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December 1, 2008
Vol. 66
No. 4

Raising the Bar at Furness High

Furness High School in inner-city Philadelphia has the characteristics typical of schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) under No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Until a few years ago, truancy was high, and many students consistently showed up late to first period. Eighty percent of Furness's 924 students are from low-income families, 55 percent are black, and 17 percent are English language learners.
Before 2007, Furness had never made adequate yearly progress. Teachers and administrators were frustrated: They were working hard and had tried everything yet could not reach AYP.
Today, Furness is transformed. In the 2007–08 academic year, it made adequate yearly progress, one of just a few neighborhood high schools in Philadelphia to do so. Students reaching the proficient or advanced level in literacy on the Pennsylvania System of State Assessments rose from 14 percent in 2006–07 to 22 percent in 2007–08, and from 15 percent to 27 percent in math over the same period. Students now come to class so consistently that the administration has moved additional chairs into some classrooms.
Furness is serving the same kinds of students it always has, and it has the same committed staff. What helped Furness change, and is helping dozens of similar schools throughout the United States, is an approach to data-driven reform that goes beyond analyzing the school's weaknesses.
This approach, Raising the Bar, which was developed by the Center for Data-Driven Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University, starts off the way many popular approaches to data-based reform do. Personnel involved with the model work with school and district leaders to analyze in detail what data show about a school's strengths and weaknesses and root causes for failure. Reform leaders help the school identify the most fruitful avenues for rapid improvement.
But data-based reforms that stop here yield little change, because teachers and principals usually already know what's wrong: What they need is practical solutions. Reformers must follow up cooperative analysis by offering proven programs that are capable of helping schools make fundamental changes in instruction.
The Center for Data-Driven Reform in Education offered such options when we began to work with district and school leaders to transform Furness in 2005, an initiative launched by the Philadelphia School District with the support of the state department of education. In addition to reviewing data on student attendance, grades and test scores, we listened to the principal, the teachers, and the students to get the broader picture. We heard commitment but also confusion about why students were not achieving.
Along with district and building leaders, we walked through the school, spending a short time in each class but observing every teacher and class at least once. We used a simple observation form that asked three questions: What was the teacher doing? What were the students doing? and What was the level of rigor in the students' tasks?
As in every school, we saw a few instances of great teaching. But in many classrooms, teachers were simply assigning seatwork. Although the district's core curriculum intended for teachers to focus on higher-order thinking and literacy, sometimes lessons veered off course. Students spent precious instructional time copying questions and answers from the board. An attempt to teach how to visualize a hierarchy of information about a key concept using structured note taking, visualization, and graphic organizers often turned into "read pages 5 through 8 silently, take notes, and turn them in at the end of class." Many students were bored or frustrated. A few students in front of each class interacted with the teacher. In the back, a social club was in full swing and in some classes kids were asleep. Although teachers tried to engage every student, they were also concerned about maintaining order; as long as the sleepers and socializers didn't disrupt the class, teachers didn't put any pressure on them.
For example, in one English class, a teacher presented a good lesson and then asked students to use their textbooks to compare the work of two poets. Instead, a group of girls at the back of the class chatted and looked at their watches. An observer sat with the girls and asked them what was going on. "If we wait long enough," one of them explained, "either the teacher will give us the answer or the period will end." The girls were right; both took place.
We have seen this devil's bargain between students and teachers—with students promising, "Don't ask much of us and we won't cause trouble"—many times in urban secondary schools. For these schools to make genuine progress, that bargain must be broken.
The kind of undemanding instruction we see persistently in low-achieving secondary schools is at the heart of these schools' stagnation. Urban secondary schools also experience problems with violence, drugs, juvenile crime, and other plagues that are more likely to hit the newspapers; but even on the calmest day of the year, instruction is not reaching many students. It's not that teachers don't know better or aren't doing their best, but they are caught in a system in which keeping the lid on is all they can do.
Teachers told us that many of their most disengaged students sleep or socialize through class because they don't believe they can do assigned work; low-level misbehavior is a coping mechanism that enables students to avoid embarrassment or frustration. If a teacher pushes such students too hard, they may interpret the teacher's intent as disrespectful and respond with more serious behavior, such as expletives, threats, or fighting. Teachers must decide whether this battle is worth the toll it takes on everyone.

