90/90/90 Schools- Myth or reality?

The belief in school improvement as possibility is fueled by research about “effective schools” including those known colloquially as 90/90/90 schools. These are a group of schools studied by Douglas Reeves and colleagues (of the Leadership and Learning Center) because they seem to have unusual success (90 percent+ meet high academic standards) with their students– unusual because 90+ percent receive free/reduced lunch, and are ethnic/racial minorities.

90/90/90 success stories and strategies are appealing because they remind us that race/poverty do not always correlate perfectly with academic performance and give educators agency and responsibility for helping to ameliorate the academic achievement gap.

But they are problematic for many reasons, some of which are nicely addressed here: 90/90/90 Schools Revisited (Edweek)

One of the problems with “90/90/90 schools” is that they can make improvement seem complex and mysterious, requiring coaching and consultation for sustainable success.

What happens in 90/90/90 schools is not mysterious. In many cases, “school improvement” can be boiled down to making improvements in the these three things:

  1. The level and nature of academic language use among students and within classrooms, particularly in writing and speaking.
  2. The level and nature of talk about student performance and progress among adults, including looking and at discussing student work and performance expectations; and
  3. The tone of the conversation through which these things are communicated (striking the right balance between fun, professional and respectful).

If and when these three things are difficult, complex or impossible to cultivate or accomplish, there are probably big barriers in the way. Some of these barriers- like leadership and teacher turnover, conflicting curricular programs and materials and fluctuating resources–may not be within the school community’s control. Examining and removing each one (and doing this regularly, as they reoccur) is critical for sustainable improvement. Remember that just because 90 percent proficient happened in some places does not mean the conditions are right for it to happen in all places.


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