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June 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 9

A Case of Closing the Achievement Gap

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Georgia's Camden County School System is a regional leader in student achievement. In 2004, the district received recognition from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools as a “Super System for Continuous Improvement of Student Achievement.”
Achievement hasn't always been as high, however. In 1997, Camden's largely rural district of 9,500 students had low to mediocre scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS), its primary accountability testing system. The district began implementing districtwide curriculum tools and procedures that instructional leaders credit with leading to strong growth in staff and student performance. By 2003, 90 percent of 4th graders, 88 percent of 6th graders, and 91 percent of 8th graders had reached proficiency in reading. That same year, 82 percent of 4th graders, 82 percent of 6th graders, and 88 percent of 8th graders scored at mastery level in mathematics.

A New Approach

Camden County's student population is 67 percent white and 25 percent African American, with the remaining 8 percent representing other minority students. Thirty-eight percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Eight of the district's nine elementary schools, both middle schools, and the high school are eligible for funding under Title I. The closing of key industries in the county, such as the paper mill, has resulted in an increase in financial need over the years.
All measures of socioeconomic status show that our district is likely to perform poorly on state achievement tests and to have difficulty closing the achievement gap. Before the district implemented the new instructional processes in 1997, student test scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills bore out that prediction, hovering around the 35th percentile in some schools. In other schools, test scores were mediocre at best, falling near the 50th percentile. Although our test scores as a system were fair, we were concerned that we were not showing improvement from year to year. We knew that our students could do better.
Several of our elementary schools were labeled as Title I Needs Improvement in 1997. Although this was before No Child Left Behind, Georgia had stringent requirements for progress in Title I schools, and our schools were not showing adequate progress. In 1998, following district implementation of TargetTeach, an assessment and tracking software system, 3rd grade scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills at Woodbine Elementary School—the poorest school in the district—increased by 58 percent in language arts and by 23 percent in reading. Those scores marked the beginning of years of growth for Woodbine and for the other schools in Camden County. County scores now exceed state averages in every grade level and in every subject.The Camden County school district cannot attribute its success to any one person or practice. However, several factors have consistently proven helpful in our journey: targeted instruction, data-driven instructional decision making, and shared instructional leadership.

Targeted Instruction

Before 1997, we had no plan for aligning instruction or for pacing activities that guided teachers in scheduling objectives to teach in sequence or in prioritizing objectives to master at each grade level. Instruction was textbook-driven. As one of our first steps toward improvement, we engaged in a deep process of aligning our curriculum using strategies outlined by Fenwick W. English and others. Our alignment process showed that the textbook series used in the district was poorly aligned with curriculum objectives in reading, language arts, and math. The books did not include sufficient instruction, practice activities, or assessment tools. For example, our reading series did not adequately cover 44 percent of our reading objectives. Consequently, we revised our instructional plans to include these objectives.
Today, our alignment process has evolved into a combination of top-down and bottom-up approaches that gives individual staff members greater control over and responsibility for targeting their instruction. At the district level, we have fine-tuned our top-down alignment process by mapping objectives and establishing priorities for objectives at each grade level. A high-priority designation indicates that a given objective (such as “The student will understand that multiplication is repeated addition”) is essential for that grade level and that teachers should give it a significant amount of instructional time. Lower priorities designate objectives that should either be introduced at that grade level or simply maintained.
School leadership teams continually emphasize the importance of a bottom-up focus on instruction by providing staff members with the necessary time and resources to hone their instructional skills. Teachers are given released time to work together mapping skills and establishing priority charts. They are also given time to create exemplary instructional activities that address specific objectives. They often post this information on the district Web site for other teachers to use during the year.

