PATHWAYS TO CHANGE
As part of this study, principals – in interviews, and teachers – in open-ended questionnaires, were asked about key pathways that led to school improvement. A variation of the Critical Incident Technique (CIT)7 was used to generate reports of key events and/or experiences resulting in school improvement. Interviewees and questionnaire respondents were provided with the following prompt:
Overall, in the last three years, your school has experienced very positive gains in student achievement. Reflecting back on your experience as a key stakeholder in a QEIA school, please think about one incident or experience that you feel had a particular influence on your school’s success. This could have been either positive or negative.
Three questions followed the prompt:
➊ Please describe the incident or experience, including what it was, when it occurred and who was involved.
➋ What do you think was so important about this incident or experience?
➌ How did this incident or experience make a difference in your school’s success?
From principals and teachers, 174 incidents were initially identified. Thirty-nine accounts were removed during content analysis because they did not contain a specific incident (i.e., were too general), did not address the questions, were ambiguous, or were uncommon (i.e., mentioned by too few respondents). The remaining 135 incidents were categorized.
Seven categories of incidents emerged from the analysis:
➊ Reducing Class Size;
➋ Leveraging Collaboration Time;
➌ Responding to Student Needs;
➍ Building Local Accountability;
➎ Recognizing and Rewarding Students;
➏ Using Student Data to Intervene; and
➐ Strengthening Leadership
As illustrated in Table 1, Reducing Class Size and Leveraging Collaboration Time were the pathways noted most often by respondents, 27% and 24%, respectively. Using Student Data to Intervene and Strengthening Leadership, while noteworthy, were less common across respondents.
REDUCING CLASS SIZE
QEIA legislation requires funded schools to achieve and maintain small class sizes in all core subjects as follows:
1. For K-3, no more than 20:1 per class;
2. For self-contained classrooms in grades 4 to 8, maintain the lesser of either a grade-level class size reduction (CSR) ratio of 25:1 (no one class to exceed 27 pupils), or have classroom averages of at least five pupils fewer per classroom than the average in 2006/07;
3. For subject specific classrooms (English language arts, reading, math, science, and history/social studies) in grades 4 to 12, maintain the lesser of either a grade-level CSR ratio of 25:1 (no one class to exceed 27 pupils), or have grade-level averages of at least five pupils fewer per classroom than the average in 2006/07.
The reduction of class size was considered by many teachers and principals to be a catalyzing event for instructional changes in schools. One teacher at an exemplary middle school put it this way:
I would say that the most significant occurrence at our school, due to QEIA, would be class-size reduction, which was a great catalyst for the positive changes that took place at [our school]. Teachers were able to focus more on instruction, rather than having to deal with constant behavioral problems, which come with larger class sizes. Students were able to get a better quality education, which helped them to be more successful in their studies, as well as classroom performance, which resulted in higher scores. Manageable class sizes enabled teachers to have better classroom control…resulting in more one-on-one or small group instruction opportunities. The entire school climate changed; teachers were less stressed, and student behavior improved.
As a key pathway, CSR opened the door to instructional opportunities that would not exist otherwise8. Respondents commonly noted that CSR paved the way for the following changes in instruction:
1. More small group instruction;
2. Differentiated instruction;
3. Individual time with each student;
4. Instruction geared toward developing more complex skills;
5. Expanded time for re-teaching; and
6. Frequent and ongoing assessment.
These changes to instruction occurred largely because teachers found it easier to efficiently manage classroom behavior with fewer students in the room. There were fewer student disruptions and less behavioral challenges, which resulted in more time for instruction as well as a more engaged, focused class of students.
Moreover, because teachers were able to spend more time with individual students, they developed stronger relationships and a greater awareness of student needs. Furthermore, more frequent assessment provided valuable information that could be used to tailor instruction. Such differentiated instruction was particularly valuable for struggling learners and students with special needs who were mainstreamed. A few teachers explained:
I have one student, in particular, who has gained and demonstrated progress. He is in Special Education but has the one-on-one attention from me, thanks to the number of students in my class. He has grown so much, academically and socially. He loves coming to school every day.
