Educators in the high-performing urban schools worked to ensure that all demographic groups of students had quality opportunities to master key concepts. Access to challenging curricula profoundly influenced the achievement of excellent and equitable learning results. Students from all demographic groups learned more rigorous academic content, in large part, because they were taught more rigorous content.

To address more rigorous academic standards, teachers in many high-performing urban schools paid close attention to the verb that defined what students were expected to master. When the standard specified that students should be able to estimate, teachers planned lessons that required students to demonstrate their ability to estimate well. Teachers did not reduce the level of rigor implied by the standard. If the standard indicated that students should be able to make appropriate inferences, they did not allow students simply to recall information. This focus on the rigor of standards was made easier because educators were attending to fewer standards than they had addressed in prior years.

Contrary to popular myths, students in high-performing urban schools had access to rich curricula that included science,
the arts, technology, physical education, world languages, and other topics beyond the focus of most state testing programs. High achievement on standardized tests was not a result of narrow attention to mathematics and reading. Elementary, middle, and high schools offered exciting programs that allowed students to explore and develop their interests and abilities. Many of the high-performing urban schools featured programs that helped students develop second languages, perform Shakespearean plays, learn computer coding, develop television productions, and engage in other learning tasks that made school exciting, interesting and fun.

Educators in the high-performing schools provided all students access to challenging curricula, not just those deemed academically talented or gifted. Students who struggled with a particular objective because of a lack of grade-level reading ability, challenges at home, or a disability were generally expected to master the same curricular goals as did other students. For English learners, whether instruction was provided in the students’ native language or in English, the learning goal was generally the same as the goal for students whose first language was English. Teachers might have used different strategies, more examples, more personalized assistance, additional uses of technology, etc., but the typical aim was to get all students to master the same challenging academic goals.

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