Bringing Students In on the Data—and the Learning

Our team from Johns Hopkins introduced school leaders to a range of programs that have been shown to help struggling schools reach students and pave the way for instruction that truly teaches—resources like America's Choice Middle and High School school reform designs and Success For All's Roots and Wings program (for elementary students) and Reading Edge (for grades 6–12).
Looking at Furness's needs, we jointly decided to introduce structured cooperative learning. We chose a teaming method through which teachers assign students to four-member, mixed-ability learning teams. All team members are expected to help one another master learning objectives. Teachers call on students at random to represent their teams, and teams earn recognition if the selected students give the right answers. As students take responsibility for preparing one another and helping one another learn new material, they become actively involved in lessons.
In fall 2006, 11th grade teachers in all subjects began instituting cooperative learning with their students. (We started with 11th grade because that's the high school testing year in Pennsylvania.) The Center for Data-Driven Reform in Education provided teachers with materials, training, and coaching in cooperative methods.
We also brought students into data discussions. After teachers analyzed data from the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment and quarterly district benchmark assessments in English, math, and science, they used this information to plan instruction and—most important—to let students know where the school stood and where each of them stood personally. In whole-school assemblies, class discussions, and one-on-one meetings, we shared test results with students. Together, teachers and students set class goals and personal goals for raising scores.
The school set up individual tutoring and Saturday learning sessions (which included free transportation and lunch) to help students reach those goals. When a team or an entire class made significant progress, the whole group earned pizza parties, movie tickets, and "Furness Bucks" that could be traded in for extra credit. These structures ensured that 11th grade students not only cooperated within their small teams, but also began to cooperate as a whole class to ensure that everyone was learning.

School Becomes Exciting

The change was electrifying for both students and teachers. Within a month, many 11th graders were excited to be at school for the first time. School became fun, social, competitive, and exciting. Classroom instruction became less dependent on teachers presenting information to passive students and more dependent on teamwork and strategizing. As teachers built in time for students to talk over important or hard-to-understand ideas with their teammates before supplying answers, classroom observers soon heard more "student talk" than "teacher talk." Often, students were discussing how they figured out an answer rather than just exchanging bits of information.
Students enjoyed interacting with the material and with one another. They began asking teachers to let them stop and talk to their teams when they didn't understand something. When cooperative learning is done right, classrooms function like sports teams, and most of these students knew all about teams and what it meant to be a good teammate. The students themselves started to reverse the devil's bargain as they pulled peers into discussions that they all needed to have to learn.
Throughout this process, teachers and students alike used data as a touchstone and a spur to change. We brought students into discussions about how to improve the reality that the achievement data reflected. Teacher teams and school leaders monitored team scores, class performances on quarterly assessments, attendance figures, and other indicators and shared most of these data with students.
To keep competition healthy, we made clear that the goal was to increase the number of teams receiving each reward rather than to weed students out and reward only a small number of top groups. We always combined "goodies" with recognition for a job well done, such as through commendations by the regional superintendent, press releases sent to local papers, and invitations to family members to reward parties. Such recognition really seemed to matter to students. At first, interestingly, material rewards were a way for students to save face with peers ("I just want the pizza, I don't care if some teacher tells me I did a good job"). But once the peer culture began to support academic achievement, it became more acceptable to receive and savor official praise.
It was exciting to see students get interested in the data and ask how they could keep improving their scores on quarterly assessments. It wasn't just pizza at stake. It was pride. Students began to take real responsibility for their classes and their school.

Achieving Lasting Change

Since 2007, Furness has extended these reforms to the whole school—every teacher, every subject, every student. Now when the principal and her administrative team do walkthroughs, often with our Raising the Bar staff, they see kids engaged in lessons and encouraging one another. Classes are noisy and active—but they are noisy and active in learning.
Furness is not alone in showing how data analysis plus proven programs can equal turnaround. Elementary, middle, and high schools in Pennsylvania, Florida, Alabama, and other states are building on data-driven reform to incorporate teaching methods and school structures that have been proven to bring instruction—and student motivation—to life.
Successful data-driven reform must always lead to change within classrooms. As long as schools are held accountable for students' learning, it makes sense to carefully analyze strengths and weaknesses and monitor students' progress. Yet as Furness and dozens of schools throughout the United States have found out, analysis is only the beginning. Schools must address core changes for both instruction and student motivation to see lasting change.

Robert E. Slavin has contributed to educational leadership.

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