QEIA has made a huge difference in the education of our students, especially in the life of my autistic student. Due to small classes, he’s communicating with classmates and teachers with phrases and making eye contact for a couple of seconds. He’s reading aloud in class and at home.
Class size reduction allowed teachers to instruct small groups and focus on student needs. Because of class size reduction and small group instruction, teachers were allowed to analyze assessments that indicated which content standards students were struggling with and help them catch up.
PAVING THE WAY: STAFFING FOR CSR
One exemplary middle school in Southern California made the strategic decision to hire elementary school teachers with multiple subject credentials in order to support instruction in grade-level communities. Rather than the traditional middle school model of 50 minute periods, the school organized into communities in which students were taught multiple subjects, with the same teacher, for longer blocks of time. Reductions in force (due to the ongoing financial crisis in California) had resulted in a large number of unemployed elementary school teachers in the district; the school used this opportunity to hire teachers that could instruct across subjects during the longer blocks:
What had happened is since we wanted to core and family our teachers, we went all multiple subject. We don’t have any single subject teachers on our campus, and that allows us to do this. Now to teach algebra in eighth grade, you do have to have a supplement or pass the CSET. But they are still multiple subject teachers. So we don’t have any single subject teachers on our campus.
Coincidentally, the new elementary teachers had previous experience with class size reduction and some of the more effective teaching strategies that could be used with fewer students in a classroom. The middle school capitalized on this new knowledge; they looked to these new teachers to learn how to differentiate instruction, use small groups appropriately, and team-teach.
We had a lot of elementary teachers come up, and so they brought a lot of their elementary strategies. And so with class size reduction, it gives a lot more room for that small group, individual instruction. And I think that’s the biggest thing. And to be honest with you, I think bringing some of these strategies from the elementary level, rather than standing up in front of a class and lecturing, is huge. And we’ve seen it, and we’ve even seen some of the veteran teachers that have been here kind of starting to transition into that through collaboration in grade-levels, and partner teachers, and things like that… If we feel a teacher needs some help with implementing a strategy, we’ll try to partner them with somebody strong that came up from the elementary level that can kind of work with them and help them out with that.
Moreover, the longer block of instructional time coupled with more individualized instruction resulted in more personal relationships with middle school students. The Assistant Principal expressed: “I think it gives those students a chance. Rather than with 51 minutes with one teacher per day, it gives them almost two hours with that teacher. And they only have two teachers for four subjects, and so it gives more…it’s more of a personal relationship between teacher and student… I think for us, it’s worked.”
Teachers echoed the benefits of spending more time with individual students and the ability to more effectively schedule and structure interventions due to the smaller class sizes:
From what I see, behavior is a lot more manageable, being able to spend more time with each student, do small group instruction. We’re able to schedule in more interventions with smaller groups. So, that way the kids who are struggling are able to get intervention classes for their electives where they actually get to work more closely with the teacher.
We can have collaborative groups in the classroom. I can spend time with my low students, not necessarily focusing all the time on others. They each get some time with me. It makes it a lot easier to structure interventions after school, lunchtime, during my prep period, if I need to call a student to come in. And I think because we are more accessible in my classroom, the kids do feel more comfortable leaving notes saying can I come see you during this period or I didn’t understand this today.
When asked how teachers accepted the change, one administrator commented: “There were a couple that tried to hold back, but I think once we totally implemented QEIA and we brought in all these new teachers, there was a revitalized sense of energy.”
LEVERAGING COLLABORATION TIME
As noted on page 2, as part of the requirements for the program, QEIA schools are required to provide high quality professional development to teachers and paraprofessionals. Schools must provide training to at least one-third of teachers and instructional paraprofessionals, and teachers at QEIA schools are required to participate in 40 hours, on average, of professional development annually. Professional development activities may include:
1. Collaboration time to develop lessons or analyze student data;
2. Mentoring projects for new teachers;
3. Support for teachers to improve practice.
With the emphasis on collaboration time in the legislation, it is not surprising that one-quarter of incidents gathered were focused on leveraging collaboration time to lead to better teaching practice. In fact, at least one stakeholder in each of the 10 exemplary schools cited collaboration as a key pathway to change.
