The assignment sounded clear enough: Find schools making demonstrable improvements to student achievement, then explain how they did it so that others might do the same.
Education Lab reporters could look anywhere for these lessons. The only criteria were evidence of success and ideas that could be transferred without a tremendous investment of extra time or money. In other words, we would look beyond examples of individual heroism to practices that could be replicated broadly.
Would we find advances in brain science that influenced the best classroom teachers? Were there little-known techniques that worked magic?
Hardly. Twelve months, 17 stories and hundreds of blog posts later, our team has interviewed students, parents and educators from the West Coast to the Heartland, identifying new ways to improve instruction, help more kids finish high school and go to college. Yet there were certain basic themes common to every successful effort.
Lesson No. 1: It’s not as hard to make change as it sometimes seems. Beyond that, see below.
Strong relationships are a must
For students, the importance of a consistent relationship with a caring adult — though rarely discussed in debates about charter schools or teachers unions — emerged over and over as a precursor to high achievement.
That concept underpins the use of young mentors at Aki Kurose Middle School to stem chronic absenteeism among kids who think no one will notice if they don’t show up. It also inspired Toppenish High School to pair each student with a faculty adviser who keeps up with them from freshman year through graduation.
At Toppenish, the entire student body qualifies as low-income, and Education Lab focused on the school primarily for its success in incorporating high-end math and science into a curriculum for all. But Toppenish’s emphasis on creating enduring relationships has been key to its 94-percent graduation rate — a figure surpassing those at many far more affluent schools.
Faculty at Gildo Rey Elementary in Auburn, which rose to become one of the highest-performing elementary schools in the state, said much the same. And in higher education, Education Lab found another version of this approach at Walla Walla Community College.
Nationally, results for timely college completion are lousy — and getting worse. But at Walla Walla, “completion coaches” track down students who are drifting away, and do intensive problem-solving. Often it’s a tiny thing – help with car repairs or a job-schedule adjustment — that can get students back to class and across the graduation stage.
The result? Completion rates at Walla Walla are 16 percentage points above the national average.
Broad buy-in is key
No one makes lasting change as a solo player.
When Principal Anne Reece at White Center Heights Elementary decided that the most efficient way to improve students’ math skills would be grouping them by test scores — a controversial practice known as “tracking” — she needed back-up.
Reece found this in Highline Superintendent Susan Enfield, who had hired the principal only months before with a mandate to improve performance at the long-languishing school.
But Reece also needed to get her teachers on board, many of whom were uncomfortable labeling students in “ability groups.” For them, data was the linchpin. Reece walked her staff through a blunt and granular analysis of test results, determining, class by class, where teachers were making progress and where they needed to try something new.
Nine months later, scores for students at White Center Heights had shot up in every grade – most by double digits.
At Gildo Rey Elementary, success in turning a high-poverty school into one of the state’s top performers started with just a handful of teachers. But they wouldn’t have gotten far without support from their principal and superintendent, who allowed them to toss the district’s curriculum and devise their own.
Crucially, principal Robin Logan did not require the rest of her staff to follow suit. She allowed them to watch the experiment unfold. When it did, stunningly, they wanted to try the new methods, too.
The message: Improvements need buy-in to take root, or else they will wither.
Willingness to adjust
With math scores in the cellar at Renton’s Lakeridge Elementary, teachers there knew that they, too, had to do something drastically different. The answer? In part, humility.
Lakeridge hired math coaches from the University of Washington to help teachers update their classroom techniques, with a focus on helping students understand math. In daylong trainings, teachers and their coaches would try out new approaches in the morning, and refine them in the afternoon.
Anything that hit the mark with kids, they kept. Whatever didn’t, they jettisoned. Today, their math scores are soaring.
Flexibility is also a hallmark of Kent’s nationally-heralded iGrad program.
High school dropouts may be among the most difficult pupils to re-engage, but iGrad — where students can earn a diploma, prepare for a GED certificate or attend community college classes — is built around an individual approach
“It’s about subject mastery, not seat-time,” says Kent Superintendent Edward Lee Vargas.
At iGrad, that means students can work online, at their own pace, or come in for one-on-one skills instruction.
It’s only logical: Squeezing one million Washington kids through a single curriculum or instructional style is a strategy guaranteed to fail. The most dynamic public schools trust educators to adapt to the specific needs of the pupils sitting before them.
The themes that Education Lab explored were gathered, loosely, around ways to improve student performance. But going forward into 2015, public policy debates over the Common Core State Standards and the McCleary school funding decision are likely to dominate debates about public education in Washington.
With that in mind, Education Lab will examine school financing, teacher evaluation and student discipline, all hot-button issues nationally that have important resonance here.
Readers have been an important part of this series from the outset, and this year we’ll be looking to you more than ever. So communicate with us. Tell us what you want to see covered. Point us toward interesting developments we may have missed. Come to one of our live events, send in an opinion piece or comment on the Education Lab blog.
Education is truly a group effort, and we want to widen the circle.
ABOUT EDUCATION LAB: Education Lab, a series of stories and blog, examines promising approaches to some of the most persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization formed to spread the practice of solutions-oriented journalism. The project is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
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