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FINDINGS FROM 20 STATES: Report Examines High-Performing Schools to Determine Best Practices

“There are schools throughout the country whose students consistently outperform their peers in similar schools,” said Dr. Jean Rutherford

After studying nearly 200 schools in 20 states, the National Center for Educational Accountability (NCEA) has released a new study to help explain why some schools can help students reach higher standards while other, similarly situated schools cannot. Findings from 20 Statesis the latest in the Just for the Kids Best Practice Studies that have examined more than 500 average and high-performing schools over the last 6 years.

“There are schools throughout the country whose students consistently outperform their peers in similar schools,” said Dr. Jean Rutherford, director of educational initiatives at NCEA. “Those performance results are not based on magic, but on deliberate teaching and learning practices. We believe that investigating, benchmarking, and reporting those practices can serve as the foundation for improvement in other schools.”

NCEA used 3 years of performance data to identify average- and high-performing elementary, middle, and high schools in 20 states. Based on an examination of methods used in each school, combined with interviews with district leaders, principals, and teachers, the report lists several practices that were common in many high-performing schools.

First, the report notes that most high-performing schools provide rigorous course content to all students, no matter their past academic performance. This includes “higher expectations for the work of students characterized as ‘average’ or ‘below average,’” and more aggressive efforts to enroll borderline students in advanced classes. In addition, average students have more frequent access to the school’s top teachers.

The study also emphasizes the importance of instructional collaboration. One important part is ensuring that all teachers are assessing student work using the same criteria. As an example, the study cites Selma High School in California, where administrators and teachers from at least two different departments gather and one staff member shares a lesson. The team discusses instructional strategies and materials that could enhance the lesson, and then the lesson is given to at least one of each participating staff member’s classrooms. After the lesson, a common assessment is given, and student achievement data are brought back to the group and analyzed.

“Differentiation, not remediation,” was another common element of many schools’ success. According to the report, these schools provided appropriate [differentiated] instruction within every classroom, rather than placing students in programs based on their academic performance. In addition, many schools practiced looping, in which a teacher from one grade follows her students to the subsequent grade. By remaining with her students for a second year, a teacher already knows individual students’ strengths and weaknesses, among other benefits.

Other important practices that were found in schools studied include a strong focus on writing and a reliance on data to make decisions. At Mullica Township Primary School in New Jersey, for example, students begin daily journal writing in kindergarten and are proficient, confident writers by the time they reach third grade. And at “all of the high-performing schools” the authors visited, data from multiple assessments are used to inform every decision.

A final common practice in high-performing schools that the report identified had to do with interventions. Educators in California, Illinois, Florida, New York, and Texas have discovered that, increasingly, what they once considered “interventions” are now in every classroom for every student. “A striking difference between the average-performing and the higher-performing schools with regard to student support is that the higher-performing schools have more systems in place to assist struggling high-achieving students,” the report reads.

“Too many people are focused on what’s not working in public education today,” said Dan Katzir, managing director of The Broad Foundation, which provided some of the funding for the project. “This study will hopefully not only share the best practices of these schools that are improving student achievement but also serve as an example to other schools that academic success is possible for all children.”

More information on the study, including individual state reports, is available at

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