Stellar schools

July 24, 2006

A couple of hints about what distinguishes a high-performing school: Don't look for some of the usual suspects such as financial riches and parental involvement. Think academic programming and qualified staff. Those are among the common characteristics that boost academic performance, according to an ongoing study of more than 500 schools in 20 states, including Maryland, which had five exemplary elementary schools. The challenge is to create more successful schools - in Maryland and across the country.

The National Center for Educational Accountability, based in Austin, Texas, has been examining elementary, middle and high schools, using three years of testing and other performance data as well as socioeconomic data. By comparing schools that have similar demographics but not-so-similar academic outcomes, NCEA has distilled a handful of "best practices" that have been echoed in other studies, but that clearly make a difference. Among them: clear academic focus and challenging curriculums; strong school leadership and highly qualified teachers; intense monitoring of how teachers teach and students learn; and appropriate interventions when student performance starts to lag. High expectations for students are implied in the rigorous curriculum, and NCEA experts also cited the need for cooperation and coordination among professionals at the district, school and classroom levels.

Baltimore County's Cromwell Valley and Mars Estates elementary schools, Kent County's Millington Elementary, Worcester County's Ocean City Elementary and Prince George's County's Seabrook Elementary make the cut. They outperformed neighboring schools in third- and fourth-grade reading and math with a variety of tactics, such as enhancing the state's voluntary curriculum with more-rigorous lessons and instructional support and setting up effective mentoring programs for new teachers and even experienced teachers whose students were falling behind.

Implementing some of NCEA's best practices could be made easier with extra resources, such as money, time or personnel - particularly in schools that have high concentrations of needy students. But the main ingredient for success is really commitment to academic excellence. So long as more schools and districts maintain what NCEA experts call a "laser-like focus on teaching and learning," the center's list of high performers will likely keep growing.

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