School Reform: Yup, Some Regular Every Day Schools Are Doing It

Summary: One low income school stages a dramatic turnaround. How it was done maps out a route that other reformed schools have followed, yet poses dilemmas for the choice makers.

The Seattle area’s White Center Heights Elementary prior to the 2012-13 school year displayed an all too familiar and troubled profile of low income schools, America. Eighty-eight percent of students qualified for free or reduced lunch. Sixty percent lived within immigrant families, and spoke a language other than English with their parents. At the beginning of the school year in fall, 2012, two thirds of students in third through sixth grade could not read at grade level.

Mind you, in my experience poor immigrant families often differ from those families who have endured poverty chronically over generations in this country. Often children of immigrant parents still respond to the myth of America as a land of opportunity, which gets reflected in their attention to business, by contrast to the defeatism that can revolve around some poverty born on this shore.

But. The challenges of White Center Heights have been quite real; the statistics cited do not lie.

So imagine the jubilation when the 2012-13 standardized test results showed up just before school this fall, with a stunning message. White Center Height’s kids had raised their average test scores in both reading and writing by double digits, and were one of only two schools in the top ten in the state on this measure in both skill areas. I am not clear where the improvement sits on the scale score of the tests themselves or as a percentage improvement, and one can remark (snarkily) that the previous scores were so low as to amplify otherwise objectively modest results. But, hey, progress is progress and there seems little dispute that is what White Center Heights has created.

How? In one year how, when the solutions du jour are the importing of bright young type A’s (Teach for America), or the absence in the classroom of hard core unmotivated (see charter schools), or the arrival of a truckload of money – none of which appears to have been the case here? Well, maybe some money, but a relatively modest amount, apparently a one shot injection. But the kids are the same kids; the staff for the most part is the same as in the previous school year.

The tale is told in “Teachers Jump-Start Turnaround at White Center Heights Elementary,” by Claudia Rowe, an inaugural piece in the Seattle Times year-long series on education, Education Lab. The article is a snapshot of ingredients evident in many such (still isolated) success stories, and an opportunity to mull some intriguing and instructive choices that face change makers.

The turnaround began with leadership and the pivotal role of principal, with a new, highly trained, and experienced incumbent, Anne Reece.

But before that, the first move came from Reece’s superior, Highline Schools superintendent Susan Enfield, who gave the portfolio to reverse White Center’s dismal test scores to Reece, and then backed way off. “Carte blanche”, as reported by Rowe. No bureaucratic encumbrance is the first lesson. Reece was free to be Reece, to utilize her experience and expertise to rise or to fall with the buck in her office. Hire good people to manage the ground floor and get out of their way.

The statement of faith in Reece, though occasionally marred by micro management from the district level, seems to have been passed on via Reece to the teaching ranks. In the research high expectations of students is one marker of turnaround. And in fact Reece is quoted as saying “the potential of these kids was way higher than the data showed…”

But the other element commented on too little may be high expectations of and faith in teachers. Again, Reece: “the teachers…were smart, capable people, but they’d lost faith in their ability to teach.” Compare this message with much of what teachers read about their failure as a profession, and what teachers too often experience as an uphill battle against school hierarchies that do not heed the expertise below.

In fact, while the importance of school principal leadership has been pretty well established, the urgency of empowering the teaching staff has been less well spotlighted. This principal appears to have managed both.

Note that the teachers chose to follow, which in itself confirms the leadership.

To the mix of leadership, autonomy in the school, and faith in students and teachers we now add research based expertise, as culled from Alicia Reece’s doctorate in literacy education.

Pivotally, Reece taught her staff to “dig deeply into the data,” a mantra that seems to characterize high poverty schools who engineer a turnaround in test scores. Briefly, it prescribes a close look at diagnostic testing that in turn tells the teacher what skills or sub-skills individual students need to work on in order to improve. In the hands of the charter Rocketship, for example, some of those individual needs are addressed through computerized instruction.

