Philadelphia Metropolis

Metropolis Report


Making Schools Work: Part II

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By Connie Langland

In a previous life I was the PSSA maven, the go-to reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer for dissecting and putting a headline on the annual state math and reading tests that are the bane of every principal's existence. This was even before No Child Left Behind, the 2002 federal education law that slowly but surely exerted pressure on teachers and principals, not to mention students, to improve academic performance.

As a journalist, it was jarring to consider the disparities in test results, how they could vary even among schools in a midsized township, and how all too often those results seemed to be linked to the relative poverty or wealth of the school's neighborhood. How hard can it be to teach the fundamentals of reading and math? I would ask myself. It's not rocket science.

That's what I used to think. Then it finally dawned me: no, it is not rocket science. It's a whole lot harder than rocket science.

But, it can be done, as the following examples show.

Learn to read, learn to learn

Hovering at 80 percent proficiency on state PSSAs, little Springfield Township in Delaware County was doing good but not great teaching children to read in the early part of the last decade. The district set its goal at 100 percent, and set up the equivalent of a literacy safety net to catch all children.

Superintendent James Capolupo promised parents: "If you give us the gift of time, your children in first grade, we will get the job done."

What Springfield did was not original but it was like a blanket: a strong reading program that works for most students, plus one-on-one tutoring and adaptive software programs, even a trampoline and other gym equipment to improve hand-eye coordination and mental focus. Now the schools, K-12, are scoring a respectable 90Stetson24.jpg percent proficiency or above.

Capolupo's point was this: learning to read by age 7 opens all doors, and the generals in charge of reading need to employ every strategy to accomplish that. Children who fail to learn to read stumble not only in reading but in all other classes as well. Initially, they are puzzled, then by turns frustrated, ashamed, angry and of course turned off to learning.

One strategy focuses on teaching children the 44 phonemes, or bits of sound, that comprise spoken English. The word she, for instance, has two: sh and ee. Most children learn to distinguish these basic sounds as toddlers, through conversation and the reading of nursery rhymes and the singing of songs. For a variety of reasons, including no access to preschool, too many children need what amounts to sound therapy to overcome that deficit and bolster the neural pathways that facilitate strong reading skills.

Commercial software called Fast ForWord and other programs seek to train the brain to hear these sounds so that the child catches every word the teacher has to say. So kindergarten teachers in Norristown rhyme and rhyme and rhyme. Pottstown students don earphones in Fast ForWord labs. Backers say that students can gain as much as two years in skills in a matter of months.

As Capolupo insists, the answer to reading issues is to try, try again.

Real-time remediation 

Here's a secret: Using technology and their wits, teachers now have the ability to track student progress day by day, lesson by lesson.  The concept is called formative assessment, that is, determining whether individual students and the class as a whole have absorbed the lesson du jour. No letter grade is assigned, the assessment is for the benefit of the teacher, who can refine instruction, and the student, who may get extra help.

Stetson13.jpgOne method is low-tech--asking students to hold up a red, green or yellow cards signifying their level of understanding. Or, using keypads, students answer questions, and the resulting tally alerts the teacher whether all, some or none answered correctly. Yet another approach lets the teacher make a quick assessment of each child's understanding of a concept on a Palm Pilot, far more effective than trying to make a mental note.

This is powerful stuff. Using the data, the teacher can offer more instruction to the whole class, give a mini-lesson to those students who are struggling, or tutor the one child who is falling behind. This is individualized instruction and it's essential to reaching every child.

Having such information at hand also makes it imperative that the teacher be willing to reach out to the parent sooner than later (or not at all) when an issue arises.

Watchful caring

And children need that kind of attention at school. They need watchful adults who know them well enough to notice changes in behavior or performance. At the elementary level, that would be the child's classroom teacher. Some schools rely on the homeroom teacher as the point person. An effective method assigns a teacher as a mentor to a manageable number of students.

At the Science Leadership Academy, a district-run, special-admission school in Center City, a teacher becomes adviser to about 20 students at the start of their freshman year. Math teacher Brad Latimer's charges are now seniors and he has watched their struggles and successes over the span of their high school career.

"If a student is struggling, the concerns all go through the advisor. So I would sit down with the counselor, the student assistance team. It's a really seamless way of helping a student," Latimer said.

Science Leadership is a special-admission school, and the question arises whether what works at SLA can work in a neighborhood school. On the topic of advisories, why not?

Mastering, not just coasting

Segueing back to the topic of successful instruction and learning, SLA has resurrected a nascent trend of the 1990s--outcomes-based education and mastery learning--which came under fire from conservatives and failed to take hold, at least under that label.

The idea of mastery is straightforward: nearly all children can master math, reading and other subjects but some children may need more time or instruction. It's like a child learning to ride a bike; some get their balance on the first try, others need practice, practice, practice. Schools that embrace mastery don't accept C-level performance; they set the bar at B or higher. That means--oh, the horror--that Stetson18.jpgstudents get more than one chance to master the material; they get a second, even a third shot at the test.

SLA aligns instruction with state and national standards, and though the school promotes projects over test-taking, students are assessed to be sure the student meets or exceeds the standard in question.

"We give standards-based quizzes. We start by breaking down every course into learning blocks called standards, and every single standard is assessed through the course of the year," Latimer said.

What's different is that students have essentially an unlimited number of opportunities to raise their grade. One student, for instance, flubbed the Pythagorean Theorum at least twice before coming to that aha moment of understanding.

 "We're trying to shift the focus away from the situation where the student either knows the material by test day, or doesn't, but moves on either way. If you did poorly on the quiz, you had no motivation to go back and attempt to learn the material," Latimer said. Second chances are essential to skill acquisition.

What's brewing  ...

The Philadelphia region over the last two decades has been a brewing pot of education innovation. The strongest programs to emerge, in my opinion, have shown they can tackle such intractable issues as school violence, student disengagement and low achievement.

And what these innovators have learned, through trial and error, is that children can learn if you follow these paths: 

·        Adults must establish control of a school; otherwise, teaching and learning fall victim to mayhem.

·        Educators must offer students real-world experiences; not doing so is akin to giving up on them before they themselves give up on school.

·        Schools have the know-how to teach reading; shirking from employing every strategy amounts to dereliction of duty at the classroom, building and district level.

·        Teachers must acquire the expertise to assess students not just for a grade but to improve learning; failing to do so shortchanges the student and reflects poorly on the teacher's professionalism.

·        Schools should ensure that each child is well known to at least one adult in the school; not having that connection represents a missed opportunity to help shape that child's future.

·        School leaders should consider the potential of mastery learning, tied as it is to extra time and extra effort; otherwise, mediocrity will continue to prevail in too many classrooms.

Finally, no matter the particulars of the approaches described here, they share one key quality: the belief that what matters is the student -- not the bureaucracy, not tradition, and not doing things the easy way.


Photos of students and staff at Stetson Middle School by Peter Tobia.

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