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June 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 9

How One School Defied Gravity

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Mrs. Carroll kneels quietly next to Jim, the newest kid in school. Jim's eyes are full of concern.
"They didn't teach me how to read at my old school."
"Don't worry," Mrs. Carroll smiles and drops her arm around his shoulders. "We'll teach you here!"
Mrs. Carroll has been teaching for 40 years, and her fire still burns hot. During the year Jim was in her class, she pored over his growth data, talked to other teachers about how to move him forward, and frequently worked with his family. She taught Jim to look at his own data, to set goals—and to read. More important, she taught him how to work hard and challenge himself, nurturing his new self-image as a capable, confident learner.
Like all teachers at St. Croix Falls Elementary School in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, Mrs. Carroll is unyielding in her efforts to meet students' needs and hold them accountable for doing their best. Our teachers' relentlessness—and our students' belief in their own power to change and succeed—has been the key to St. Croix Falls moving from good to better to great. This rural preK–4 school serves 460 students in a county that has seen growing hardship. Four years ago, a large local manufacturing plant was shipped overseas; many people lost their jobs. In what once was a prosperous town, 43 percent of students now qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, and poverty is increasing.
Despite this reality, our school has managed to defy gravity, so to speak. As the poverty rate of our students continues to climb, so does the rate of their achievement. For the last three years, since Wisconsin began its school grading system, St. Croix Falls has ranked as "exceeds expectations" on that system. For each of those three years, we've raised our overall school report card score by nearly a full point. This trend is consistent with internal data from the same time period, which indicate that more than 90 percent of our students met their end-of-year growth goals on the STAR reading assessment. St. Croix Falls Elementary has always been a "good" school, with average to greater-than-average results on test scores. Given our continued increase in the number of students from poverty, however, we were concerned that our achievement levels would decrease. Not only did that not happen, but we've actually done better each year.
Perhaps more important, anecdotal data show that students are more invested in their own learning and growth than in past years. One teacher who has taught at the school for decades says she's never seen kids work harder or achieve more—a sentiment echoed by other teachers, parents, and students.

Starting Our Climb

As the school's principal and library media specialist, we were part of the small team leading change efforts. Together with the leader of each grade level's professional learning community (PLC), we strategically crafted a vision and stuck to it. We made tough choices, trusted our instincts, and accepted bumps in the road as part of the journey. Three core beliefs grounded our vision:
  • Teachers are smart, capable professionals who can be trusted.
  • Students are the primary stakeholders in their learning and must own their growth.
  • Strong leadership is essential.
After many hours of talking, planning, and examining research, we identified two simple changes that would pay big dividends: strengthening data-informed teaching and empowering students to become self-monitoring learners. We chose these high-yield leverage points because our experiences suggested they were the most important, and because research supported their use. We looked at three lines of research: Hattie's (2012) work on visible learning; Pink's (2009) research on motivation theory; and Schmoker's (2003) work on the demystification of data analysis. Hattie affirmed the idea that schools are most powerful when "learning is the clear and explicit goal and when the teachers and student both … seek to ascertain whether and to what degree challenging goals are attained" (p. 14).
We shared the research with teachers in a mostly informal manner—e-mailing articles, sharing summaries during professional development sessions, and talking casually in the staff room and the hallways. Our strategy was to fill the culture of our school with these ideas rather than do a one-shot study of them. Teachers trust us and knew that we would lead them down the right road.

No Such Thing as "Bad Data"

