When a large high school district experiences a 25 percent increase in the number of its students living in poverty yet demonstrates consistent academic gains, that district is clearly doing something right.
Such is the case with the Whittier Union High School District in Southern California, a majority-minority district of 14,000 students that includes five traditional high schools and two alternative high school settings. From 2002 to 2007, the percentage of economically disadvantaged students in the district rose from 28 to 53 percent. Yet in the same period, students showed achievement gains across all measures: graduation and college eligibility rates, percentage of students passing the California High School Exit Exam, and percentage of schools achieving adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind. "Whatever It Takes—Staying the Course" was the school district's motto for the 2007–08 school year. Yet laying out that course involved questioning the status quo for high schools and implementing creative reforms. As an education researcher, I observed those reforms in action.
Key Districtwide Reforms
Nurturing Professional Learning Communities
Whittier Union is committed to the tenets of professional learning communities, as defined by Richard DuFour and Robert Eaker in Professional Learning Communities (1998) and exemplified in
Whatever It Takes (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Karhanek, 2004). Since 2003, the district has funded annual visits to Stevenson High School in Illinois, enabling several dozen Whittier teachers and administrators to see learning communities established by DuFour and Eaker in action. Gayle Karhanek, former assistant principal of guidance at Stevenson, has trained school leadership teams and remains an ongoing resource.
As part of this commitment to professional learning communities, Superintendent Sandy Thorstenson identifies three, and only three, expectations for all Whittier schools: (1) every school will implement certain assessments common to the district and to each school site, (2) every school will provide and protect time for teacher collaboration, and (3) every school will implement academic interventions within the daily schedule.
Implementing Common Assessments
Schools administer districtwide assessments in the four core subjects—mathematics, science, social science, and English—four times a year, as well as four additional, school-level common assessments, for a total of eight tests in each course. All assessments are teacher developed and are reviewed annually. Teachers receive release time to revise assessments when issues or problems are identified.
Teachers access individual and class results online through a data management system called Educators Assessment and Data Management System and mine that data in their collaborations.
Supporting Teamwork and Collaboration
In addition to providing time, the district supports teacher collaboration by consciously distributing leadership, a concept developed by Northwestern University professor James P. Spillane. The result is "leadership by the many, not the few" (Spillane, 2006, p. 4). At each site, principals identify teachers to fill a variety of leadership roles, including course leads—teachers who accept responsibility for coordinating instruction of an individual course, such as U.S. history, and facilitating collaboration among instructors who teach that course. Course leads help develop curriculum pacing charts and represent their peers in sharing best practices at district meetings.
A significant amount of teacher collaboration time at all sites focuses on the results of the common assessments. Led by trained department chairs and course leads, teachers use a post-assessment protocol that consists of three parts: reviewing the standards and content measured, analyzing data and student performance, and discussing implications for teaching and learning. This work is guided by department chairs. The district supports additional teacher leadership roles at each school—including site level curriculum specialists, intervention specialists, and data specialists—by providing stipends and, in some instances, release time.
How It Works at Whittier High
To get a clearer picture of how these districtwide initiatives work in the field, I focused my research on Whittier High School. During a 10-week period, I interviewed 15 Whittier High School educators and 5 district leaders, and I sat in on many site and district meetings to observe how Whittier has reconstructed the high school experience for both teachers and students.
This 108-year-old institution (the alma mater of President Richard Nixon) faces some of the greatest demographic challenges in the district, yet it has shown the largest academic gains. Of the school's 2,500 students, 80 percent are Hispanic, 67 percent are economically disadvantaged, and 13 percent are English language learners. Yet from 2004 to 2006, test scores increased, the percentage of Ds and Fs decreased, and more students got on track to graduate than at any other time in the school's recent history. Whittier High's success challenges the assumption that class and ethnicity are inescapable predictors of academic success.
Principal Loring Davies is in his fifth year at Whittier High. In discussing the gains in student achievement, Davies is quick to credit district support, the focus on professional learning communities, and the latitude given each school. He asserts, "I do know one thing; none of it has come from me … teachers are making it happen."
At least 24 teachers act in designated leadership roles at Whittier High. The reforms these leaders have enacted illustrate their willingness to try "whatever it takes" to affect student success.
The "Teacher Swap"
Of all the reforms at Whittier High, none is as startling as the "teacher swap." Explained simply, teachers move students who are earning a D or lower at the end of a grading period into the class of a different teacher who is teaching the same course during the same period.
Juan Anzaldo initiated this innovation in the science department in the 2005–06 school year. His rationale was that a change in environment or the chance to build a relationship with a different teacher might contribute to student success.
Anzaldo charted the progress of approximately 190 Whittier High students who received a D or
F in biology at the end of the first semester of 2004–05, before instituting the swap system. He compared these students' achievement with the progress of a similar number of students who received a
D or F in their first semester of Biology and then swapped teachers. Average grades for both groups improved, but whereas the first group's average gain was a half a grade (such as from a D to a D+), the students who changed teachers midyear showed an average gain of a full letter grade (such as from a D to a C). The teacher swap system soon spread to the mathematics department at Whittier High and to science departments across the district.
