Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Poverty, Performance, and Frog Ponds: What Best-Practice Research Tells Us about Their Connections

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Poverty, Performance, and Frog Ponds: What Best-Practice Research Tells Us about Their Connections

Article excerpt

Higher-performing schools create conditions that enable schools to address some of the challenges of teaching high concentrations of students living in poverty.

For eight years, we've studied schools whose students consistently perform above predicted levels to see if we could identify what's happening in "beating the odds" schools that distinguishes them from schools with similar challenges yet average performance. Indeed, we found that higher-performing schools do share common characteristics that set them apart from average performers. The three most essential:

* Teachers, administrators, and staff collaborate and share responsibility.

* They make decisions based on a variety of evidence.

* Their vision of success includes high-poverty students achieving beyond predicted levels.

The similarities across successful schools hold whether the schools are in urban, rural, or suburban areas, whether they're large or small, and whether their students are native born or recent immigrants. No matter the locale or the particular circumstances, higher-performing schools have created conditions in which they support each student to succeed. In higher-performing schools, teachers and administrators optimize the potential positive effects of their unique school ecologies on student performance. They foster what some researchers have dubbed frog-pond processes, where large concentrations of students from typically lower-performing groups benefit from a school's ability to address their particular needs and provide opportunities to shine among peers (Goldsmith, 2011).

Using regression analyses permits us to parse socioeconomic factors from student achievement, and select schools that consistently do well despite their demographic challenges. To be sure, the inequalities of society are replicated in the public school system (Darling-Hammond, 2010; Ravitch, 2010). Moreover, the schools we describe don't regularly outperform those serving wealthier students. Yet anomalies exist, and the purpose of our studies has been to learn more about schools whose students consistently perform better than expected, given their poverty levels.

Because of their distinct settings and student populations, some of the specific ways schools address their challenges differ from site to site. But collaboratively using data to drive decisions about curriculum and instruction with the goal of ensuring that every student can and will learn and that "poverty is no excuse" are common across all the schools. We draw our examples from schools whose student poverty levels (as measured by free and reduced-price lunch rates) range from 50% to 100% in a variety of settings.


To conduct our studies, we identified sets of schools matched by demographics, including levels of poverty and per pupil expenditures, yet with different student performance levels over three years on New York's English language arts (ELA) and mathematics assessments. In addition to demographic and performance factors, we also sought schools representative of the state's geographic diversity. From 2004 to 2009, we conducted four such studies, one each for elementary, middle, and high schools, as well as a study of middle schools whose students consistently performed well in science. In 2010-11, we reexamined elementary schools, focusing particularly on the performance of students in critical needs subgroups, including those who live in poverty. Preliminary results from this latest study confirm earlier findings related to the importance of collaboration, use of evidence, and shared visions of success.


Educators in "beating the odds" schools attribute their success to meaningful collaboration. They report working in a trusting and respectful climate where the schedule provides time to collaborate, and informal collaboration is the norm as well. They use their scheduled time to plan interdisciplinary units, to learn new instructional strategies from colleagues, and to develop common assessments and then analyze results. …

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