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Overarching Characteristics of
America's Best Urban Schools



In the schools we studied, the adults (administrators, teachers, support staff) were eager to come to school to work, learn, and grow because they believed they were part of a team that was making an increasingly powerful difference in the lives of their students. Students wanted to come to school and learn because the adults convinced them that the entire school community was committed to their success.

These vibrant, energized school cultures emerged over time as administrators, teachers, support staff, and families came to believe in the capacity of their students to achieve at high levels and in their own collective capacity to achieve life-changing outcomes for the students they served. However, these beliefs did not happen by chance. Rather, school leaders purposefully designed their schools to support teachers and students in ways that led to them to believe in themselves and each other, to take risks, to be willing to change, and to keep going despite setbacks and challenges. In these urban schools, where all demographic groups of students were achieving at or above the proficiency levels of all students in their state, we found what that a positive, transformational school culture was providing the foundation for excellent and equitable learning outcomes.

We define the culture as positive because in each of these high-performing schools we found strong, healthy learning environments where administrators, teachers, staff members, and families treated one another as valued partners in the education of their students. Trust and mutual respect were evident in the relationships between and among all school personnel. Students perceived that the adults in the school knew them well and were committed to their success in school and beyond. They felt appreciated, cared for, and loved.

Many schools across the county can boast strong, positive relationships between and among all stakeholders. However, in the very successful urban schools, NCUST has awarded, the adults in the school also shared a deep commitment to ensuring that each and every student excelled. This commitment resulted in administrators, teachers, and staff investing the necessary energy to pursue curricular and instructional change. When student performance data and other indicators suggested that some students were not thriving, the educators in these urban schools felt compelled to rethink and reshape what they were doing to better meet the needs of all of the students they served. And, while they recognized the tremendous barriers they faced related to poverty, family traumas, racial issues, neighborhood violence, and a multitude of other concerns, educators continued to assume that they could transform their schools into places where all students could excel.

”School culture grows out of the “norms, values, beliefs, traditions, and rituals that have built up over time as people work together, solve problems and confront challenges,” and it shapes “how people think, feel, and act in schools.”
Peterson & Deal, 1998, 28



As teachers endeavored to create effective lessons, we saw them establishing stimulating learning environments that engaged students through discussions, debates, expeditions, experiments, movement, music, mobile technology, and dramatizations. We found minimal reliance on textbooks and even fewer uses of worksheets. Instead, teachers designed excursions, projects, data hunts, and other engaging learning opportunities that were likely to result in students’ mastery of the desired content. We heard students’ voices more often than teachers’ voices. Teachers were constantly checking to determine what students understood or misunderstood. Teachers were continually challenging themselves to design lessons that students were likely to perceive as interesting, engaging, and exciting.

Providing effective, engaging instruction for diverse populations of students is not the tradition of public schools and is especially not the tradition of urban public schools. In contrast, traditional instruction in the United States could be characterized as teachers presenting information and students listening quietly. Many school leaders tend to perceive adults who present academic content accurately as effective teachers; however, if we measure effectiveness by the extent to which students engage in and master the content taught, some accurate presenters of academic content may not be effective at all.

Traditionally, when teachers have provided accurate presentations of information and their students have not demonstrated mastery, we have blamed the students for not listening, not studying, or not caring. We have blamed parents for not reinforcing the importance of learning, or for not helping their child (or making their child) learn. We have blamed poverty, society, and government. We have blamed teachers who taught earlier grades or different academic subjects. These heaps of blame have failed to generate improved learning results for diverse populations of students. In contrast, in the high-performing urban schools studied, we saw educators who faced all of the challenges associated with educating low-income, diverse populations of students. Instead of responding with blame, they faced these challenges with a set of instructional practices designed to engage students and lead them to master challenging academic content.

In the high-achieving schools we have studied, effective instruction, while varied and driven by context, included eight common teaching practices. While each of these teaching practices contributed to engaging, effective instruction, we noted that the focus on mastery was central to teaching efforts. Similarly, we found that all of the practices were grounded in efforts to lead all students to feel valued and capable.

Teachers were constantly checking to determine what students understood or misunderstood. Teachers were continually challenging themselves to design lessons that students were likely to perceive as interesting, engaging, and exciting.



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.

Educators in the high-performing schools provided all students access to challenging curricula, not just those deemed academically talented or gifted.
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