4 Fixes to Improve Public Education in High Poverty Schools


By Paulie Gavoni, Ed.D

Guest Author

Manny Rodriguez, M.S.

bSci21 Contributing Writer

From time to time we hear and read suggestions that all underperforming schools be shut down and underperforming teachers be fired. Coincidentally, we also have read authors suggesting that “neophyte teachers” need to be “grittier” and essentially refrain from being “quitters.”  We believe demanding accountability (i.e. punishment for not meeting standards) and suggesting teachers show more “grit” will not lead to improved and sustained performance. Grit isn’t something that people are born with, it is essentially self-efficacy (Bandura, 1986), or perseverance that is developed over time through successful experiences and reinforcement.  We don’t believe telling folks to be “grittier” is going to help them to perform any better. Demanding accountability is likely to gain some compliance, but at the expense of teacher retention, innovation, and discretionary effort (Daniels & Daniels, 2007).  The results will be short lived.

For high poverty schools, expecting and holding educators accountable for not showing enough “grit” is a recipe for disaster. We propose four fixes to improve public education in high poverty schools. If nothing else, we hope to stir up conversation about this important battle we face today in our society.

Fix #1 – Reverse Teacher and Leadership Preparation Programs

The reasons for poor school performance are multivariate, and the solutions require more than just incendiary language. Are there a few teachers and leaders who should be “let go”? Probably. However, one issue (a BIG one we think) is too many teachers AND leaders are coming into education unprepared to meet the demands of the school and the classroom, especially in high poverty schools. When students fail, we blame the teacher. When schools fail, we blame the leader.  What about failure of teachers and leaders?  Who is responsible for this?

With some research finding up to 66% of our teachers in some high poverty areas are leaving the field inside of 5 years (Marinell & Coca, 2013), and 50% of principals do not make it past 3 years (Seashore-Louis, et al. 2010), it would be more accurate to say the institution of education is failing them. Too many teacher preparation programs are not preparing teachers for the reality of the classroom; moreover, too many educational leadership development programs are not preparing leaders to meet the needs of teachers so they can effectively foster student achievement. This is important since some research has found that a school leader can have up to a 25% impact on student achievement (Seashore-Louis, et al. 2010). Unfortunately, the responsibility of teacher and leadership development is falling on many districts that do not have the resources or infrastructure to meet the needs of so many unprepared teachers and leaders through their talent development programs.

Before blaming the universities, we should advocate for the use of performance measures to recognize and reinforce colleges that have been effective, complete an analysis to discover the key components related to their success, and then support the unsuccessful colleges with embedding these key components into their program. The goal should be to increase the number of teacher and leadership preparation programs that are successful so that all teachers and leaders are adequately prepared to meet the needs of our children.

Fix #2 – Diversify the Socioeconomic Make-up of Schools

School improvement efforts in high-poverty areas have been woefully unsuccessful. In Sean F. Reardon’s (2015) research article on poverty, he states finding “very clear evidence that one aspect of segregation in particular—the disparity in average school poverty rates between white and black students’ schools—is consistently the single most powerful correlate of achievement gaps.”

Unfortunately, because schools are not properly equipped, it typically takes superhuman effort by superhuman people to move a school in the right direction…and keep it moving. Fortunately, compelling research titled Turnaround Schools That Work: Moving Beyond Separate but Equal, Kahlenberg (2009) provides one viable and simple solution that can immediately and positively impact many schools. Diversify the socioeconomic make-up of schools.

Much like Obi-Wan-Kenobi sensing a disturbance in the force, we sense there will be a collective tightening of sphincters in relation to the last bit of research. While few will admit it, many think “I don’t want those kids in my child’s school.” Well, in the research cited above, you will read evidence of desegregation having only positive effects on students of poverty, and no negative effects on their more affluent counterparts.

Many school districts may not have the ability to diversify the socio-economic makeup of schools because the district is homogenous. However, there are many school districts where more affluent schools are located just across the tracks. One answer here may be busing. If you think busing cost more than teacher attrition (not to mention the immeasurable negative impact on generations of people who receive subpar education), keep reading. We must have vision. Invest now to improve achievement in a way that will save later.

Fix #3 – Treat Schools Equitably, Not Equally.

Listen, we have been to many schools in historically high poverty areas where we have observed students entering without the prerequisites for learning. We’re talking about basic skills like sitting, attending, active listening, following a one-step direction, and more. Because of the demand for immediate student achievement, students are provided important information they are ill-prepared to learn. Schools must be allowed to provide students what they need, as they need it. Students and schools should be treated equitably, not equally.

And this goes for teachers and leaders as well. Teachers and leaders in high-poverty areas must be the cream of the crop. Unfortunately, as the data demonstrates, many high poverty schools are unable to retain them. The revolving door of teacher and leader attrition bankrupts organizational memory, and at the expense of students and tax payers (2.2 billion a year last we heard). We must expand the pool of available teachers and leaders by providing them an incentive…more money. Yes, more money, more money, MORE MONEY! There, we said it.

Beyond the selfless desire to help students in need, there is often little incentive for teachers or leaders to remain in turnaround schools. This is likely the result of these folks burning out as they must put forth the highest degree of effort to manage various challenges, yet they are seldom witness to the desired and sustainable gains they know these students deserve. You can argue the point if you’d like; however, if you do, you likely have spent little to no time in turnaround schools to experience the tremendous pressures placed on teachers and leaders. The data is speaking loudly. In recent research reported by The Washington Post titled “A coming crisis in teaching?” (Sutcher, Darling-Hammond, & Carver-Thomas, 2016), the authors report a shortage of 60,000 teachers across the United States. SIXTY THOUSAND!!! This number is expected to rise to over 100,000 in 2018, with the trend continuing in a bad direction. Education may very well be headed towards a crisis. As such, we must attract and retain teachers and leaders if we are going to avert it. Not tomorrow. Now.

