Characteristics of Top Performing Schools

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The question most schools are asking to is; "What is required to prepare students exiting high school to be proficient in skills required to enter into higher education or the workplace?". Decades of research focusing on the effectiveness of education, in both public and private schools, has proven that our top performing school consistently demonstrate common practices that lead to academic success. These schools seem to know something the rest of us do not.

What do top performing schools do to achieve success? Simply put, top performing schools provide their students extra support and extend learning opportunities. Most schools today already offer these services. So, what are they missing?  Digging deeper we discover that these high performing schools use complex approaches with a multitude of intricate parts relying heavily on each other to prepare students for success.

Fist, top performing schools make teaching students their number one focus.  More specifically, they use their time wisely. This translates to uninterrupted periods for math and reading instruction.  The focus is on instruction supported by a curriculum that directly correlates to state standards. Usually these schools set expectations higher than required by the district and state. The teachers have a good understand of the state’s standards. They have materials to support teaching of those standards. Uninterrupted time is designated to teach those standards. Student progress is monitored with higher than average end goals. 


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Successful schools also understand that struggling students require supplementary instruction and additional time for skill mastery. Offering before and after schools support, summer sessions and intensive small group instruction becomes the norm.

Extending teaching time is a key component of overall student achievement. However, adding more time to the school day is not enough. It is important that educators are providing extended instruction that has a positive impact on students’ academic growth.

Most schools’ tutoring programs target low performing students, grouping them together by grade and subject for short periods with a general goal of increasing student achievement. Unfortunately, this generalization of success often leads to frustrated teachers and students resulting in an adverse effect on student achievement. For a tutoring to be successful, it must have a clear purpose and mission.

 For example, the purpose of a Saint Paul-based literacy program reads “(1) to help children who are below grade-level in reading reach their grade level no later than the end of fourth grade, and (2) to empower them to be successful in school and society.” The corresponding mission statement is “to unlock each child’s potential through the foundation of reading.”

Focusing on specific, long-term goals helps drive instruction and gives both students and teachers obtainable and measurable objectives.

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Effective schools use data to drive instruction. Data determines what skills to teach to specific students in order to achieve the final desired out come and to identify which students will benefit most from extended learning opportunities.  There are many factors to consider determining which students to include for extended learning opportunities. These factors include grades, attendance, behavior, and test scores. Recruiting, motivating, and academically moving students require very clear expectations of participation and commitment from teachers, students, parents, and the community. Programs that offer academic support and enrichment activities are more likely to have greater success.

Having trained teachers and volunteers is crucial. The people working with students must be knowledgeable of the academic skills they are teaching and have a clear understanding of the desired and measurable student outcome.  Using proven teaching strategies are imperative for optimum student gains.   Teachers, aides and volunteers require ongoing support, guidance and training opportunities.  In addition,  effective school value the people who make a difference in student success and plan activities that recognize and celebrate the contributions these adults are making to individuals as well as the community.

Closing in learning gaps takes time and consistency. Research supports that a minimum of 90 minutes a week of additional teaching is required making sufficient learning gains.  These sessions require individualization to meet the specific needs of each student. Implementing low student to teacher ratios or one on one instruction is required.  It is critical that struggling students have time to build a relationship a supportive and encouraging adult. Students benefit from working with the same adult for a minimum of twelve weeks.

 Today’s classrooms are extremely diverse. Most schools face the challenge of closing the achievement gap in minority groups and economically disadvantaged students.  Effective schools demonstrate cultural competence and strive for cultural proficiency. It is imperative that students feel that the school’s goals directly aligned with their personal and cultural goals. “When diversity is viewed as an important resource, students and families feel valued and are more actively involved in learning.”

 The African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child” applies accurately to the requirements of developing a top achieving school. High achieving schools collaborate with families and the local community. Parent advisory committees, outreach events, ongoing communication, open houses, and positive support from local media are just a few ways in which this is achieved.

Top performing schools extend learning time, keeping in mind the quantity and quality of these experiences, to raise academic expectations and close learning gaps. They form bonds with students, families and the community to reach goals together. They have an informed and trained staff who set high expectations for student success.  Developing a high achieving school is a very complex process, requiring dedication and determination. Research suggests we have the resources and knowledge to make all schools top achieving schools.