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April 1, 2006
Vol. 63
No. 7

Leading Adolescents to Mastery

The ABCI approach leaves no assignment undone, no failure unchallenged, and no middle schooler unengaged.

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On a crisp, sunny fall day at Bendle Middle School in Burton, Michigan, in 2003, with the wind shuffling red and gold leaves across the schoolyard, the students were talking about the new ABCI grading policy: “I've never gotten anything higher than aD in any class. How am I going to get at least aC on every assignment?” “I heard Ms. Kenkel talking about Saturday school! I'm not coming to school on the weekends!”
Bendle was less than two months into the ABCI program. Under this approach, students were required to achieve a C or higher on every assignment. If a student's work was judged to be less thanC quality, that student received anI for Incomplete—and teachers gave the student as much time and support as needed to complete the work and get a higher grade.
Parent and student reaction to the policy was heating up. A typical parent response came from the mother of 7th grader Conner. Conner had developed some poor study habits and had barely passed 6th grade. His mom, a single parent, worked the night shift at the local manufacturing plant. One afternoon, she blew into the principal's office at Bendle and, with fire in her eyes, shouted, Look, don't you understand that it takes everything I have just to get my kid up in the morning and get him here for school? He was doing just fine before this ABCI stuff. Isn't a D supposed to be passing? That's all he needs to get. Just give him the Ds.
The season was about to change, and the culture of the school was changing drastically, too.

Cracking Down on Complacency

Bendle Middle School has a student body numbering 320; 97 percent of the students are white, and close to 60 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Many of the students live in rented two-bedroom bungalows; many are being reared by a single parent or another relative. Some parents have not earned a high school diploma themselves. Like all parents, they want the best for their children and do all they can to support them; nonetheless, the home culture of many Bendle students is one of low academic expectations.
Bendle's teachers realized that the school needed to make changes when they reviewed final grades for the 2002–2003 school year. The data told the story: 29 percent of final grades for the 6th, 7th, and 8th grade classes were Ds and Es. Staff members felt uncomfortable with these results and with students repeatedly not turning in homework. They believed that Bendle students were just as intelligent as more successful students, but that many of them came to the “game” with limited prior knowledge and support at home. Faculty members knew that they needed a new strategy to raise expectations and promote success among these at-risk adolescents.

Leading Adolescents to Mastery

The average mathematics scale score for both 4th and 8th graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress was higher in 2003 than in all previous NAEP assessments.

America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2005

In summer 2003, using a Comprehensive School Reform grant, Bendle staff members participated in a workshop facilitated by one of this article's authors, regional director of Michigan Middle Start Steve Hoelscher. Middle Start is a comprehensive school improvement program for middle schools and for schools with middle grades. ABCI is a two-year component of Middle Start that schools can also implement separately.
After much discussion of how to raise overall student achievement at Bendle, Steve and his team of Middle Start coaches recommended that the school consider implementing the ABCI approach, which they had seen spur tremendous results. The teachers had many objections, but no one could refute the point raised by the following question: “If an assignment is worth doing, then why isn't it worth doing well?”

Getting Teachers to “Aha!”