Working with Ongoing Data

All this research led us to emphasize both using data as a school and helping students learn to read their own data and use it to motivate growth. As a leadership team, we identified and practiced skills that enabled us to read data and make informed decisions. After finding tools, examples, and ideas on the Internet and through our personal learning networks, we crafted a workable plan for collecting and using information on achievement. Teachers learned the basics of assessment, from the difference between criteria- and norm-referenced tests to the meanings of national percentile rankings. Everyone learned to read the reports generated from the STAR reading assessment and to graph for growth using one-minute reading probes.
We then began working with ongoing data following Schmoker's (2003) simple method. At staff and PLC meetings, we analyzed the data together, asking and answering such questions as, What do we notice? What strengths do we see? What needs do we see? How can we use this data to move our students to greater levels of achievement? We circled back often to Schmoker's idea that effective data analysis need not be overcomplicated.
The school's staff worked side by side to look at our data productively, no longer focusing on just end-of-the-year high-stakes numbers. We added data from local measures (including a computer adaptive reading assessment, oral reading fluency assessments, and end-of-unit tests) and focused on data derived from our common measures, which we administered quarterly. We looked at letter and sound knowledge, oral-reading fluency, sight-word fluency, and STAR comprehension scores. We used data to help individual students, specific RTI reading groups, and entire classrooms.
We focused on tapping data for learning rather than for judging teachers, but we were also honest in our examinations, and we shifted attitudes away from using data as a way to hold on to untruths that some educators espoused. Teachers stopped viewing the tests as unfair or test scores as not reflecting their students' abilities. They began to see data as formative, as an entry point for growth-focused conversations. In the past, we'd heard teachers complain that test results didn't seem valid, noting small variations in data from test to test. As they began to understand trend lines and how to use multiple sources to confirm or deny results, such complaints slipped away.
For instance, rather than asking how this year's 4th grade class did compared with last year's, as we had in the past, we asked questions like these:
  • How did this particular student do this time, compared with last time?
  • How did this year's 3rd grade class do compared with their performance in 2nd grade?
  • How did last quarter's group of struggling readers do this quarter?
  • What type of instruction is best for Johnny?

Using Data to Drive Change

As teachers started studying data patterns on their own or in small groups and as such reflection helped us target areas for student growth, teachers began to truly believe all students should and could make gains. It also became apparent that the school wasn't meeting the needs of 20 percent of our students. To address this gap, we threw out the old schedule and made a new student-focused one that included common reading, math, and intervention blocks.
Teachers and students could now move beyond the walls of their classrooms and into flexible groups. We reallocated staff to address student needs first. For the first time, specialists, including the librarian, began going into classes for collaborative teaching. During intervention blocks, students worked in flexible groups often led by someone other than their regular classroom teacher. We heard more talk about "our students" and less about "my students."
As a school, we realized our data were telling us we needed to better differentiate instruction and increase our focus on independent reading. So leaders guided teachers in implementing a workshop-based model of reading instruction (Daily 5) and using our independent reading program (Accelerated Reader) to the hilt. To quickly gauge needs and progress throughout the year, we also required teachers to use Easy CBMs and the STAR Reading Assessment.
We chose these programs, frankly, because we already had the materials to support them. It's hackneyed but true: people, not programs, make the difference. We knew we needed tools, but—remembering our core belief that teachers were trustworthy and could make sound instructional choices—we knew that which tools we picked mattered less than how teachers and students used them. That said, we also knew we needed to insist that all teachers changed their practice.
St. Croix Falls implemented a home-reading routine that required students to read for 20 minutes minimum each evening. We invited parents to Parent Academies, where we shared our mission, goals, and strategies. Perhaps most important, we stressed that learning is the business of schools and that it's everyone's job to work toward growth. We told parents that students would be nurtured and supported—and held accountable to their goals.

A Sense of Agency

We didn't compromise on our belief that students learn if they work, they only learn if they work, and they want to work. We knew kids needed to understand and see their own growth, so we taught them to use their data and advocate for their own learning. Teachers were honest with students about their levels but focused the students on growth, asking them to "grow their brains." There's no shame in being at any particular level, teachers often told kids; everyone is an individual, and it's as crazy to expect every learner to be at the same level as it would be to expect every baby to walk at exactly the same time. Staff taught students that as long as they were working hard and making progress, they were right where they should be.
Students began focusing on their own growth and learning as a part of their identity rather than something imposed on them by their teachers. Students skipped down the hall carrying tests they had passed to show the principal. They talked to one another about their goals on the playground. We saw children hunched over their desks reflecting on progress they had made and their next steps. Handmade posters extolling the virtues of self-managed learning—with phrases like "You are responsible for your own learning!" and "Know where you are, know where you want to go, and make a plan to get there"—cropped up around the school.
We not only shared data with students, but we also asked students hard questions about what we saw. If a kid didn't meet a growth goal, a teacher asked that student why. Children were honest about their levels of effort and engagement. We knew it was coming together when we heard a teacher ask a student about her lack of growth and the girl replied, "I know why I didn't make my goal. I didn't do my home reading."
Once students had a sense of their own agency in learning, they took off, setting and reaching increasingly difficult goals. Students first set simple goals for reading, such as how many books they would read in a quarter, sometimes broken into genres. For example, Susie, a 4th grader, set a goal to read six novels, eight informational books, and 10 picture books last quarter. To keep herself on track, whenever she finished a book, she checked the appropriate tally box on her goal-setting form; she also used the bookshelf function of Accelerated Reader to keep a record of the genres she read.
Hattie (2012) asserts that the factor with the single highest effect strength for student growth is having students self-report their grades and push themselves to exceed their own expectations. This worked wonders for Susie and others as they looked at their own assessment data and set goals.

