An education researcher chats with young school students


Joseph Johnson Jr. was a newly minted schoolteacher in the late 1970s when he was hired by the new principal of one of San Diego’s lowest-performing schools. Watching her transform the culture, climate, and academic performance at the school was powerful, Johnson recalls, and it planted the seeds in his mind for what school transformation could be.

Over the past 40 years, Johnson has homed in on that vision. He has gathered, documented, and shared data, case studies, and success stories of urban schools that demonstrate that all children can achieve at high levels. At these schools, students of every race, ethnicity, language background, and family-income bracket master rigorous academic content, overcome achievement and attainment gaps, and excel.

“There is nothing permanent about the achievement gap if we change our beliefs and attitudes in ways that lead us to change fundamental aspects of schooling, especially school leadership, school culture, and school curriculum and instruction,” says Johnson. He is the founding executive director of the National Center for Urban School Transformation (NCUST) at San Diego State University (SDSU) Research Foundation.

In addition, there are “aspects of schooling” influenced by false and unfair beliefs about the children and families served by some schools, he says. Myths—that certain students can’t learn, that certain parents won’t support their children, or that certain schools are accomplishing the best that they can, given the socioeconomics of their communities—continue to hold firm among some charged with changing the future of children.

A deficit mindset comes with damaging consequences, says Johnson, who previously served as a professor of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University, dean of the College of Education at SDSU, and as SDSU’s interim provost and senior vice president. “If my assumption is that this is as good as it can get, then I can pat myself on the back, and I don’t necessarily push myself to look for better options.” The sense of urgency to find and emulate more effective methods of educating students diminishes, he adds.

Logical next steps

Since its founding in 2005, NCUST has studied, identified, and recognized 167 high-performing urban schools in 25 states and the District of Columbia. These schools have documented success in making excellence and equity a reality for every racial, ethnic, and income group they serve. The success of these schools, where “‘typical’ students achieve atypical results,” is showcased at NCUST’s annual America’s Best Urban Schools Symposium.

The center also works to improve urban education by creating leadership training programs to strengthen and support principals and school administrators in their work. The National Principal Certificate for Equity and Excellence, and the National Principal Supervisor Certificate, are among those efforts.

Launching this fall will be the new NCUST Construction Zone. The program is designed to help school leadership teams “take stock of how they are similar to and different from the very high-performing schools that we study,” says Johnson, who serves as an NCUST executive coach. The goal is to figure out “logical next steps in constructing the bridges that will move a school’s students to a place where they are engaged and empowered to succeed.”

Various approaches exist to help districts close gaps and improve student success, “but we feel that we’ve got this unique (insight) because we see these schools that are achieving amazing results,” Johnson says. “We know what it looks like. We know about the quality of rigorous curricula that are at these schools. We know how leaders are influencing the effectiveness of instruction. So, we feel an urgency not to just sit on what we know and to help other principals, other school leaders, come to understand these things.”

Beacons show the way

NCUST’s deep dive into outstanding urban schools reveals three overarching characteristics essential for success:

  • Vibrant, energized school cultures where administrators, teachers, counselors, support staff, and families believe in the capacity of students to achieve at high levels and in the adults’ ability to achieve life-changing outcomes for young people. This includes students facing poverty, family traumas, neighborhood violence, and other challenges. Students want to come to these schools and learn because they feel valued and respected and believe that the adults there are committed to their success.
  • Challenging academic content for students from all demographic groups, not just those deemed academically talented or gifted. Students learn more rigorous academic content, in large part, because they are taught more rigorous content. And contrary to common misconceptions, students in high-performing urban schools have access to rich curricula that include science, the arts, technology, physical education, world languages, and other topics beyond the focus of most state testing programs.
  • Effective instruction in which teachers continually challenge themselves to design stimulating lessons (discussions, debates, excursions, experiments, movement, music, mobile technology, projects, and dramatizations). Students are likely to perceive these lessons as interesting, engaging, and exciting, which will help students master academic content. Teachers rely minimally on traditional textbooks, workbooks, and worksheets. They constantly check to determine what students understand or misunderstand.