As discussed in the first report of this series,9 collaboration requires several prerequisites to be effective, including: adequate commitment, willingness to innovate, sufficient trust and respect among participants, and supportive leadership. When these prerequisites were combined with a clear vision and sufficient time and resources, collaborative activities encouraged several transformative changes in school culture – enhanced data use, stronger professional communities, greater collective accountability, and increased instructional cohesion and coherence.
The findings from this research focused specifically on the most significant incident leading to change which were consistent with those in the first report. Collaboration served as a gateway to change, leading to three promising activities:
1. Planning Together;
2. Aligning Instruction; and
3. Sharing Practice.
One principal at a highly successful elementary school explained how teachers used their collaboration time to plan for and align instruction and make better use of assessments to improve teaching:
I think giving teachers time to plan and time to look at the curriculum and look at the state expectations of us, there’s no other time in the day where they have that luxury. I think that’s truly been beneficial for us, having the time and the product that has come out of that. They’ve created shared docs so they can access them in their classroom with the material, the curriculum, every single component of our language arts program, or math program, and they have shared files that they can open. They’re all teaching the same thing at the same time. So it becomes a true measure, when they’re all giving the same assessments. And they’re all coming together and looking at their results. Then you can really have a conversation of best practices.
Teachers at this same school concurred, describing how the school instituted Wild Card Days to facilitate planning and alignment at grade-level: “We have two Wild Card Days a year. The whole grade level has subs, and we spend the day uninterrupted working as a team to prepare and find out what our students need.” A teacher from the same school credited such planning time for being the primary reason for the school’s large gains in student achievement: “I feel that collaboration is the # 1 reason we’ve made huge gains…I look forward to having this time with my colleagues so that we can be focused solely on working with our students to get them where they need to be.”
Teachers and principals in many schools stressed the significance of reflecting on practice and sharing instructional strategies during collaboration time. One principal in an exemplary elementary school explained how their collaboration time was used to reflect on what went well and generate best practices collectively:
And just going back to that idea that many hands make light work, if you have lots of good teaching professionals that have good ideas and strategies, that’s number one. And then number two, after they’ve planned that lesson and taught that lesson and assessed that lesson, then to be able to come back and say, “Hey, did it work or did it not work?” And, “What is it that you did or didn’t do to make sure that kids got that? I mean, that’s really the gift of time and the gift of being able to collaborate. For teachers to be able to learn from one another is really what it’s all about.
A high school teacher echoed the importance of sharing with colleagues and said “When teachers get together to help one another to be better teachers, the kids win.” A middle school teacher elaborated and shared: “There is no one teacher who knows everything. Together we are more powerful and brainstorm to help all students in that grade-level meet mastery.”
Moreover, stakeholders used their collaboration time to drive ongoing improvement. One high school teacher summed it up well and said, “We are teaching to the standards, sharing our best practices and examining your performance critically, constantly looking to improve.”
PAVING THE WAY: BEING ON THE SAME PAGE
One exemplary elementary school serving about 500 students in Southern California attributed a great deal of their success to aligning instruction across and within grade levels, the benefits of which were reflected in their API score of 831 in 2012, 31 points above the state target of 800. When asked what has accounted for their school’s success, the principal emphatically stated:
I mean obviously it’s the refined process of teacher collaboration. I think that everything falls within that, because teachers, unless they’re working interdependently, unless they’re consistent with their implementation of our curriculum, it’s not going to move us forward. So I mean obviously it all begins with let’s analyze our data, where have we come, where do we still need to grow. Through that we say okay, we always focus in on our school plan what are our main goals.
