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June 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 9

Out of Mediocrity

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Although housed in a brand-new building in 2005, Rockville High School was hemorrhaging students to private schools and magnet programs. The lackluster performance of this diverse suburban school in Montgomery County, Maryland, had caused many parents to look elsewhere for more rigorous academic programs and successful athletic programs for their children. The school's only flagship program was journalism, which boasted a national award–winning newspaper, Rampage.
Rockville wasn't on the state's mandated takeover list, but it was performing far below its potential. As members of a new administrative team that took over the school in 2005, we started with a hypothesis: We believed that an underperforming suburban high school could turn into a top performer with a three-pronged approach focused on instruction, rigor, and culture. Our team set out to test this theory of action.
It turned out to be spot on. This comprehensive high school serving 1,300 students achieved unprecedented results between 2005 and 2013 despite the fact that over this eight-year period, the school experienced a steady increase in the number of English language learners and students from impoverished backgrounds (32 percent of students were on free or reduced-price lunch). By 2013, 13 percent of the students were Asian, 19 percent were black, 34 percent were Hispanic, and 34 percent were white. The school made adequate yearly progress every year in every subgroup, and its minority students achieved significant gains. In 2012, the number of Hispanic and black students passing state exit exams doubled, and the percentage of students who were ineligible to participate in extracurricular activities for failure to achieve the required 2.0 grade point average significantly decreased.
Moreover, the school received a gold medal ranking from U.S. News and World Report in 2012 and raised its ranking on the Washington Post Challenge Index from 454 in 2005 to 289 in 2014 (on the basis of 2013 data). In 2013, Rockville High School had a larger increase in its SAT scores (52 points) and graduation rate (7.4 percent) than any of the other 24 high schools in the Montgomery County Public School District. In addition, between 2005 and 2013, the school's annual climate survey showed significant increases in stakeholder confidence and approval.
We asked our staff members what they thought accounted for the dramatic increases. They unanimously attributed the change to the school's persistent focus on instruction. In addition to instruction, the administrative team believed that attention to rigor and school culture changed the community's perception of the school and increased student performance. The three prongs were inextricably linked to our school's success.


Among such elements as a well-articulated curriculum and a safe and orderly environment, the single most influential component of an effective school is the quality of the individual teachers—and their instruction—within a school (Marzano, 2007). Although we might view effective instruction in terms of three linear phases—before, during, and after—these phases actually overlap and blend, leading to a cyclical process of preparation, implementation, and reflection (Clark & Peterson, 1986). In 2005, this instructional process was not universally present at Rockville High School. Thus, we began our work at a foundational level, basing planning decisions on student mastery.
Our first initiative was to insist that each teacher post a mastery objective and an itinerary for every lesson. To reinforce that message, the leadership team visited classes frequently. In time, the practice became routine throughout the building. Using the work of Saphier, Haley-Speca, and Gower (2008) as well as that of Wiggins and McTighe (1998), a team of administrators, department chairs, and the staff development teacher was trained in the areas of mastery planning and formative assessment.
The beginning step of posting a mastery objective was followed by training in equitable practices, with the expectation that teachers would employ wait time and random calling, increase student discourse, and promote critical thinking (Montgomery County Public Schools, 2006). Department chairs and administrators targeted these instructional focuses in their classroom observations, giving teachers meaningful and consistent feedback.
Because high schools are by design a collection of content-specific silos, the instructional leadership team, influenced by the work of DuFour and Eaker (1998), promoted collaborative planning in and across departments. Teachers were given the opportunity to look inside one another's classrooms and have meaningful discussions about student learning and improvement. By 2013, course-alike teachers were meeting regularly in professional learning communities (PLCs) to plan, develop common assessments, and analyze data together. Teachers and leaders routinely used student data to determine successes, challenges, and next steps. Commenting on the impact of the PLCs, a math teacher noted, "Teachers began to share ideas and work in teams. That meant that students in [different] Algebra 2 [classes], for example, were learning similar objectives at about the same time. That hadn't happened before."


