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June 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 9

Schools Moving Up

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When consultants at WestEd begin working with a low-performing school to help that school raise student achievement, staff members sometimes ask skeptically whether the research-based principles and strategies for school improvement that we present have worked in other schools. They want to know what these principles look like in action, in real school environments.
To answer that question, WestEd's Northern California Comprehensive Assistance Center conducted extensive interviews with administrators and teacher leaders from 18 schools in California and Nevada that have dramatically improved students' achievement—what we call “schools on the move.” Some of these schools are profiled on the Web site SchoolsMovingUp, designed by WestEd to support educators working with low-performing schools ( All the schools we examined served high numbers of traditionally at-risk students, but they varied in terms of grade levels included, size, and ethnic composition of the student body. We selected schools whose student test scores were low when their statewide testing first began but who made dramatic gains or who raised their test scores and consistently kept them high. Most important, the selected schools were not letting any group of students fall behind academically.
We brought no preconceived investigative framework to aid us in looking at these schools, wanting to learn the story of each individual school's reform effort. These schools were able to clearly articulate what they were doing to meet students' needs and had remarkably similar solutions to major challenges. The elements that led to their success—insisting on high expectations, using performance data to drive decision making, creating a focused plan, fostering interactive administrative leadership, embedding professional development in school culture, aligning curriculum to standards, and reaching out to parents—embody principles of school improvement identified in other research.

High Expectations: Beyond Pobrecito

A typical challenge for low-performing schools is overcoming the often ingrained belief that not all students will be able to master challenging academic standards. In the schools we studied, staff members infused high expectations into day-to-day practice inside and outside the classroom. Principals communicated the message that every student was expected to achieve to high standards. Teachers, administrators, and support staff worked together to identify interventions and resources to help any students who were having difficulty. Failure was not an option.
Many schools that were primarily nurturing environments found that they needed to become more academically challenging. For example, many staff members at Colin Powell Academy in Long Beach, California, believed that the students' outside lives were so difficult that they shouldn't be pushed hard in school. This is sometimes called the pobrecito or “poor baby” syndrome. Principal Denise Peterson told her staff that if they continued to think of their students in that way, they would never break the cycle of poverty or racism. Once teachers began to hold their students to high academic expectations (while still providing necessary support), student achievement improved remarkably and continued to improve every year.
Principals helped teachers see that although they can't affect a student's life outside school, they can control the teaching and learning that takes place within school. During a staff meeting at Horace Mann Elementary School in Glendale, California, soon after the school had been placed on an improvement list, principal Lynda Christian challenged all the teachers to look at the student names on their class lists and, if there was any child they were not capable of teaching to read, to let her know now. Christian made clear that she expected teachers to believe that all students can learn—and that she would commit to providing the support necessary. That staff meeting is remembered vividly by all, even years later.

Making Data Part of the Culture

These “schools on the move” used performance data and assessments continually to make instructional and programmatic decisions; using data in this way became an important part of school culture. Educators realized that to improve student achievement they needed more detailed and more frequent information than that provided through statewide assessments. Schools developed site-based assessments and drew data from multiple sources.
For instance, statewide assessments of students at Horace Mann showed that reading was students' weakest area. As staff members dug deeper into the data, they learned that students had strong decoding and fluency skills but were struggling with comprehension. A majority of Horace Mann's students are English language learners. To understand more about these students' comprehension, the teachers administered assessments appropriate to second-language learners—the Language Assessment Scales to monitor students' oral language skills and listening comprehension, and an English language proficiency checklist to get data on their English reading and writing skills—to get more clues about students' comprehension. Throughout each school year, teachers frequently assessed students' reading accuracy and comprehension, using the Developmental Reading Assessment (Pearson Learning), John's Basic Reading Inventory (Kendall Publishing), and the STAR Reading computerized assessment (Renaissance Learning). Having multiple measures and understanding how to analyze those measures helped this school hone in on what its students needed.
In addition, Horace Mann trained its teachers to level books according to reading difficulty and to take frequent running records—a method of recording reading accuracy and errors as students read aloud—for each student to ensure that students chose books at their instructional level during small-group instruction.

A Focused Plan

For many schools under pressure to improve student achievement, setting priorities is a significant challenge. The awareness that there is so much to tackle often leads to taking on a lot of issues inadequately rather than identifying and solving a core issue. Through the process of analyzing data and identifying strengths and weaknesses, principals in these schools on the move identified a clear focus, which enabled the schools to write a school plan that they could truly use as a road map.
Martin Luther King Elementary School in El Centro, California, developed a five-year plan that spelled out steps the school would take to improve students' skills in reading, language arts, and mathematics. These steps included training teachers to use the Open Court Reading program, administering reading assessments every six weeks, and creating summer intervention programs for English language learners and at-risk students. The school used this five-year plan to guide all decisions regarding professional development, resource allocation, personnel recruitment, student placement, and program implementation. At leadership team and staff meetings, King principal Sherry Kolset-Gray modeled how to use the plan to make decisions. Kolset-Gray notes, Because we have a very firm parameter and really clear goals of where we want to go, decisions are relatively easy. We ask, “Will this directly impact the performance of students who are not meeting grade-level standards in our focus area?”, and if the answer is no, it doesn't happen.

