fully participated in the study.

In spring 2004, the researchers conducted data gathering using teams trained to collect data through the Kentucky's low-performing schools audits. This would allow the researchers to compare their findings to existing evidence on the state's low-performing schools. Each team spent one week in one of the study schools, observing every class at least once, as well as reviewing data from test scores, school improvement plans, lesson plans, student work samples, and other documentation. The teams gathered data using the Standards and Indicators for School Improvement (SISI), a standardized state assessment framework that focuses on nine areas: curriculum, assessment, instruction, school culture, family and community support, professional development, leadership, organizational structures, and planning. Ultimately, the teams gathered data on 88 indicators, which the researchers analyzed and rated on a scale of 1 to 4 (where a 1 or 2 is interpreted as weak, a 3 is considered fully functioning at the standard, and a 4 refers to exemplary implementation). The researchers conducted interviews with team members and follow-up interviews with participating schools, as necessary.

The researchers analyzed the data qualitatively to determine the characteristics common across schools and quantitatively with a set of eight similar?but low- performing?schools, to statistically identify differences in practice. Although the scores between the high-performing schools varied to a significant degree, in general the schools scored quite well on most indicators, particularly on the school culture standards (safe environment, high expectations, careful organization of staff, good family communication, caring about students, celebrating achievement, emphasizing equity, and supporting diversity) and on student, family, and community support (families and community work together, students have access to the curriculum, instruction focuses on reducing barriers to learning, learning support beyond the classroom is provided, student record systems provide timely and accurate information).

To investigate possible differences between high- and low-performing schools, the researchers selected eight low-performing schools and analyzed how those schools scored on each of the 88 SISI variables as compared to their high-performing counterparts. They uncovered statistically significant differences between the high- and low-performing schools on 22 of the 88 standards. Most notably, the high-performing schools did better on eight items under school culture:

The belief that all students can succeed at high levels
High expectations
Collaborative decision making
Teachers accept their role in student successor failure
Strategic assignment of staff
Regular teacher-parent communication
Caring staff and faculty
Dedication to diversity and equity

High-performing schools also did better on four items under curriculum: alignment between curriculum, standards, and assessment; districtwide focus on K?12 curriculum; systematic evaluation and monitoring of student achievement; and a focus on a core academic program for all students. Under professional development, high-performing schools showed a statistically significant improvement on three items (ongoing and embedded professional development, connected to student achievement, and a focus on leadership needs), while two items under assessment and organizational structures showed a difference (frequent aligned assessments using multiple measures and instructional alignment with a focus on diversity and differing learning styles).

The Bottom Line
High-performing, high-poverty schools seem to exhibit a number of common traits that differ significantly from practices in lower-performing, high-poverty schools, including a schoolwide ethic of high expectations; caring, respectful relations between stakeholders; a strong academic and instructional focus; regular assessment of individual students; collaborative decision-making structures and a nonauthoritarian principal; strong faculty morale and work ethic; and coordinated staffing strategies.

Who's Affected?
High-poverty elementary schools in Kentucky were the focus of this study.

The authors of the study are forthright in their recognition that this research does not present findings that can be easily applied to all high-poverty schools. As with most research, however, consumers can expect to glean important information from the findings here that they can apply to their individual contexts (in general, research, no matter how well-designed, cannot guarantee results independent of contexts or applications). Readers of this (and each) ResearchBrief should refer to the full study and examine the quality indicators that the authors found persuasive, applying them to their unique contexts systematically, and as appropriate, with specific plans for evaluation.

The Study
Kannapel, P. J., & Clements, S. K., with Taylor, D., & Hibpshman, T. (2005). Inside the black box of high-performing high-poverty schools. Lexington, KY: Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. Retrieved February 17, 2005, from

Other Resources

Schools dropouts: Home and school effects
ResearchBrief 1(9)

Equity, Adequacy, and the Effect of Resources on Student Achievement
ResearchBrief 2(6)

The Complexities of Student Mobility and Achievement
ResearchBrief 2(17)

Socioeconomic Status and IQ
ResearchBrief 2(21)