50 Ways to Close the Achievement Gap


Carolyn J. Downey, Betty E. Steffy, William K. Poston Jr. & Fenwick W. English

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    Creating High Performing Schools: It isn't Just about the Curriculum!

    There is no mystery to developing high-performing schools. The major problem is how educators, schooling critics, and many within the public think about them. The term low-performing schools typically conjures up images of poor teaching; lazy or unmotivated faculty; incompetent administrators; overcrowded classrooms; outdated textbooks; or tragically stupid, hostile, or unmotivated students. A low-performing school is considered “bad,” and the traditional remedies run the gamut from doing more work (“better” planning, staff development, class size reduction, technology, curriculum change, some new off-the-shelf remedy) to doing something different (extending the school day, parent tutors, community involvement, uniforms, block scheduling, peer collaboration) to doing away with them (academic bankruptcy, probation, intervention, takeover, privatization, vouchers, etc.).

    None of these approaches address the true nature of the problem. Instead of jumping to a solution designed to solve the problem of low student performance (low-performing schools), the strategies recommended in these pages begin at the end and work back. The end is how low-performing schools are identified through an evaluation instrument of some sort—usually by one or more tests. Thus, the solution to the problem begins by separating out the evaluation instrument and trying to determine the following:

    • How the instruments in use define learning and teaching, both implicitly and explicitly
    • How the assessment selects exactly which learnings will be measured
    • How measured learnings and sublearnings can be tracked back to specific materials provided to teachers to teach (normally called a curriculum)
    • Which learnings and sublearnings that are included in the curriculum are also included on the test, and which of those learnings are not on the test
    • Which learnings and sublearnings not included in the curriculum are on the test, at least to the point of test mastery (developing a supplementary curriculum)

    In short, it is the test or assessment instrument that defines what performances are to be expected. It is the testing norms that define acceptable levels of performance. These are not established by the curriculum. Curriculum standards are independent of test specifications. In many cases, the curriculum framework is so nebulous that a test actually represents a further delineation of the curriculum instead of a congruent measurement of it. That is why working from an inadequate curriculum framework will not improve test scores unless one is unusually lucky.

    The educator who understands the problem must begin by understanding that a low-performing school has been identified by a test of student learning and that assessment is but a sample of all the learning going on in any school. Understanding the nature of sampling, knowing what and where school learning will be sampled, and ensuring that tested learning will be adequately taught to students represents the means to remove a school from the category of low-performing, and that's all it means. It doesn't necessarily mean that the school suddenly becomes “good.” All it means is that the performance that the test is sampling looks better within the boundaries of the test. There are a lot of good schools whose test scores are low.

    In short, performance is always defined by the instrument measuring and defining it, not by the curriculum that included it or the teacher who taught it. The test is the final arbiter of performance. And we all know that tests aren't perfect. That is why it is even more critical to know something about the dynamics of raising student test scores by starting with the test instead of ending with its administration.

    The bottom line is pretty simple: Don't surprise the kids! Tests that surprise children translate into a measurement of that which they were not taught and did not learn. A second corollary is don't surprise the teachers! Chances are that if teachers are surprised, students will also be surprised. We advocate in this publication the doctrine of no surprises for teachers and children.

    Tests of accountability are not primarily diagnostic. They are designed to establish, or result in the establishment of, a foundation for legal and often-punitive actions on the part of state agencies and authorities against administrators, teachers, students, and certain school communities. These communities are often those most in need of help: children of the poor and of color. The well-documented correlation among socioeconomic status, gender, and race has run through the testing literature for at least 3 decades, and that's no accident. Avoiding serious interrogation of the tests at the end of the sequence simply perpetuates the status quo. In fact, for schools serving the poor, there is no way off the bottom of an imposed bell curve without paying strict attention to the parameters, content, and testing protocols embodied on the instrument that identifies low-performing schools.

    This book is about how to unmask the variables and practices that account for low-performing schools and turn them into high-performing schools. It is about how to put an end to the self-fulfilling and false prophecies that poverty or certain gender and race automatically translate into low test performance. It is about opportunity. It is about equity. It is about fairness. It begins with knowing where to start. Whatever defines performance and the norms regarding low, middle, and high performance, it isn't just the curriculum!


    A book is always a node in a much larger network of people and ideas. This one is no exception. Indeed, 50 Ways began as a conversation around schools in great need of change. Carolyn J. Downey, one of the senior authors, remarked that there were at least “50 ways” to bring about that change. That led to creating some kind of framework in which to position the “50 ways” and to more forms of staff development around them.

    This book is an extension of many of the precepts and standards in the curriculum management audit that was unveiled by Fenwick W. English in 1979 in Columbus, Ohio. From the audit came the Downey “walk-through” model, deep alignment methods, curriculum-driven budgeting, and many more derivations, including “50 ways.”

