Because a majority of Kansas's high-poverty public schools are failing to meet standards in reading and mathematics as diagnosed through the state's reading and mathematics assessments; and because these assessments are used to measure Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) to determine whether a school is placed on warning or improvement and influences accreditation by the Kansas State Department of Education, the purpose of this qualitative research project was to investigate how teachers' perceptions and behaviors influence student performance. The research addressed the specific needs of students and teacher efficacy in two high-achieving, high-poverty rural Kansas elementary schools.
Criterion sampling or predetermined criterion sampling was used to select the participating schools. In order to be eligible to participate in the study, the elementary school had to have a student population of at least 100 students with 70% or more participating in the free and reduced lunch program and had to have achieved the Building Standard of Excellence in reading and mathematics for two consecutive years. Only three schools in the state of Kansas met the criterion; however, one school was unable to participate due to internal conflicts.
Qualitative methods were used during a four-phase research design: (a) informal, conversational interviews with two school superintendents, two building principals, and six classroom teachers; (b) formal, standardized, open-ended interviews with two school superintendents, two building principals, and six classroom teachers; (c) classroom observations of six classroom teachers; and (d) document collection from two school districts. Participants also completed a background questionnaire. Teachers and administrators were interviewed with preset questions, which focused on answering seven research questions: (1) How do teachers perceive high-poverty students? (2) What are the perceptions of teachers concerning their attitudes toward and expectations of high-poverty students? (3) Do teachers defend their students' rights to learn and serve as advocates for their students living in poverty? If so, in what ways do they protect and advocate? (4) To maintain a positive attitude toward their colleagues and students, how do teachers cope with the bureaucracy of the system? (5) Do teachers working in high-poverty schools view themselves as role models and mentors for students in poverty? If so, in what ways do they model and mentor? (6) Do teachers in high-poverty schools implement strategies in their classrooms to provide the tools and environment to improve student achievement? If so, what strategies do they implement? (7) What role do teachers feel their administrators play in their efforts to improve student achievement? For purposes of analysis and organization, the research questions were divided into two categories: perceptions and behaviors.
In answering the research questions, the study revealed three major themes related to the influence on achievement in high-achieving, high-poverty schools: (1) system design promotes success, (2) leadership style promotes success, (3) teachers' perceptions and behaviors promote success. The core of the schools' success rested with the teachers' positive perceptions of and behaviors toward their students. Underpinning the efforts of the teachers was administrative support and a system design organized to enhance not hinder the learning process. Although the initial intent of the study was to examine teachers' perceptions and behaviors, system design and leadership style were important to answering the questions because both fed teachers' behaviors and perceptions.
With identification of teachers' perceptions and behaviors in these two rural Kansas elementary schools, specific recommendations are provided for research, policy, and practice, which may be transferable to other high-poverty, rural, elementary schools serving students living in poverty. Further research is recommended to distinguish differences in the types of poverty as well as comparisons between low- and high-achieving schools. Policy makers should consider revision of NCLB mandates to include less testing and more assistance. Practicing educators should foster a system of cooperation and cultivate leadership.