In addition, Reece guided her teachers through techniques which deepened students’ understanding of the reading material, and broadened their vocabulary. For example, students were asked more consistently to reflect on their reading and talk about it in small groups, a method called “elaborated talk” in pedagogy speak. The work incorporates but goes well beyond the simple decoding of words and the encoding of sounds.

Moreover, when a student expresses her thinking, it is possible for a teacher to interrupt a misconception that would serve as a faulty building block of later knowledge if not corrected. I am reminded of a former tutee, bright and eager enough but quiet, who had concocted in private a remarkable technique for multiple digit multiplication that could only be described as creative. Her mind was consummately engaged, but in the wrong direction.

Notice the use of “small groups”; these are small groups often of similar skill grouping, which appear to be used extensively at White Center Heights in both reading and math. The dogma, and considerable research, tells us that those students chronically inhabiting the low end skill groups develop educational self-esteem issues that haunt them for life. Special education grouping, for example, too often turns into dispirited struggles between teacher and student, with potential learning falling through the cracks between. The research reports further that lower skilled students tend to do better in groups which include higher skilled students, which may dilute the self-perception of “dumb” or “slow.”

So why have White Center Heights kids apparently responded more positively to homogeneous grouping?

In practice, teachers faced with heterogeneous groupings tend to aim at the low middle of the class skills, which in Reece’s view meant that the whole range of the school’s test scores lowered. In homogeneous grouping, by contrast, at least in theory the teacher can zero in better on specific skills sets that that group of kids needs to master in order to move to the next level.

With regular diagnostic testing that moved kids around from level of group to level of group on a timeline that didn’t allow stigma to sink in, “skills gaps narrowed enough that the third grade has been able to abandon low-track math.” The small groups might just work, that is, if predicated on successful remediation of skill deficits relatively quickly and bringing struggling kids more into the mainstream before they notice, and doing so in an environment where group composition changes frequently. Robert Slavin of Johns Hopkins writing in a blog associated with Education Lab argues that the speed of the changes is the thing; further, kids who continue to struggle at a low level may respond to one to one tutoring while remaining in the mainstream otherwise.

Anne Reece challenged the orthodoxy because she and her teachers perceived a critical need to instruct in small groups, and in the short run perhaps has learned that orthodoxy is not quite the monolith it has seemed. Such is the strength of experiment, and the willingness to follow one’s instincts without the need to get permission up channel. In fact, turnaround schools in general are commonly characterized by ample experimentation, and then a focus on what has worked in that setting. Be nimble, be quick.

Still, a tricky dance.

There is a notable downside seen in schools that have managed turnarounds. Typically subjects ancillary to the hard core learning of reading, writing and math get short shrift, and reportedly White Center Heights is no different. With more time devoted to the core (and tested) skills, disciplines such as art, music, social studies and physical education get less attention. In counter, proponents of the arts cite studies showing that reading and math improve with exposure to those subjects. In the latest Harvard Education Letter Lisa Rosenthal cites a study in the Journal of Pediatrics that finds better fitness linked to higher scores on state tests in reading and math. Which area of study packs the most bang for time spent is the question without clear answer.

However, art, music, social studies and PE have had a run without obviously turning skill levels around. For now, it seems clear we pay keen attention to how the school day gets restructured around close focus on specific skills improvement, and leave advocates of other subjects to make the case that the road lies better there.

Meanwhile we are obligated to track progress well beyond the initial year of success, though Rowe notes that White Center Heights shares much similarity in approach with other low income schools that have engineered turnarounds and subsequently have sustained them. The deep dive into individual diagnostic data is perhaps the most fundamental of those approaches.

If I were the parent of a kid with low skills, I’d vote with the innovations promoted in schools such as White Center Heights that seem the best hope to bring my kid into the economic mainstream with viable skill levels, and thank my lucky stars that we have landed in such a promising school community while others of my acquaintance have not.

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