What does a school in rural Kansas, Queens, New York; Worcester, Massachusetts and inner city New Orleans all have in common? They all have proven that it is possible for schools of poverty to achieve outstanding success in making sure that all students not only learn, but learn exceedingly well.
Learning-Focused had the privilege of attending the 2014 Education Trust Conference “Become the Change: Closing Gaps in Opportunity and Achievement” where these hard-working high poverty, high minority, high performing schools were recognized for their outstanding success and given the opportunity to share the “secrets” to their success. It’s not surprising that while each school is unique in some ways, they all shared common patterns in what they did that allowed them to far surpass typical schools.
The administrators of these schools all agree that a laser like focus on quality instruction is crucial to student success. John Capozzi is principal of Elmont Memorial High School outside of Queens, New York, where graduation rates are in the high nineties and forty-five percent of students receive advanced designations on their diplomas. Capozzi attributes the school’s culture of success to the teachers. “Our teachers believe that how they teach directly affects student achievement. We understand and embrace the importance of teacher effectiveness in the classroom.” With Effective Teaching as the cornerstone of Learning-Focused, it is clear that more than any other instructional model, Learning-Focused cultivates a culture of highly effective teaching in your school. Mr. Capozzi strongly believes in the power of professional learning to support effective teaching. He calls himself a “teacher of teachers” and ensures that after professional development and every observation, teachers get meaningful feedback that moves them forward in their learning. At Elmont, teachers play a vital role in professional development with faculty members leading monthly professional development sessions for the staff. “Professional development occurs every month, every week, every day,” says Capozzi. Schools that take advantage of the Learning-Focused resources and professional development that enable school leaders and teachers to become experts within their schools tend to have higher achievement. Learning-Focused Training of Trainers, Learning-Focused Facilitator Training, and the Learning-Focused Strategies in Action books provide teachers and school leaders with the knowledge, skills and resources to implement effective job-embedded professional development.
All of the schools considered high expectations of themselves and of their students as key to their success. Principals talked about building the culture of the school around high expectations with the adult culture driving the student culture. When teachers operate from a fixed mindset that students are doing the best they can do based on their backgrounds, student achievement suffers. These high performing schools all embrace a growth mindset and a belief that students can always “do more.” Karin Chenoweth, Writer-in-Residence at the Education Trust has spent ten years studying what she calls “It’s Being Done Schools.” One of the patterns she points out is that the adults in these schools have an expectation that their students will learn and they make it a priority to master the skills and knowledge necessary to teach students well. High Expectations is one of the 4 Dimensions of Learning-Focused. It is vital that teachers understand what high expectations means for their subject and grade level, and plan and instruct accordingly. Everyone thinks they have high expectations, but truly understanding specifically what it means in day-to-day teaching is paramount for student success. Teachers using the Levels of Learning framework of Learning-Focused, can demonstrate by the artifacts of their student assignments and assessments that high expectations is more than a token objective. Drew Charter School is located in what was at one time the most crime-ridden zip code in metropolitan Atlanta. Formerly one of the lowest performing schools in the state, it has now doubled its proficiency rate and proven that success does not depend on your zip code. At Drew, the curriculum emphasizes authentic problem-solving with units built around in-depth inquiry, authentic application, collaboration and public service. As an example, students used standards-driven science content, research-skills, and problem-solving skills to develop solutions to Atlanta’s difficulties in dealing with winter weather conditions. Teachers plan collaboratively and intentionally to integrate the curriculum to make it meaningful for their students. Learning-Focused provides schools with a proven framework that ensures all lessons are grade level appropriate and that students deepen understanding by moving through the four levels of learning in each lesson.
Support for All Students
Bethune Elementary School is a 100% free and reduced lunch school in inner city New Orleans. In 2014 98% of their sixth graders scored at basic and above on state tests and 44% scored at advanced levels. In this high poverty school teachers clearly understand the critical importance of systematic vocabulary instruction to close the word gap. Every day all students are engaged in actively learning content vocabulary needed to be successful academically. Teachers use interactive games, graphic organizers and other hands-on strategies to engage students.
To be exemplary, students who are 1, 2, 3 grades or more behind in reading, math, and other subjects need to be caught up using specific acceleration practices, not just receive remediation. With Learning-Focused, your school can accelerate achievement by addressing the root causes that struggling students face through planning for possible struggle points during instruction while still providing challenge for those who need it.
“With kids, you can’t stick to one way of teaching vocabulary,” said dynamic kindergarten teacher, Sherice Walker. “I take their games and make them my own,” Sherice shared. Take, for example, Hot Potato. Instead of tossing around a “hot” potato until the music stops, kindergartners each have a word on a piece of paper that they read as they pass it along to the next student. When the music stops, Sherice calls on a student: Who has the word ‘grin’? When did you grin today? And she asks another student: What made you grin? And another: How do you grin? “You’ve got to be rigorous in content, but relevant in your approach,” says Sherice. The latest research shows us that students must know approximately 95% of the words they hear and read for successful comprehension. Learning-Focused Lessons maintain an emphasis on consistent and pervasive vocabulary instruction which is a building block for student success and offers a variety of resources for Vocabulary Instruction to support a school-wide commitment to close the achievement gap and raise achievement for all students
It comes as no surprise that strong leadership was a major factor in the success of each of the schools highlighted. All of the principals validated the conclusions of a 6-year study in 9 states, 45 districts and 180 schools:
“To date, we have not found a single case of a school improving its student achievement record in the absence of talented leadership.”
Louis, Leithwood, Wahlstrom & Anderson (2010). Learning from leadership: Investigating the links to improved student learning.
With Learning-Focused , not only do school leaders actively participate in all professional development, but as part of the Continuous Improvement dimension of Learning-Focused, they learn more about leading from the country’s highest achieving school leaders. Advancing Schools: Lessons from Exemplary Leaders, Monitoring for Achievement, and School Leader Coaching are just a few of the resources and support that Learning-Focused provides leaders to help them inspire their teachers.
A lunch keynote featured a conversation between Ed Trust’s Sonja Santelises and Susan Bunting, Superintendent of Indian River School District and the prototype of a talented leader. In Indian River 65 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-priced lunches and 16 percent are English language learners, and yet student achievement is regularly among the highest in the state. Indian River began implementing LEARNING-FOCUSED as their instructional framework over ten years ago, and they continue to provide professional growth opportunities to support their teachers and school leaders in maximizing their effectiveness.
A common theme heard over and over from the principals of the high performing schools was a resounding claim: “We have made great gains, but there’s room for improvement. We’re not there yet.” The principals of these schools not only want students to be proficient on state tests, but also to have opportunities to graduate from high school and have postsecondary choices such as college and meaningful work.
These schools also recognize the singular importance of collaboration in making those gains. Principals talked about pooling the expertise of all staff members to help all students be successful. In her opening address, Kati Haycock, President of the Education Trust, also underscored the importance of collaboration: “Alone change is possible; together, it is inevitable.” LFS EngagED is an online collaboration platform for educators that embracing exemplary practices. LFS EngagED has powerful apps and resources for collaboratively planning effective lessons, assignments, assessments, and curriculum maps.. LFS EngagED Members can use the thousands of resources to plan, monitor, and increase the quality of their implementation of exemplary practices.
These schools that have figured it out are a reminder to us all that it is not programs or political agendas that bring about success. It is a strong focus on effective teaching, high expectations, support for all students, and continuous improvement. And that is how they do it.