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In Brooklyn, the Secret to Improving Student Achievement




Recently the New York Times profiled Jack Spatola, the principal at P.S. 172 in Brooklyn.  Among many exceptional characteristics, one notes immediately Mr. Spatola’s longevity in his post: 31 years.  Most students in the early days were Puerto Rican.  Today, most are from Mexico or Latin America.  As an immigrant from Italy himself, he can relate to his second culture students.  He is the CEO of a school where 85% of the students come from families of such limited resources that they qualify for the government lunch program.  The opportunity gap is vast.

And yet ….. the school is wildly successful.  Academic results are robust despite the general poverty of the student body.  How does his school beat the odds when “the numbers” show that poverty is the greatest predictor of academic failure?

Of course, this is the question.  First, analyze Mr. Spatola’s formula.  Then replicate for guaranteed success.  Some of the hallmarks of his administration include shrewd investments, willingness to disrupt the status quo, relentless self-assessment and a hand-crafted curriculum, grade by grade.

Highly effective principals improve student performance in their schools by between two and seven months of learning in a single school year.  These impacts are somewhat smaller than those associated with having a highly effective teacher. But teachers have a direct impact on only those students in their classroom.  High quality principals effect all students in a school.

There is also an interesting socio-economic multiplier effect.  Positive impact associated with being taught by a highly effective educator are stronger for poor and minority students than for their white and affluent counterparts. Low-income students are more likely to benefit from instruction by a highly effective teacher than are their more advantaged peers.  Could it be that the underprivileged students at P.S. 172 are enjoying exceptionally abundant benefits, thanks to the stellar efforts of a skilled administrator?

In addition, the positive effects of teacher quality appears to accumulate over the years. That is, students who are enrolled in a succession of classes taught by effective teachers demonstrate greater learning gains than do students who have the least effective teachers, one after another.  Could we say the same about the positive impact, over 31 years, of a highly capable principal?  Having a top notch principal, over the years, can improve student learning.

Beyond the analysis, this is a story about inspired leadership, tenacity and creativity.  School can “work,” despite the odds.  As Mr. Spatola is fond of remarking, “Potential is unknowable and presumably limitless.”

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