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Excellence in English in Middle and High School:
How Teachers’ Professional Lives Support Student Achievement

Judith A. Langer

ABSTRACT

This study examined the characteristics of teachers' professional lives that accompany student achievement in writing, reading, and English. The study was conducted in the classrooms of 44 middle and high school teachers in four states, in 25 schools and districts that were attempting to improve students' literacy abilities. The sample includes a high representation of schools and districts serving poor and traditionally low performing students and diverse student bodies. In 14 of the schools, students were "beating the odds", performing better than other students in demographically similar areas. In the other schools, administrators and teachers wanted their students to do better, but test scores were more typical of other schools with similar demographics. A five-year study of both the professional and classroom communities sought to identify characteristics in teachers' professional lives that accompanied higher student achievement. Analyses of patterns across cases indicated six features that permeated the "beating the odds" schools, which were not present in the "typical" schools. The effective schools and districts nurtured a climate that (1) orchestrated coordinated efforts to improve student achievement, (2) fostered teacher participation in a variety of professional communities, (3) created structured improvement activities in ways that offered teachers a strong sense of agency, (4) valued commitment to the profession of teaching, (5) engendered a caring attitude to colleagues and students, and (6) fostered a deep respect for lifelong learning. These characteristics were pervasive across levels, in the ways central administrators and classroom teachers lived their professional lives and in the features they considered evidence of professional excellence.

* American Educational Research Journal, 37(2), pp. 397-439, 2000.

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