Data-Driven Instructional Decision Making

Before 1997, Camden had no plan for assessing appropriately or for using data to actively inform instruction. We collected test scores in files, where they remained undisturbed unless an administrator chanced to look at them. Teachers were aware of the scores only when the local newspaper published them. Teachers had no access to teacher-friendly, timely data that informed them about student progress or about the effectiveness of their teaching. We did not know the answers to some important questions: What do our students currently know? What do they need to know? Which students know it?
In 1997, the district implemented TargetTeach, an assessment and tracking software system. Assessments are now in the form of benchmark tests that measure the objectives scheduled during a specific benchmark period. Test results are disaggregated to identify the instructional needs of specific students and of specific subgroups of students. Because the assessments tell us which students are not learning rather than just the number of students who are not learning, we can use them to more effectively meet the needs of individual students by targeting lessons to those needs and by grouping students with similar needs. The assessments also signaled an achievement gap in schools that served students in lower socioeconomic brackets. Before 1997, we had no data that helped us identify that gap or the students who were part of the gap.
Today, benchmark assessments are administered four times during the school year. Some schools administer a comprehensive benchmark test as a pre-test at the beginning of the school year. We use the assessments to meet individual students' needs, improve instruction, set goals, and prepare for high-stakes tests.
Meeting individual students' needs. District schools now have half-day planning sessions at the end of each benchmark period. Grade-level teams meet with special education teachers, the school's instructional lead teacher, and administrators to review and discuss the benchmark results from that period. They identify strengths and weaknesses in student achievement of objectives and develop instructional activities to address any weaknesses.
The grade-level teams group students for the following benchmark period on the basis of the learning needs of individual students. Different groups target specific skill weaknesses, so membership in a given group changes with each benchmark period. Teachers prevent the “bluebirds and buzzards” labels by changing the skills addressed for each benchmark period. Moreover, they rotate teaching the neediest group so that no group gets labeled as “the dummies.”
Individual student reports also provide parents with meaningful feedback concerning areas in which their children might benefit from extra support at home.
Improving instruction. The half-day planning sessions also serve to identify general instructional weaknesses that show up in benchmark results. For example, if many 3rd grade students failed to master a given objective, teachers can make changes to their instructional strategies to address that weakness. If students in Ms. Smith's class mastered an objective to a lesser degree than students in other 3rd grade classes, teachers can share strategies to help Ms. Smith provide more effective instruction in this area. Teachers also have the opportunity to share highly effective instructional strategies with other teachers. This has led to real-time professional development in which teachers get immediate feedback about problem areas in time to do something about them.
Setting goals. Some teachers use benchmark results to help individual students set realistic and attainable goals for improvement. A teacher might say,Jeremy, you scored 35 percent correct on this benchmark test. I believe you can do much better, and I'm going to help you do just that. What do you think you can score on the next benchmark test? Do you think you could try for 45 percent?
Students almost always agree to the new goal. Teachers then help students clarify the steps they need to take to meet the goal. The students succeed in a remarkable number of instances. Goal setting is particularly effective with lower-achieving students who feel defeated by their low scores.
Preparing for high-stakes tests. Our benchmark assessments are formatted to mirror state tests. The assessment items are multiple-choice questions that use such distractors as “not here” or “not given” to help students understand those terms. Assessment items help students practice application skills, which are useful in real life as well as in test taking. For example, students may not realize that the problem “two apples plus two apples” is the same problem as 2 + 2. Our assessments emphasize the correlation. Teachers use both formats in Daily Oral Language and Daily Oral Math activities to reinforce learning.

Shared Instructional Leadership

Shared leadership is a major factor in the success of our schools. School administrators are chosen for their skill as instructional leaders and are evaluated on how well they perform that role. We focus on fostering district instructional leadership, teacher instructional leadership, and leadership development.
District instructional leadership. We have several groups, such as the Curriculum Team and the Think Tank, that help carry out the district's instructional vision. The Curriculum Team is a district-level group composed of representatives from all grade levels and from every area of the system. Representatives include elementary, middle, and high school administrators; lead teachers; curriculum directors; the student services director; and representatives from technology and special education. The Curriculum Team meets regularly to review questions about curriculum and instruction that have systemwide implications and makes recommendations to the superintendent after considering the issues. For example, the team might hear proposals from schools that want to participate in pilot programs.
The Think Tank is an advisory body that gives advice on specific issues that arise, such as the grade level at which to teach algebra. It is composed of Teachers of the Year from the various schools and teachers who have earned National Board certification.
Teacher instructional leadership. The district encourages teacher leadership throughout the system. Teachers can serve on systemwide subject-area committees that make recommendations to the Curriculum Team and on subject-area teams within individual schools. These leadership opportunities get teachers involved in systemwide and schoolwide decisions. Each school also has an instructional lead teacher who serves as a coach and facilitator for teachers and who has no administrative duties.
Leadership development. Our leadership activities focus on creating a climate of shared leadership, collaboration, and cooperation. During the 2003–2004 school year, system and school leaders participated in a statewide leadership program that involved exemplary school systems across Georgia. That program helped participants learn to work together more effectively and encouraged staff members to assume leadership roles. Our leadership team also took part in a yearlong study of instructional effectiveness for administrators. That study fostered collaboration and cooperation among administrators and taught them how to cultivate effective practices in the classroom.

What's Possible

The steady increase in student achievement continues in Camden County despite an increase in poverty in our system. We are gratified to see the district consistently score in the top 20 percent on standardized tests in every subject area in every grade level. We are actually approaching percentages so high that it is difficult to show additional growth in the number of students who are proficient. Raising student achievement hasn't been easy, and it hasn't happened overnight, but the improvements we implemented in Camden County show that it can be done.

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