    We acknowledge the work of many, many colleagues and collaborators over the past 20 years who have contributed to the rich tapestry that is woven throughout this book: Roger Anton, Joe Bazenas, Judy Birmingham, Virginia Boris, Bruce Burpee, Curtis Cain, Laura Canciamilla, Mary Cannie, Charles Chernosky, Elizabeth Clark, Randall Clegg, Laverne Daniels, Patricia Dickson, Robert Douglas, Beverly Freedman, Penny Gray, Audrey Hains, Jan Jacob, Gene Johnson, Holly Jean Kemp, Daniel King, Penny Kowal, David Lutkemeir, Olive McArdle-Kulas, Jackie Mitchell, Margret Montgomery, John Murdoch, Beverly Nichols, Carlos Pagan, Ricki Price-Baugh, Eve Profitt, Cole Pugh, Joanne Rice, Carolyn Ross, John Rouse, James Scott, Josephine Scott, Sue Shidaker, Keven Singer, William Streshly, Rosanne Stripling, Eustace Thompson, Nancy Timmons, Joy Torgerson, Susan Townsend, Jeff Tuneberg, Susan Van Hoozer, John Van Pelt, and Patricia Williams. A special thanks to Holly Kaptain for her suggestions and commentary.

    Finally, we want to pay tribute to two of our original senior cadre who tragically passed on during the culmination of so much of what is contained in these pages: Larry E. Frase and Raymond G. (Jerry) Melton. We miss you guys more than we can express. We are sustained by the many wonderful memories of hard work and good times together all over the world.

    To our readers, we transmit our work and ideas to your minds and hands in the cause of improved public education in America and the world. This book is testimony to the wisdom of the practitioners who toil daily in the vineyards of our schools and classrooms and who have created a kind of gritty common sense and “can-do” outlook that permeates their work and this book. For this gift we are extremely grateful, and we hope that you will find our ideas and advice worthy of your continued dedication and professionalism.

    Carolyn J.Downey, San Diego, CA
    Betty E.Steffy, Chapel Hill, NC
    William K.Poston, Jr., Johnston, IA
    Fenwick W.English, Chapel Hill, NC

    About the Authors

    Carolyn J. Downey is president of Palo Verde Associates, an educational consultant firm. She is also Professor Emeritus in the Educational Leadership Department, College of Education, at San Diego State University. She formerly was the Superintendent for the Kyrene School District, Tempe, Arizona, and served over 30 years as an administrator in K–12 systems. Dr. Downey has written several books and numerous articles. Her book and multimedia kit—The Three-Minute Classroom Walk-Through, by Corwin Press—is a bestseller. Dr. Downey has conducted many curriculum management audits of school systems and was the major architect of the Curriculum Management Systems, Inc.'s Individual School Audit for Low-Performing Schools. Dr. Downey is an international consultant in several areas, including quality leadership, systems thinking, organizational development and motivation, planning and the change process, working with low-performing schools and districts, instructional supervision, curriculum development, staff development, program evaluation, site-based management, and program budgeting. She received her MS from the University of Southern California and her PhD from Arizona State University.

    Betty E. Steffy is a former superintendent of schools in New Jersey and Dean of the College of Education at a regional campus of Purdue University in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She has been a classroom teacher and director of curriculum in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, area and an assistant superintendent in the Lynbrook Public Schools, Long Island, New York. Prior to Dr. Steffy's transition to higher education she served as the Deputy Superintendent of Instruction in the Kentucky Department of Education, after which she wrote the definitive history of that period in a book entitled The Kentucky Education Reform Act: Lessons for America. She is also the originator of the concept of career stages for classroom teachers, which became a touchstone of national work and publications for Kappa Delta Pi, 1997–2006. She is known nationally for being a coauthor of the Corwin Press bestseller The Three-Minute Classroom Walk-Through. She earned her BA, MAT, and EdD from the University of Pittsburgh.

    William K. Poston, Jr., is a professor emeritus of educational leadership at Iowa State University, where he taught courses in leadership and business practices for school administrators. He is nationally known for his work in curriculum-centered budgeting and for leading more than 70 curriculum audits in the United States and internationally. Dr. Poston served as a superintendent of schools for 15 years in Arizona and Montana, and he holds the record for being the youngest elected president of Phi Delta Kappa in its history. He is the author or coauthor of several books on curriculum auditing and school board governance and more than 30 journal articles. He has presented symposium papers to the University Council for Educational Administration in the areas of accountability and financial management practices, and for many years he was the director of the Iowa School Business Academy. He continues to be active nationally in Phi Delta Kappa and to serve as a consultant to major U.S. school systems. He earned his BA from the University of Northern Iowa and his EdD from Arizona State University.

    Fenwick W. English is the R. Wendell Eaves Senior Distinguished Professor of Educational Leadership in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has been both a practitioner and a professor and has served in leadership positions in K–12 education and higher education since 1961. He is the author or coauthor of more than 25 books in education, including the 2008 The Art of Educational Leadership: Balancing Performance and Accountability released by Sage and the 2008 Anatomy of Professional Practice: Promising Research Perspectives on Educational Leadership released by Rowman and Littlefield. Dr. English has been a member of the University Council for Educational Administration Executive Committee since 2001 and was elected President of the University Council for Educational Administration for 2006–2007. He earned his BS and MS from the University of Southern California and his PhD from Arizona State University.

  • Summary

    It is important to realize that no one strategy is going to make a difference to your schools: Only the integration of the standards and the strategies over time will bring progress. This is illustrated as follows:

    Summary Figure 1 Six Standards and 50 Strategies

    We encourage you to assess your system, whether as a district or a school, on the ideas presented in this book. You can conduct a gap analysis as to where you are and where you could be regarding the 50 strategies. Directly following this page is a comprehensive list of all six standards and their components.

    We believe it is surely time for all schools to be high-performing institutions, no matter whose measures are used. Once this occurs, we can extend our curriculum further to include even more meaningful learnings so that students will not only function but also thrive in the twenty-first century.


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