Fix #4 Use a Science-Based Approach to Making a Positive Difference

For those of you who don’t know, there is actually a science that can be applied to improving the performance of individuals, groups, schools, and school districts. It’s a little known science called Organizational Behavior Management, OBM for short. OBM is the science of human behavior, also known as behavior analysis, applied to the workplace. The goal is simple – apply a scientifically-based approach to solving problems, making a positive difference for the betterment of everyone such that the positive outcomes sustain (Rodriguez, Sundberg, and Biagi 2016).

OBM has been applied in educational settings for decades, focusing on improving schools in key areas such as managing effective policies, teacher professional development through behavior skills training, leadership development, instructional coaching, teaching using instructional design principles, student achievement, and disciplinary procedures (Maher, 1981, 1982 and 1984). Schools who are successful have implemented school-wide performance improvement strategies, leveraging a key ingredient – leadership! OBM specializes in the role and responsibilities of leadership behaviors (Gavoni and Rodriguez, 2016). From setting clear expectations, measuring and monitoring performance, coaching and feedback, and providing positive reinforcement to bring out the best in people – OBM develops key skills for leaders to make that positive difference, achieves results, and does so for the long haul.


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Daniels, A.C., and Daniels, J.E. (2007). Measure of a leader: The legendary leadership formula for producing exceptional performers and outstanding results. McGraw-Hill Education.

Gavoni, P. and Rodriguez, M. (2016). Quick Wins! Accelerating School Transformation through Science, Engagement, and Leadership. Melbourne, Florida: ABA Technologies, Inc.

Kahlenberg, R. (2009). Turnaround schools that work. Education Week (32)

Kahlenberg, R. (2009). Can separate be equal? American Prospect, A13–A15.

Maher, C.A. (1981). Improving the delivery of special education and related services in public schools. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 3:1, 29-44.

Maher, C.A. (1982). Performance Feedback to Improve the Planning and Evaluation of Instructional Programs, Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 3:4, 33-40.

Maher, C.A. (1984). Maher, C. A. (1984). Training educational administrators in organizational behavior management: Program description and evaluation. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 6 (1), 79-97.

Marinell, W. H., & Coca, V. M. (2013). Who stays and who leaves? Findings from a three part study of teacher turnover in NYC middle schools. New York: The Research Alliance for NYC Schools.

Marzano, R. J., Waters, T., & McNulty, B. (2005). School leadership that works: From research to results. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Rodriguez, Sundberg, and Biagi (2016). OBM Applied! A Practical Guide to Implementing Organizational Behavior Management. Volumes 1 – 4. Melbourne, Florida: ABA Technologies, Inc.

Seashore-Louis, K., Leithwood, K., Whalstrom, K., Anderson S. (2010). Investigating the Links to improved student learning: Final report of research findings. Wallace Foundation. Available at http://www.wallacefoundation.org/knowledge-center/Documents/Investigating-the-Links-to-Improved-Student-Learning.pdf

Sutcher, L., Darling-Hammond, L., & Carver-Thomas, D. (2016). A coming crisis in teaching? Teacher supply, demand, and shortages in the U.S.. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.


An expert in human performance and organizational leadership, Dr. Paul Gavoni works in education and human services to provide administrative teams, teachers, and staff with coaching and consultation in analyzing and developing behavior and performance management systems to positively impact key performance indicators.  As an Adjunct Professor, Paul is passionate about engaging and empowering his students through the development and application of knowledge. 

Beyond his work in education and human services, Paul is also a highly respected coach in combat sports. In 1992, Paul began boxing in South Florida and went on to win a Florida Golden Gloves Heavyweight Title in 1998. Since then, Coach “Paulie Gloves,” as he is known in the MMA community, has trained many champions and UFC vets using technologies rooted in the behavioral sciences.  A featured coach in the book Beast: Blood, Struggle, and Dreams a the Heart of Mixed Martial Arts, Coach Paulie is also an author who has written for online magazines such as Scifighting, Last Word on Sports, and Bloody Elbow; most recently he has published his own book with Manny Rodriguez titled Quick Wins! Accelerating School Transformation through Science, Engagement, and Leadership.  


Manny Rodriguez, M.S. has over ten years experience, working with organizations across the globe within the Fortune 1000. He is an accomplished practitioner in the field of Behavior Analysis, highly regarded by his customers and colleagues alike. Manny is especially skilled at facilitating business teams to execute strategic plans and preparing leaders to engage employees to reach their maximum potential. Manny holds the position of Director of Continuing Education and Product Development for ABA Technologies, a pioneer in online professional development of behavior analysts, and is also the President of the Organizational Behavior Management Network. You can contact him at [email protected].

Manny Rodriguez and ABA Technologies, Inc provides products and services for Behavior Analysts and the general public. Online Professional Development in ABA, Coaching/Mentoring Behavior Analysts, Speaking engagements such as Workshops/Seminars/Webinars, and Expert Consulting in ABA, OBM, Instructional Design and Teaching Behavior Analysis. For more information, contact [email protected].

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1 Comment on "4 Fixes to Improve Public Education in High Poverty Schools"

  1. Gerard Gaydos PhD, BCBA-D | January 19, 2018 at 1:52 pm | Reply

    People should also look at the wonderful work Zig Englemann and the DI folks were doing 40 years ago, and never really implemented!

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