Francisco Escobedo became Johnson’s successor as executive director of NCUST in September 2021. The former superintendent of California’s Chula Vista Elementary School District, Escobedo points to an emphasis on school leadership, school culture, and school curriculum and instruction as “common elements that helped us do the work” at the award-winning 29,000-student district in southern San Diego County. More than half of Chula Vista students come from low-income families, 69 percent are Hispanic, and one-third are English learners.

Among critical lessons learned during his 16 years with the district, 11 as superintendent, he says, is the importance of “creating a coherent system where curriculum, instruction, and the human ingredient of being valued, supported, and enhanced are working all as one.”

Between 2012 and 2020, eight Chula Vista schools earned NCUST’s America’s Best Urban School Award recognition for high achievement, rigorous curriculum, excellent instruction, and enthusiastic student engagement.

The schools on the list, which must demonstrate success with all demographic groups enrolled in the school, are “beacons showing us the way if we are willing to look and try to understand what is salient about their success,” Johnson says. (The application process for the 2023 NCUST awards program will be announced in August.)

School culture that embraces Black students

In a new book by NCUST researchers, Johnson and colleagues examine data from six elementary, middle, and high schools where Black students outperform the general population of all students in their states on multiple academic indicators. Among the schools featured in the book
When Black Students Excel (out in November) are: Maplewood Richmond Heights High School, Missouri’s Maplewood Richmond Heights School District; Wynnebrook Elementary School, Florida’s School District of Palm Beach County; and Paul Laurence Dunbar Young Men’s Leadership Academy, Texas’ Fort Worth Independent School District.

“My co-authors and I believe that most educators want to see the achievement gap eliminated. However, many educators do not understand what it would take to eliminate achievement gaps in their school,” Johnson says. Additionally, some cling to “myths to explain our failure to educate many Black students well,” such as “they aren’t willing to work hard,” “their parents don’t care,” and “they can’t learn because of the poverty they endure, the trauma they have experienced, the lack of prenatal care their mother’s received, the violence in their neighborhoods, the absence of their fathers, etc.”

In the schools featured in the book, “some Black students, unfortunately, must deal with the full range of social ills we find throughout this nation,” Johnson says. At the same time, they love coming to school and love learning because of outstanding school leaders committed to their success, a school culture that embraces Black students and makes them feel valued and respected, and exceptional educators who “deliberately challenge traditional teaching tools and practices and ask themselves, ‘How can we reshape our efforts in ways that help our Black students experience a clear and manageable pathway to success?’”

The same successful approach applies to and supports students of other backgrounds, Johnson says. For the book, “we focused on the factors that influenced the success of Black students in the featured schools. However, these schools boast similar outstanding results for every demographic group.”

There’s no quick fix to achieving these results, Johnson adds. The journey can take “four or five or six years. But we see schools start to demonstrate progress even after a couple of years, sometimes, because they are laying the foundation. They are doing the necessary things to create stronger, more positive connections with students and families. They are attracting and supporting new school leaders and building the capacity of existing leaders to become outstanding. They are doing things that start creating those changes that are the building blocks of success.”

Whether it was that first successful school that Johnson landed in at the start of his career or the schools in his first study of high-performing schools in Texas in the mid-1990s, what has become clear is that these schools “blow up the pattern” of demographic predictability, he says. In these schools, race, family income, gender, language background, and ZIP code become “basically powerless in predicting how well students will perform. You see strong performances across the board,” he reports.

“To me, that is what our educational system needs to be about,” says Johnson. “That is the promise of American public education. It’s a promise that we have not fulfilled, but we have the potential. And we see that potential in these amazing schools.”

Michelle Healy is associate editor of American School Board Journal.

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