Why We Cannot Wait to Improve Underperforming Schools

Improving Underperforming Schools

If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day.  Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.  I guess a lot of the adages’ efficacy depends on how you’re taught to fish.  Perhaps you had a lousy teach like me, who felt the best way to fish was by chumming the water and wrestling the big game into submission.  Sure, the adventure was nice, but not really an efficient way to get fed for a lifetime.   

But is education really about catching fish?  Well, adages aside, there is substantive research supporting the idea that education has a lasting impact on students’ financial well-being. One study found that “replacing a teacher [who is ranked] in the bottom five percent with an average teacher would increase students’ lifetime incomes by more than $1.4 million.”[1] Education is about more than dollars and cents, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone that would turn down a million dollars. 

Unfortunately, there are children all across America attending schools that, to keep with the metaphor, think novice shark-wrestling is an effective pedagogical practice. These schools will have multi-generational impacts on the lives of the communities they serve. There are many reasons why bad schools exist. Articles, books, and entire news cycles have been produced on the national teacher shortage, funding, antiquated policies, the private/public/charter debate, etc. discussing these various “causes” will go ad infinitum.  

But what can be done now?  

Well, lots of things can, and are being done.  In late 2018, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos approved Florida’s ESSA plan, which meant that every state had an approved plan for how they were going to ensure equitable educational opportunities would be available to all students.  Policy initiatives are great solutions and show that change is heading in the right direction.   

But there are even more immediate and powerful solutions.  Instructional support from mentors, coaches, administrators, and colleagues has been proven to have a real impact on the effectiveness of low-performing teachers. Teachers are often left alone in their classroom, with sporadic contact with administrators or instructional leaders. While we might have an understanding of what good teaching is, it is another thing to put that in practice. In-the-moment coaching goes a long way to helping teachers refine their skills in the context of their own students.  

In addition, teams of teachers can amplify their impact by working together to ensure all students’ learning needs are met.  Commonly known as Professional Learning Communities (or PLCs) these teams help teachers think through some of their most immediate decisions and gain insight from trusted colleagues with similar experiences.  With the right supports in place, every teacher can improve student outcomes. 

Instructional support—like coaching—and collaborative team settings—like PLCs—are proven to increase the likelihood that good teaching happens in the classroom.  So instead of finding a new fishing instructor, with a bigger boat, or a better chum mix, make sure the they receive regular coaching or are part of a team of fisherman that are familiar with the waters.  All students deserve better than submission wrestling in chummed waters.  

[1] Chetty, Raj, John N. Friedman and Jonah E. Rockoff. V. 12, No. 3 (2012). Great Teaching. Measuring its effect on students’ future earnings. Education Next, 12(3)


Mavis Snelson

Mavis Snelson is a Senior Improvement Coach at Education Direction, where she works with teachers and school leaders in schools across the country. Before joining Ed Direction, Mavis was a middle school teacher, first in South Texas and then in Hong Kong S.A.R., China. Specializing in curriculum development, she designed and taught courses ranging from pre‐AP math to Critical English Skills. Mavis is certified to teach all subjects for grades 4‐8, as well as Mathematics for grades 8‐12. She has experience with students who are learning English, as well as those identified as Gifted & Talented. Make no mistake – even though she’s taught a variety of subjects, she’s definitely a math nerd at heart. Mavis was also a 2011 Teach for America Corps Member and served in the Pennsylvania Mountain Service Corps, an Americorps program serving rural Western Pennsylvania. She earned her master’s in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where her focus was Education Policy and Management. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in Urban Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. Mavis grew up in Southwestern Pennsylvania, in a town of less than 200 people. She likes to ski (in the winter) and hike (in the summer), and travels whenever she can!

Luis Cantu

Luis Cantu is an Improvement Coach with Ed Direction. Prior to joining Ed Direction, Luis worked at IDEA Public Schools in Austin, where he led the professional development and coaching of their new Assistant Principals of Instruction. In 2007, Luis began his career in education as a 9th grade World Geography high school teacher in a border town in South Texas. Since his transition out of the classroom to Instructional Coaching in 2012, Luis has partnered with approximately 100 teachers and over 30 school leaders. Luis grew up in South Texas speaking Spanish as his first language and graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor’s degree in History. Get to know more about Luis by asking him about his passion for grilling BBQ and his silly cat El Tigre.


William Evans

Prior to joining Ed Direction, William was an educator and administrator in charter and private schools. He has experience with organizational management and improving educational opportunities for underserved populations. William graduated with his Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Brigham Young University. Shortly thereafter he earned his Master of Arts in English Literature from Creighton University. He worked with the Creighton University’s Strategic Planning Committee and developed an interest in school policies and procedures. He went on to earn an Interdisciplinary Doctorate of Education in Leadership from Creighton University.