ABCI is borrowed and adapted from mastery learning theory, which was developed and promulgated by Benjamin Bloom (1968, 1971). More recently, the work of William Glasser and the Quality Schools movement (1990) has influenced the development of ABCI. ABCI embraces Bloom's concept that given enough time and quality instruction, all students can learn. With this approach, teachers insist that students complete every assignment to high standards.
Schools that adopt ABCI receive off-site training in implementing the program throughout the school year, including assistance with developing planning and communications strategies, coming to a consensus on what high-quality assignments look like, and networking with other ABCI schools. There is a financial cost to the program, and carrying it through takes enormous commitment and willingness to change.
The leadership team at Bendle made the commitment that all teachers would adopt ABCI; despite some doubts, all staff members agreed to move forward because of the irrefutable data showing that the school's current methods were not successful with many students. Bendle staff members participated in targeted training sessions that prepared them to manage and implement the ABCI program. Middle Start also provided an instructional coach who met weekly with the principal, the instructional teams, the building leadership team, and individual staff members.
But change can take time, and not all teachers valued ABCI right away. One veteran teacher came to the principal with tears in her eyes and a stack of papers a foot high. “I can't do this,” she said. “I've been up until midnight almost every night this week. I've been spending my weekends grading these papers.”
“What's different?” the principal asked.
“It used to be that only 40–50 percent of my students did the work, but now with this new policy, 90 percent of my classes are completing their assignments,” she replied. As she spoke, this teacher had an “aha!” moment. She suddenly realized that she needed to reflect on what her students most needed to know and be able to do, to look at the assignments she was giving, and to ask herself which ones were truly worth assigning.
To bring more teachers to such “aha!” moments, throughout the 2003–2004 school year, the Middle Start coach facilitated staff reflections and dialogues that led teachers to analyze what they had been expecting from students and whether or not their expectations addressed the essential learning and skills that students needed to master. A goal of ABCI is to make teachers more thoughtful about the assignments they give and more consistent with how they grade those assignments both within the classroom and across classes.
These reflection sessions also guided teachers to look carefully at whether their instructional practices and assessments were appropriate for young adolescents—and to change practices to draw adolescents more fully into learning. Most teachers practiced the “stand and deliver” mode of instruction and used traditional forms of assessments, such as tests, worksheets, and individually graded assignments. These practices are not developmentally appropriate for young adolescents, who prefer active explorations, clear purposes, and opportunities to try out new concepts and skills in realistic settings. Students this age are also beginning to think about their position and potential in the world. Because middle school is the point at which many youth drop out, mentally if not physically, it's crucial that schools provide a curriculum that is socially significant and relevant to young adolescents.

Changing How Teachers Operate

From Examining Beliefs . . .

Bendle's reflection discussions required teachers to examine their beliefs as well as their practices. Teachers looked at whether they believed that all middle school students can learn, regardless of home life, socioeconomic status, race, gender, ability, or any other characteristics. They questioned what was preventing many of Bendle's students from achieving. In many cases, it came down to a question of time and support. One teacher reflected, Do we believe that at a certain point in time, the student should demonstrate mastery of what he knows, so that if he hasn't mastered it on that date, he either fails or gets a below-average grade?
The teachers realized that defending this practice was a way of sorting students and keeping those with a history of failure from succeeding. But if they began to expect all students to produce work that met high standards, then students who were just getting by or failing would be held accountable for measuring up.

. . . To Changing Practice

During their first year implementing ABCI, teachers at Bendle began to revisit and reteach lessons that many students clearly had not mastered. They became more comfortable modifying assignments to meet an individual student at his or her skill level. Three years into the approach, Bendle teachers now use instructional practices that engage young adolescents in the learning process. They modify lessons as necessary to meet the needs of all students, not just the special education students.
For example, in an 8th grade language arts class studying capital punishment, students were required to read newspaper and magazine articles covering both sides of the argument and to present their own positions on the issue orally, in writing, or through a PowerPoint presentation. The teacher paired struggling readers with stronger readers to read articles together out loud and set up students to serve as peer reviewers for those who needed assistance in writing.
Teachers have made their practice public: Instructional teams are talking to one another about instructional practices and intervention ideas. ABCI has also spurred teachers to reflect together on how they deliver lessons and assign work. Because they know that students may have to redo an assignment several times, teachers think more deeply about how a given assignment aligns with standards and what the grading rubric should be for the assignment. Together, teachers look at student work to develop rubrics. As a result, teachers give more project-based assignments and fewer worksheets or busywork. The focus is on quality assignments rather than on rote learning.

