Research Spotlight

How do schools achieve excellence plus equity?

Kathleen Brown

Kathleen Brown


More than 400 elementary schools were recognized by the state of North Carolina as “Honor Schools of Excellence” in 2004-2005. But only some of these had successful academic performance by all subgroups of their students across race and class.

At other schools, despite their excellent overall ranking, some groups of students struggled while others soared. 

Even when the student populations and other variables at two schools are similar, it’s not unusual for one school to have across-the-board student success while the other has a glaring “achievement gap.” Why are they different?

Three years ago, Associate Professor Kathleen Brown and three of her doctoral students—Jen Benkovitz (Ed.D. ’08), A.J. Muttillo (Ed.D. ’08) and Thad Urban (Ed.D. ’08)—resolved to find some answers to this question. Early next year, a newly published book will present their findings.

The team studied 24 North Carolina elementary “Honor Schools of Excellence.” In all the schools, at least 90 percent of the students performed at or above grade level on standardized tests, and all the schools met goals for yearly progress. However, in 12 schools there was a large achievement gap between many minority students and their white peers, and in 12 there was only a small gap or none at all.

All the schools were demographically similar. All were located within 12 miles of each other in the same school district. All were about the same size, served kindergarten through fifth-grade students and had an average daily attendance of 95-97 percent. All followed a traditional calendar and had had the same principal for at least three years. All schools had a minority population of approximately one-third of their total student population and served a comparable percentage of economically disadvantaged students.

Brown’s team looked beyond test scores into other characteristics of these schools. They explored the role of “academic optimism” in closing achievement gaps by asking several questions: Does the school place a strong emphasis on academics? Are the teachers confident that they can impact student achievement? Do the teachers trust the parents and students to embrace the goal of academic excellence and not undermine it? What is the role of the principal in promoting excellence for all students?

After 80 interviews, 16 site visits, hundreds of informal observations and many months of data analysis, the researchers found three themes that showed striking differences between the large gap and the small gap schools.

First, in the small gap schools, principals set the stage by recognizing and celebrating academic achievement. These principals initiated practices to highlight students’ academic success, such as encouraging teachers to write academic notes on report cards, make phone calls to parents, keep student data notebooks to monitor learning and provide rewards. The principals themselves sent postcards to recognize exceptional student achievement. Parents had high expectations as well. In contrast, principals in the large gap schools were more passive in celebrating student achievement.

Second, the small gap schools had a clear institutional mission for every child to succeed and the principals proactively helped the teachers achieve this goal. These principals observed the teachers, provided feedback and fostered the teachers’ growth through professional development. Collectively the teachers had high expectations of all the students and demonstrated the attitude that “whatever it takes to help children learn, that’s what we do.” Extensive parental involvement kept the teachers “on their toes.” In contrast, many large gap schools claimed to provide opportunities for all students to succeed, but the principals did not insist on achieving this goal or create the means for their teachers to do so. 

Third, in small gap schools, principals and teachers used data to foster each student’s growth. The principals used data to drive their decisions about hiring teachers, allocating resources and promoting certain teaching practices. They used data combined with teacher input to select staff development that addressed teachers’ needs. Teachers used data to help them select class work and projects to promote individual students’ growth. In addition, teachers shared data with parents about their own child’s strengths and weaknesses, and drew from that data to suggest ways parents could foster the child’s progress. In contrast, at large gap schools, data seemed to be used more reactively than proactively, such as in identifying students who needed remediation in after-school or pull-out programs rather than promoting student growth. 

“This study demonstrates that schools in general and school leadership in particular do have an impact on promoting excellence and equity for all students,” Brown said. “The results indicate that advancing a culture of ‘academic optimism’ can help close achievement gaps.”

“Many people, including some educators, still believe that the most reliable predictors of school achievement are factors such as genetic deficiency, class differences, family background and access to learning opportunities at home,” she noted. “Schools and educators who hold this view excuse themselves from taking responsibility for inequities and gaps between student subgroups.”

The researchers hope that this study will help erase from all schools a culture that perpetuates the status quo and turns a blind eye to social injustice. “Even when composite test scores are high, such a culture is not really excellent,” Brown emphasized. “We must pursue excellence and equity concurrently in our schools in order to serve all students well and insist that all perform at their highest level.”

Note: The three student researchers have completed their doctoral degrees and all are now practicing administrators. Jen Benkovitz is principal of Creech Road Elementary School in Wake County Public School System, N.C.; A.J. Muttillo is principal of West Millbrook Middle School, also in Wake County; and Thad Urban is assistant principal of Fairview Middle School in Fairview School District, Pa.   

Leading Schools of Excellence and Equity: Closing Achievement Gaps Via Academic Optimism will be published by ERS (Educational Research Service) in Alexandria, Va., in 2009.