Overcoming Obstacles

Change doesn't always come easy; it's messy and sometimes scary. There were bruised egos. There were times when teachers' words or actions led us to question whether our core beliefs about the ability of teachers (and students) to be empowered to make lasting change were correct. School leaders looked at these times as calls to action, calls to provide solid, relentless guidance and coaching.
For example, as we implemented systematic changes, our team of kindergarten teachers struggled. They had been reasonably successful doing what they'd always done and initially didn't like the idea of using nationally normed, curriculum-based measures to ask and answer questions about both program effectiveness and individual students' learning needs.
Adding to their struggle was the sense that they were abandoned and isolated—which wasn't entirely untrue. This group of teachers and their classes were housed at a building four miles away from the rest of us. After one meeting at which a significant portion of this team argued against using data to differentiate instruction for kindergartners using new grouping and curricular strategies, everyone fell into near despair. The teachers were frustrated. As leaders, we were concerned; one of us went home and cried, wondering if the struggle for change was worth it. Were we leading the school down the wrong path? Wasn't "good" good enough?
Our leadership team learned to lift teachers' and students' vision higher, in turn raising their achievement. We learned that we needed to not only insist that teachers and kids make changes, but also tell and show both groups that we supported and valued them. This meant offering teachers autonomy to make sound instructional choices while providing needed support. We worked with teachers in their classrooms and in meetings—teaching, modeling, and coaching them in the use of new ideas and strategies.
For example, Rita worked with the 1st grade team to divide students into Response to Intervention (RTI) groups and build curriculum to support the specific learning needs of each group; she also team taught with the teachers. As they began to see student growth, they became the bearers of good news to other grades. One teacher commented, "Once you see the progress kids make when we differentiate, you can't imagine how you taught before using RTI groups."
There's a tendency for leadership teams to fall into an us-versus-them mentality. Rather than being thoughtful in the face of teacher resistance, leaders see teachers' resistance to change as negative. Leaders at St. Croix Falls had been vehement in not allowing derisive "these kids" type of comments at our meetings or in our staff room. We realized we needed to guard against the same in terms of how we talked and felt about teachers. We resolved to be positive about everything, including sticking points and the occasional bouts of frustration we felt in response to something a staff member did or said.
Our resilience and patience paid off. The kindergarten team saw the data and began to believe our vision. They now meet weekly to plan to address the needs of each student in myriad ways. They "share" students to spread their expertise around and seek help from specialists. We now think of that once-struggling team as our top change makers.

What We Didn't Do

Throughout our improvement process, we leaders needed to keep our own attitudes and fears in check and remember that sometimes sticking to your guns feels downright bad or even wrong. We needed to remember that big change doesn't happen overnight. Paradoxically, change requires focus and consistency. Small gestures like tacking up notes saying "Be relentless!" "Eyes forward" and (one of our favorites) "Have a big cup of 'calm down'" helped keep everyone going.
Some things we didn't do helped also. We didn't make superficial changes, buy new programs, hire consultants, or endlessly exhort teachers to "raise scores." As administrators, we didn't become overbearing task masters forcing everyone to conform to a script.
Instead, we stuck to our core beliefs that teachers are leaders and students are capable. We then took unflagging steps to build teacher and student capacity. And as everyone began to notice and follow the patterns of success within the school, we watched our wonderful teachers and students soar.
By staying true to the process we had begun, we not only created a system that works for teachers and students alike, but also bolstered our school's culture of shared responsibility. St. Croix Falls just received our most recent report card from the state. We are again "exceeding expectations." This year, as every year, we'll have new students, some of whom will enter our school reading well below grade level. Those students will be escorted to Mrs. Carroll's classroom—or another teacher's. We'll enfold them into our school and move them from good to great.
Author's note: All names of educators are pseudonyms.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. London: Routledge.

Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York: Riverhead Books.

Schmoker, M. (2003). First things first: Demystifying data analysis. Educational Leadership, 60(5), 22–25.

End Notes

1 This score comes from a combination of factors, including the percentage of students who scored proficient—and the number who showed growth—on the state test.

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