Interactive Principal Leadership

Principals we interviewed knew that they needed to be visible instructional leaders. No matter how busy these principals were, they consistently observed in classrooms—not just for formal evaluations but also to monitor teaching and learning and to actively ensure that the objectives outlined in their school plans and the strategies discussed during professional development activities were being implemented. Some developed creative strategies for quickly observing and analyzing teacher practice. Ross Swearingen, principal at Brentwood Elementary School in Victorville, California, kept track of classroom visits on his handheld computer, making quick calculations of the number of students on task and checking that teachers were teaching appropriate standards and implementing appropriate strategies. One year, Swearingen completed 600 informal teacher observations.
Effective principals also made sure to interact with students and nurture relationships with them. They connected with parents in any way possible and encouraged teachers to do the same. As a new principal at Colin Powell Academy, Denise Peterson became actively involved in discipline and academic instruction and made herself visible on campus. Every morning, she drove to the school's four bus stops to check in with students, and every afternoon she walked home with students who lived in the surrounding neighborhoods. Peterson got to know students and parents and, as a result, was able to defuse many discipline situations before they escalated. This presence in the community even helped her establish a good relationship with local merchants, who found that students were better-behaved when they came in after school knowing their principal was close by. Now if there is a problem, the merchants call Peterson before calling the police.
The principal's regular contact with students had an immediate impact on the culture of Colin Powell Academy. Peterson still starts her mornings greeting students at the bus stop, and she serves as a mentor to selected middle school students, who check in with their principal three times a day. Suspensions and discipline problems have dramatically decreased.

Redefining Professional Development

When professional development consists of teachers attending conferences or training on the basis of their individual interests as well as some mandated sessions, teacher collaboration rarely happens. The schools we profiled realized that professional development must be on-site and ongoing and that anytime teachers are together should be time for mutual learning. These schools changed their definition of professional development to include data analysis, professional reading, dialogue, and joint evaluation of student work. Principals kept administrative business to a minimum during staff meetings, often distributing a weekly bulletin about school business so that meetings could focus on teaching and learning.
Many schools “banked” time to carve out a weekly professional development period. Martha Baldwin School in Alhambra, California, added instructional minutes to four weekdays so that school could start later every Thursday. Staff members used that found time for grade-level meetings and whole-staff development. During grade-level meetings, teachers reviewed data and student work, using the information to plan curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Many schools found that looking at student work collaboratively made for very powerful professional development. Teachers came to agreement about what good work looks like and were able to diagnose stumbling blocks. For example, at Birmingham Senior High School in Los Angeles, teachers realized that students had grasped how to write a thesis statement but that many struggled with how to support a thesis with evidence.
Teachers cited formal time for collaboration as one of the most important factors in school improvement. One teacher from Martin Luther King Elementary School in El Centro said,In the past, we had to touch base in the hallways, at lunch, or after school. Now, at our grade-level meetings, we analyze data from our six-week assessments and we look at student work. We compare our data to see if one of us is having more success with a concept, so that person can help the rest of us. We give each other support and ideas as to how we can improve.

Standards-Based Curriculum and Instruction

Too many schools lack continuity in curriculum and instruction. There might be pockets of excellence in certain classrooms, but no consistency. The schools we interviewed realized the importance of having all teachers on the same page, first determining priorities through data analysis and then aligning curriculum, instruction, and assessments within grade levels and schoolwide to ensure continuity of instruction.
A prime example is teachers' practice at Merced Elementary School in West Covina, California. Teachers hold weekly grade-level meetings to plan instruction that is aligned with state standards and with previously agreed-on assessments of quality performance. All students in a given grade level receive the same instruction and homework with the same expectations every day. Grade-level teams also meet periodically with other grade levels to ensure articulation throughout the school. Merced Elementary's principal, Marjorie Miller, regularly assigns twin students to different classrooms and expects that their parents will find homework focusing on the same standards assigned by both teachers each night.
When observing in classrooms, administrators in successful schools like Merced look for similar curriculum and instruction as they move among different classes within each grade level. Principals ensure that students have equal access to the instruction and that instruction is standards-based. Lis Ramos Hanacek, principal at Martha Baldwin, told us,Schoolwide instructional strategies are visible in our literacy program. A visitor to any classroom during our basic skills literacy program would see the same implementation of phonics awareness. They would see comprehension strategies that are common across every single grade level.

Drawing in Parents

Educators often see parent involvement in terms of what parents need to do, such as to help their children with homework. These schools instead focused on how they could meet parents' needs—helping parents feel comfortable at the school, better involving them in their children's schooling, and creating a sense of community. Principals ensured that school staff members were visible and regularly communicated with parents, especially when there was not a problem. Many schools offered resources for parents, such as loaning out English and Spanish books and laptop computers or hosting English as a second language classes.
At Rancho Santa Gertrudes Elementary School in Santa Fe Springs, California, principal Jonathan Vasquez draws in parents who want to volunteer but who don't feel comfortable participating in the classroom or cannot commit to a specific time. He set aside a room at the school where parents can get together to socialize and help teachers. Teachers leave a list of specific job requests in the room, along with instructions and needed materials; parents can choose any job and complete it as time allows.

Schools on a Journey

Our interviews with these “schools on the move” confirmed another important aspect of school improvement that research has suggested: The school improvement process is a complex puzzle with many pieces. No school identified a single program it adopted or a curriculum it purchased as a major turning point. All the principals we spoke with said that they can and will continue to do more to improve the achievement of all students. School improvement is an arduous journey rather than a destination.

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