Accommodations and Challenges

Bringing the ABCI approach to a middle school presents significant challenges and requires a leap of faith among school staff members and administrators. One challenge for Bendle has been the plethora of accommodations the school has made to provide the supports needed for all students to meet the newly raised expectations. These accommodations include an extended school day; an extended school year; a mandatory Saturday school; a homework club; tutoring; a “responsibility room” (a room within the school used as an alternative to suspension for disruptive students); and changes to extracurricular policies.
Drastic changes to a school culture demand sensitive, perceptive leadership. Some teachers will try to continue doing things the old way, so the principal needs to monitor whether these teachers are reaching the goal of having higher expectations and promoting engaged learning in their classrooms. Look at grade distributions and lesson plans. What kinds of work are teachers assigning? What kinds of grades are students receiving? How many students are getting Incompletes? Discuss with teachers how they are carrying out change. The reality is that not everyone in the school will buy into the new system. Teachers who have been giving students the same ditto sheets for years and believe that it's too bad if a student doesn't get it the first time are teachers who won't make the change.
It takes time for students and parents to realize that the school is doing business differently. Expect a huge learning curve and a transition period, but persist. ABCI coaches should guide and support teachers who need to develop new pedagogy. When a teacher shows reluctance to set high expectations or change instructional practice, that teacher and the principal should have a conference about why students need to be held accountable for high-quality work. Under the ABCI approach, teachers who seem unwilling to put effort into creating a climate consistent with ABCI's philosophy are required to develop a plan that shows how they can ensure all students' success. After each classroom assessment, the teacher reviews students' work and progress with the principal. The school administration may need to take disciplinary action with teachers who remain unwilling or unable to conform to the new policies. The ABCI philosophy, however, never recommends transferring a teacher who is not effectively holding students to high standards.
The ABCI approach cannot succeed without the involvement of everyone at the school—teachers, support staff, guidance counselors, parents, students, and administrators. To make the change work at Bendle, we needed local businesses to provide tutors for the Saturday school, students to help one another after school or during lunch, teachers to give extra time, and parents to drive their students to school on Saturday and support them during homework time.

Seeing Positive Effects

Student Achievement and Behavior

Preliminary data indicate that adopting the ABCI approach at Bendle may have improved students' performance on state assessments. In academic year 2004–2005, for the first time in three years, Bendle made the adequate yearly progress required by NCLB. Student achievement scores on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) improved 11.7 percent in reading, 5 percent in English language arts, 2 percent in science, and 6 percent in social studies.
These days, it is common at Bendle to see students congratulating one another on “no Incompletes” with high fives. These adolescents are realizing a success they have never experienced before. Students frequently check their grades, stay after school for extra assistance, and celebrate when an assignment or project, completed to quality standards, is raised from an Incomplete to a letter grade. Their expectations for what they can accomplish have increased dramatically.
Teachers who have implemented ABCI in their classrooms have reported a drop in principal referrals and other discipline measures as well as increased student engagement in classroom activities. Students are more engaged not only because teachers hold them accountable, but also because their classrooms are more student-centered places where instruction is interactive, cooperative, and cross-disciplinary—in short, appropriate for young adolescents.

Student and Parent Reactions

Bendle students have given ABCI mixed reviews. Most students like the policy, particularly those who have traditionally fallen behind. For many students, this policy represents the first time in their education when teachers haven't let them squeak by. Finally, teachers not only expect these students to achieve at a higher level but also provide the support and guidance required to help students do so. As one student said, “It's so much better for me to stay after school to get help with my work. It's hectic at home, so I can't get much done.” On the other hand, students who have traditionally received high grades, even when they didn't complete all the work, have been less likely to embrace the new policy.
Parent involvement at Bendle has increased. Parents now frequently call, e-mail, and come in to check on student grades, which are posted in the classroom weekly. Parents have higher expectations of what their children can accomplish. As one parent said, “My son has never achieved grades like this! His report card is hanging on the refrigerator!”

Doing Whatever It Takes

The National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform has said middle schools should provide an academically excellent, developmentally appropriate, and equitable education for all young adolescents (1997). For middle schools that believe this is a charge worth accepting, the ABCI approach is an excellent start to matching beliefs with practice. The grading policy challenges middle school students to meet higher expectations; the training, structured reflections, and coaching provide teachers with essential supports and structures so that they can nurture achievement at high levels for all students.
After three years of implementation, ABCI has changed Bendle's school culture from one in which students, parents, and staff alike had become complacent and accepting of failing grades to one in which all students are expected to achieve, whatever it takes.

Bloom, B. (1968). Learning for mastery. Evaluation Comment, 1(2), 1–5.

Bloom, B. (1971). Mastery learning. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Glasser, W. (1990). The quality school. New York: Perennial Library.

National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform. (1997).Vision statement. Available: www.mgforum.org/about/vision.asp

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