Critics of tougher new standards for what students should learn and accountability measures designed to encourage schools and students to get better have voiced concern that schools in low-income areas are incapable of rising to the challenge.

Yet a study commissioned by Partnership for Learning suggests that public schools, including those serving disadvantaged children, can improve dramatically. This happens when schools commit to improving instruction and focus everyone on teaching and learning.

Researchers at the University of Washington studied 35 schools drawn from a list of every elementary school in the state whose students took the fourth grade reading, writing and mathematics tests in 1997 and 1998. They computed rates of gain at schools in two categories: those whose scores increased dramatically and those whose scores increased marginally or not at all.

The study found that rapidly-improving schools were in no better neighborhoods than the others and were no more likely to receive additional funding or support than non-improving schools.

Researchers interviewed principals about how their schools had responded to the new state standards and tests and compared the responses from rapidly-improving and non-improving schools. They concluded that rapidly-improving schools recognized that raising scores would require changes in all subjects and at all grade levels. Most identified their weaknesses and hit them head-on by revamping teaching strategies throughout the school.

Many schools abandoned activities that were fun and familiar but had no clear connection to children’s learning. Slow-to-improve schools were less focused and more reluctant to abandon activities that had no demonstrable value as learning tools.

Though the tests were given only to fourth graders, schools that showed improvement treated improvement as a school-wide goal. Teachers from all grades talked and planned together. Teachers carried the school’s improvement plan into their classrooms. In some schools, the initiative for change actually originated with the teachers.

Strategies that appear to have contributed to the improvements include:

Lining up all available time and money behind one course of action instead of scattering it among many unconnected programs.

Taking the initiative to find opportunities for teachers to increase their knowledge in ways that would address weaknesses identified by the state tests.

A positive outlook—principals at schools that showed improvement tended to tell their staffs: “Help is out there. It is up to us to select and use what we need.”

Explaining the tests and the need for better performance, as well as seeking parental support such as reading to children and checking homework.

The research suggests that all schools—regardless of their circumstances—can take deliberate steps that help more students learn. School districts can help schools take the initiative, for example by giving schools more control over funds. Business leaders, meanwhile, need to focus donations on improving instruction, not on feel-good peripherals.

Author William Porter is the director of Partnership for Learning, a business coalition working throughout Washington to involve parents and other community members in work to raise academic standards.