In accordance with district expectations, Whittier High builds academic interventions called tutorials into the school day. These tutorials occur three times each day. The school initiated a block schedule two years ago with a 20-minute tutorial built into the end of each two-hour instructional block. Students who are earning at least a C in the course and are caught up with homework may leave the class during these 20 minutes to socialize, begin lunch, or go home if this is their last class. Students behind in homework, earning less than a C, or otherwise not making satisfactory progress must remain to receive targeted instruction or complete homework. Tutorials begin in the fifth week of each semester, giving teachers time to assess student progress.
The teacher always determines the best way to use the tutorial time, such as with targeted instruction, individual assistance, or a cleared space to do homework. With tutorials in place, even the least motivated student can't avoid learning. It's much harder to fail passively simply by not showing up or avoiding difficult work. Ivana Orloff, English department chair for grades 9 and 10 and course lead for English Language Arts Standards Review, notes that when she relied on voluntary tutorials, few students showed up: "In my first year, before the built-in tutorials, many of my students were failing. They had to go home [after school] and babysit or attend to other duties."
I accompanied Assistant Principal Lori Eshilian during her supervision of the first tutorial of the year at Whittier High last October. At the end of the first two-hour block of the day, dozens of students emerged from every building to meet up with friends, write a text message or two, or visit the restroom. Eshilian greeted students in a friendly manner and reminded a few to pull down the hoods of their sweatshirts in accordance with the dress code; that was the extent of student misbehavior.
Another Whittier District high school, Pioneer High, adopted the Whittier High School tutorial schedule last fall. Comparing 2006 and 2007 data, Pioneer Principal Alex Flores reported an overall decrease in the percentage of F grades (from 17.1 to 9.6 percent) at the midquarter assessment period. Flores explains:
The tutorial is the structure that many kids lack. There's peer pressure: "Why didn't you come out?" "I had to do my work." It's made a C more relevant.
Retesting Without Penalty
Many Whittier High teachers allow students to retake a revised version of any test without penalty. As Dan Esquerra, mathematics chair and course lead for Algebra I, explains, if standards-based learning is what's most important, why not let students keep trying until they have learned the material? After all, lawyers can retake the bar, high school seniors can retake the SAT, and teachers can retake the California Subject Exams required for a teaching credential.
Juan Anzaldo, science chair, agrees:
We shouldn't be as concerned with when they learn it, as long as they do learn it. … Some complex topics just take that much longer to fully grasp.
The "Minimum 50 Percent" Policy
Innovative ideas about grades, what they represent, and whether they should be configured differently are definitely on the table in Whittier. The mathematics, science, and English departments at Whittier High School—and many individual teachers throughout the district—have adopted a "minimum 50 percent" grading policy. The "50 percent F" eliminates the zero: Every piece of student work receives a score of at least 50 percent toward the student's overall class grade, even if it is graded F.
In Esquerra's words, a minimum score of 50 percent "keeps hope alive," thereby increasing motivation and the opportunity to learn. Although educators debate how much grades affect student motivation, it seems clear that little incentive exists for a student who has no chance of passing a course because he or she received one or more failing grades in the first quarter. This "minimum F" policy also addresses the inequity built into the conventional 100-point grading system as explained by Doug Reeves (2004).
No Sacrifice of Rigor
These innovations at Whittier High School have not come at the price of rigor. On the contrary, from 2004 to 2007, the period when the school implemented these reforms, Whittier's Academic Performance Index scores increased from 612 to 714.1
The school's graduation rate is now 97.5 percent, compared to 83.3 percent statewide; and in 2007, 30.1 percent of the seniors completed all courses required to enter the University of California. Every freshman takes Algebra I or a higher-level math course, and enrollment in Algebra II was at an all-time high in 2006–07. The percentage of Whittier High students scoring as proficient or advanced on the California Standards Test in Algebra II exceeded state, county, and district averages. In addition, all freshmen take biology; California Standards Test science scores have continued to rise, and 85 percent of all students take three years of science during high school.
The Whittier Union district's success has not gone unnoticed. District and school staff members present frequently at education conferences. For example, in May 2007, Whittier superintendent Sandy Thorstenson participated as an invited speaker in a national forum on school reform in Washington, D.C. Most telling, the district receives continual requests by educators from across California to tour district school sites. There's still a lot to be learned from what's working at Whittier.
DuFour, R., & Eaker, R. (1998). Professional learning communities. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., & Karhanek, G. (2004). Whatever it takes: How professional learning communities respond when kids don't learn. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
Reeves, D. (2004). The case against the zero. Phi Delta Kappan, 86(4), 324–325.
Spillane, J. (2006). Distributed leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Each California school's Academic Performance Index score is based on the school's annual California Standards Test results in language arts, mathematics, science, and social science.
Keni Brayton Cox is Assistant Professor, Department of Educational Leadership, California State University, Fullerton, California; 714-278-5663; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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