At Rockville, academic rigor eventually became as much an attitude as a practice. Seniors who wanted to participate in graduation were required to pass all their second-semester courses, regardless of whether a course was a graduation requirement. There were no abbreviated class schedules for seniors, unless they were enrolled in an internship or work program. Students in special education were included as much as possible in regular education classes. We prominently displayed honor roll names each quarter and posted students' college acceptances on the windows of the Career and College Center. In partnership with an SAT/ACT preparation company, all juniors took free practice SAT and ACT assessments during the school day. The emphasis on academic achievement increased the graduation rate and reduced the percentage of students ineligible to participate in extracurricular activities.
In 2005, to give the school's anemic academic program a shot in the arm, we applied to add the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma and Project Lead the Way (PLTW) programs to our advanced placement (AP) offerings. The yearlong application processes required extensive training for both potential IB and PLTW teachers, thus enhancing instruction as teachers began to think about delivering lessons in a more global and inquiry-based way. The programs were open to any student willing to take on the challenge.
In the first year, only 34 students out of a class of 275 opted for the IB diploma program; about 60 students began the first of the five courses required by Project Lead the Way. Students opting for the AP program were encouraged to take a minimum of six AP classes during their high school careers to be competitive with the IB diploma candidates in the college application process and to receive special recognition at graduation. Students understood that if they enrolled in an AP class they were expected to take the exam.
The growing interest in rigorous coursework required us to consider how best to prepare students for this level of study. This resulted in a greater focus on vertical articulation and skill building in entry-level courses. The school implemented the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program to bolster the skills and motivation of students for whom this level of rigor was new.
The result has been a growing surge in AP, IB, and PLTW participation, a momentum that continues under a new administration. In 2014, more than 70 graduates—25 percent of the senior class—qualified for either the IB diploma or AP Scholar recognition, and 12 students completed the PLTW program. Currently, 80 11th graders are pursuing an IB diploma, 28 will complete the PLTW sequence, and 15 will begin work on obtaining the new IB Career-related Certificate. The increase in participation has not resulted in a decrease in student performance in any of these programs.
Research indicates that access to higher-level courses increases college completion rates for students of low socioeconomic status even more than for those in high socioeconomic groups (Klepfer & Hull, 2012). Thus, we promoted the enrollment of English language learners, students in special education, and students receiving free and reduced-price meals in all high-end academic programs. Every student planning to attend college was expected to take at least one AP or IB course. To ensure their success, the school provided supports, such as tutoring by National Honor Society members, an after-school homework club, an extended single-period lunch to give students additional access to teachers, and an English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) scholars program.
Rockville High School's high ranking on the 2013 Washington Post Challenge Index, in spite of the school's high poverty index, is a testament to its culture of rigor. Students were pushed to challenge themselves, and administrators and teachers were holding students more accountable for their learning. With the surge in IB and AP participation, Rockville suddenly became a viable option for parents who hadn't considered the local public high school for their children.


