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November 2007 | Volume 65 | Number 3
Making Math Count
Douglas B. Reeves
It's not hard to find examples of short-term success in high-poverty schools. Such cases have been documented in the recent work of Chenoweth (2007) and in my own studies of 90/90/90 schools—those with 90 percent poverty, 90 percent minority enrollment, and 90 percent of students meeting or exceeding academic standards (Reeves, 2004). Earlier studies by Edmonds (1979), Carter (1999), and Haycock (1999) also identified schools that were succeeding despite the fact that they enrolled large numbers of students in poverty.
These case studies are admirable and amazing. But when I share them with teachers and education leaders, they typically respond, “Great—those ideas worked in one place at one time. Why should I believe that they'll work in my school or that such success will last?” Critics have questioned whether schools can consistently overcome the pervasive impact of poverty and other conditions that influence student learning (Rothstein, 2004). In the face of continuing challenges, can high-poverty schools really achieve long-term academic excellence? The case of Mead Valley Elementary School suggests that sustained excellence is possible even in the face of profound demographic challenges.
Located in the Val Verde School District in Riverside County, California, Mead Valley is among the poorest schools in the United States. More than 95 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and more than 70 percent are English language learners. The area has high rates of drug abuse and violent crime. Evidence of poverty is stark and pervasive: Some homes lack sewage services, and many children are chronically hungry. Yet in this environment, the school has sustained a level of educational excellence that transcends student demographics, transitions in teaching staff, and changes in school leadership.
Some schools that have been labeled as “successful” engage in a particularly disturbing practice: They focus on improving the performance of students who, with a bit of intensive intervention, can get to the proficiency cutoff score. The unfortunate result of this strategy is that students performing significantly below grade level are treated as beyond hope, and those performing far above the proficiency cutoff are neglected.
Mead Valley's strategy is quite different. The school has a clear commitment to all students, including the lowest-achieving students whom some schools ignore. This culture of commitment extends to all members of the school community, including not only administrators and teachers, but also the noncertified staff. Custodians, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers all take pride in student success, questioning, challenging, and encouraging students at every opportunity. In talking with former principal Earl Shore, I learned that Mead Valley's success is the result of a combination of practices and people.
The professional practices successfully applied in Mead Valley are clearly defined and potentially replicable. But to be effective over time, they require a notable degree of schoolwide dedication and consistency. The first strategy was developing common curriculums and assessments for all students at all grade levels, greatly reducing the variation in teacher expectations from one classroom to the next. The school uses a combination of homegrown and externally developed common assessments given throughout the year. The key, Shore suggests, is using assessments that are consistently more rigorous than the final state assessment.
Second, the school sets aside three hours of “sacred time” each day for literacy. There are no pullouts or peripheral activities to interrupt students' most important task—learning to read and write in English. The school uses the prescribed reading texts and also incorporates specific interventions for English language learners. In addition, students practice writing daily. Initially, some teachers resisted this idea and clung to what Schmoker (2001) calls “the Crayola curriculum.” Shore explains, “We love the arts, and you can see them all around the school, but we don't do arts and crafts during sacred literacy time.”
The concept of “sacred time” also applies to teacher collaboration. Every Wednesday, the students are dismissed at 12:30, and teachers meet from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. to focus on student achievement, content, and teaching strategies. There are clear and specific norms for the meetings, including universal participation and a focus on the learning agenda. The agenda focuses on examining all available data, including not only test scores but also recent teacher observations; identifying students in need of intervention; and discussing the faculty's most effective teaching practices. Clear achievement targets have been established for every student, for every grade, and for the entire school. For example, at the end of the year, every kindergartner should be able to write three sentences; every 3rd grader, three paragraphs; and every 5th grader, five paragraphs.
Third, the school builds emotional confidence for students and faculty. Regular ceremonies of recognition and reward throughout the year send the message that this is a place where students can thrive, irrespective of conditions outside the school. Seven years ago, when Shore first arrived, there was a culture of defeat and a sense of hopelessness. Today, teachers have a relentless enthusiasm and confidence. This confidence is reflected in their daily discussions focused on student success.
Fourth, the school sets and enforces standards of professional responsibility. Inadequate teaching is not tolerated. Of the 27 teachers at Mead Valley, three were terminated and two were transferred at the end of the first year the school launched these reforms. Decisions about contract renewal, transfers, performance improvement, and terminations can be an emotional, legal, and financial challenge for a school system. But effective instructional leadership depends on recognizing and rewarding professional excellence and, when necessary, eliminating ineffective practice.
In California, the Academic Performance Index (API) measures student performance in English language arts and mathematics. In 2000, Mead Valley's API was 450. By 2004, it had jumped to 695. In many cases, such a dramatic improvement is followed by flat or declining scores, but Mead Valley's record of sustained excellence is reflected in the scores for subsequent years: 729 in 2005; 746 in 2006; and 774 in 2007.
Special education students and English language learners also made substantial gains. This fall, the school was named a California Distinguished School for the first time in its history. The school is poised to break 800, an API score more commonly associated with wealthy suburban schools.
What is particularly noteworthy about these scores is that the last gain happened after Shore left to take a position as assistant superintendent. The new principal, Ruth Salazar, fully embraced the culture of commitment and successful professional practices, proving that even after a key leader departs, effective school culture and instructional strategies can endure.
Can Mead Valley's success be replicated? For three compelling reasons, I believe the answer is an emphatic yes. First, the techniques used in this school were not idiosyncratic, but rather were culled from the research on successful practices of other high-poverty schools, including the 90/90/90 schools. Second, the improvement was not the result of a short burst of energy by a few people who soon burned out, but rather the result of steady, sustained efforts for more than half a decade. Third and most important, although there was some staff turnover—which happens in most high-poverty schools—a significant number of staff members remained at the school and were part of its successful turnaround. Most challenging schools are staffed by the same kind of competent, hard-working professionals; at Mead Valley, they produced dramatically improved results through new practices and a culture of commitment.
Carter, S. (1999). No excuses: Seven principals of low income schools who set the standard for high achievement. Washington, DC: Heritage Foundation.
Chenoweth, K. (2007). It's being done: Academic success in unexpected schools. Boston: Harvard Education Press.
Edmonds, R. (1979). Effective schools for the urban poor. Educational Leadership, 37(1), 15–24.
Haycock, K. (1999). Dispelling the myth: High-poverty schools exceeding expectations. Washington, DC: Education Trust.
Reeves, D. B. (2004). Accountability in action: A blueprint for learning organizations (2nd ed.). Englewood, CO: Advanced Learning Press.
Rothstein, R. (2004). Class and the classroom: Even the best schools can't close the race achievement gap. American School Board Journal, 191(10), 16.
Schmoker, M. (2001, October 24). The Crayola curriculum. Education Week, 21(8), 42–44.
Douglas B. Reeves is Founder of the Leadership and Learning Center;
Copyright © 2007 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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