Before 2005, incoming seniors had a tradition of spray-painting the road in front of the school with school-spirited symbols and phrases. Technically illegal, the painting occurred in the dark, typically the night before school opened. Each year's senior class tried to outdo its predecessor, and by 2005, the practice was completely out of hand. In addition to the road being painted, graffiti appeared on road signs, church signs, bridges, and private property fences. Although the painting occurred off school property and during nonschool hours, the neighboring home owners demanded that we put an end to the tradition.
However, the students were not easily dissuaded. School leadership went to great lengths to get students to abandon the tradition, even spending the night on the school roof one year, surveying the road and intervening to convince students that the practice reflected badly on both the school and community. It took several years of vigilance, but the students, to the community's delight, finally gave up the practice.
The football team presented another dilemma. Sitting in the stands at her first away football game, the principal was dismayed by the team's consistently poor performance. Behind more than 30 points in the 4th quarter, Rockville finally scored its first and only touchdown. The parents exploded into cheers, as though that touchdown had come as a surprise. "This is Rockville," explained a parent seated nearby. "You need to get used to it. It's a good game when we score." At that moment, the principal realized how deeply the malaise of low expectations permeated the culture of the school.
The administrative team believed that the community deserved a chance to build a winning team. A new coach reversed Rockville's losing trend, increased school spirit, and made the sport a thriving, competitive program. He established a summer football camp in which his players coached middle and elementary students, and he created a mandatory study hall before practice to emphasize the school's academic expectations for all players.
But the change also signaled to the school that regardless of the venue, excellence was an expectation and that excellence depended on more than just having an award-winning newspaper, or even a winning football team. We expected every segment of the school—be it academics, art, music, family and consumer science, or physical education and sports—to be stellar. We believed that every student who attended Rockville should be able to participate in at least one high-quality program that fit his or her needs and interests. To that end, we equitably distributed attention and resources to communicate that we valued all our programs and that we expected students to excel in the ones of their choosing.
Moreover, because of our conviction, supported by research (Ascher & Maguire, 2007), that academics and behavior are integral to school success, we expected Rockville students to dress appropriately, clean up after themselves during lunch, and report to class on time. All teachers began to greet students regularly at their classroom doors. Absent students received a personal phone call from the attendance secretary, who knew every student by name and situation. Hallways, which used to be filled with students who loitered there after the bell rang and which were the scene of many a student fight, were now silent and empty during instructional time.

Professional—and Proud

A core of committed professionals who wanted something more for students than the status quo wrote the Rockville story. The school's instructional leadership team, including administrators and department chairs, embraced and consistently executed the school's vision. The central office supported the school's procurement of the IB, PLTW, and AVID programs. All teachers and staff members came to believe that all students had potential; they were willing to push students beyond what the students themselves, or even their parents, believed possible.
Reflecting on the changes, one veteran teacher noted,
Before, school spirit was low, and students weren't motivated, socially or academically. When the administration changed, it brought with it an attitude that school was a place of business and that students and teachers were expected to behave professionally. … The vibe is positive now. Students are proud to attend Rockville.
Administrative teams looking for a conceptual framework on which to base their school reform would do well to look at the Rockville experience. Although there are no silver bullets to turning around a school, schools that address instruction, rigor, and culture with persistence over time can dramatically improve the educational opportunities for all students.

Ascher, C., & Maguire, C. (2007). Beating the odds: How thirteen NYC schools bring low-performing ninth graders to timely graduation and college enrollment. Boston: Annenberg Institute for School Reform, Brown University.

Clark, C. M., & Peterson, P. L. (1986). Teachers' thought processes. In M. C. Wittrock (Ed.), Handbook of research on teaching (3rd ed., pp. 255–314). New York: Macmillan.

DuFour, R., & Eaker, R. (1998). Professional learning communities at work: Best practices for enhancing student achievement. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Klepfer, K., & Hull, J. (2012). High school rigor and good advice: Setting up students to succeed. Alexandria, VA: Center for Public Education, National School Boards Association.

Marzano, M. (2007). The art and science of teaching: A comprehensive framework for effective instruction. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Montgomery County Public Schools. (2006). A resource for equitable classroom practices. Montgomery County, MD: Author.

Saphier, J., Haley-Speca, M. A., & Gower, R. (2008). The skillful teacher: Building your teaching skills (6th ed.). Acton, MA: Research for Better Teaching.

Washington Post. (2014). America's most challenging high schools. Retrieved from

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

End Notes

1 Project Lead the Way programs offer K–12 curriculums in science, technology, engineering, and math.

2 AVID targets students in the academic middle with the desire to go to college and the willingness to work hard. Typically, the students will be the first in their families to attend college and come from groups traditionally underrepresented in higher education.

3 The IB Career-related Certificate (IBCC) incorporates the educational principles of the International Baccalaureate in a program specifically developed for students who wish to engage in career-related learning.

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