With the highest EL population in the district, the school placed its instructional focus in three areas: 1) ELD instruction, 2) writing, and 3) guided reading. The principal commented: “Teachers are accountable for obviously teaching to the standards, which is our curriculum alignment,” and further detailed the process of fostering alignment among staff which included identifying and unpacking focus standards at the beginning of the year, as well as analyzing data throughout the year to identify strategies and interventions to help struggling students. When asked the effect of collaboration on her school’s success, the principal emphatically shared:
There’s no way we would have gotten this far with our test scores; with everything we’ve done. I mean, we were program improvement five and a half years ago. We’re nominated for a National Blue Ribbon school right now. That doesn’t happen overnight. That’s everybody working together and as a team, because they haven’t always been on the same teams.
In interviews, the majority of teachers also shared that having structured collaboration time really allowed the opportunity to be “on the same page” with their colleagues: “It is awesome, because we have the opportunity to talk and discuss, whereas before, there was hardly any opportunity. It would have to be after school and by the end of the day; it’s really tough to find the time to sit down.” Another teacher shared: “And I think it’s because of the collaboration time that we have, the planning time that we have, the teacher training that we’ve had that makes us all on the same page.”
When one teacher was asked what other schools would have to do to replicate their success with leveraging collaboration, she simply concluded: “They would have to have meaningful teacher collaboration, not just sit in a classroom for two hours and just talk about whatever. They would have to be data-driven. They would have to align their curriculum to the standards. I think that pretty much covers it.”
RESPONDING TO STUDENT NEEDS
Many school stakeholders emphasized the significance of changing school structures to find more instructional time for student intervention. They adjusted master schedules to provide for larger blocks of core instructional time, grouped students according to learning needs for re-teaching, added lunch time and pullout interventions, extended school days, adopted Response to Intervention models, implemented formal ELA and Math intervention frameworks, and provided for intensive tutoring. One teacher at an exemplary elementary school highlighted the importance of such structural changes to meeting the individual needs of students, explaining:
I believe interventions are key to our students’ success whether they’re before, during, or afterschool. Several teachers taught intervention. We have small groupings of students based on achievement level within the grade level. The small groups allow students to participate more. Instruction is more focused. Students feel more confident and teachers can actually see student progress.
Teachers and principals who identified this pathway realized that their struggling learners needed targeted support and extra time to practice reading or writing or cement a math concept. Rather than allow those students to simply move on to another subject or grade, they intervened purposefully to get them back on track:
[Our principal] implemented the Achievement schedule to give extended periods one day a week for each class. The longer periods allow teachers to use interventions to address specific concerns and help the students. We focused on the lowest students and gave them extra instructional time beyond the classroom time. They came to school earlier. It reached these students that didn’t have any previous letter knowledge and were falling behind academically and also losing confidence in learning.
In addition to maximizing intervention time, one school opted to create a freshman academy on campus to offer remediation or more intensive support to students during high school transition. The academy was launched to specifically support students that might have difficulty in high school. One teacher explained, “It helped to focus on an at-risk group that needed the intervention to help make sure they had all the resources to pass their freshman year.”
Academy students were identified based on eighth grade performance; approximately 130-140 students are in the academy each year, representing about 20% of the first year students at the school. In the academy, teachers are grouped together and work with a common set of students. For example, each student cluster has an English teacher, math teacher, and science teacher. The teachers meet to discuss the needs of individual students and work collaboratively to address them. A designated counselor works specifically with academy students along with community specialists who make sure that both the school environment and home environment are conducive to student learning. One academy teacher shared their success:
We provided them with the skills necessary to move on to the next grade. It wasn’t until the first semester ended that we witnessed the fruits of our labor. Over 80% passed their classes. I believe the Freshman Academy allowed us to put the at-risk students’ needs first, as opposed to blaming the student for their failures or lack of knowledge.
PAVING THE WAY: COACHING FOR SUCCESS
A key resource at one exemplary school has been the presence of an instructional coach to guide student interventions at the school and maximize instructional time. The coach is responsible for training aides for Universal Access, creating assessments on the school data system to track student progress, and desegregating data to help teachers figure out what to re-teach. The instructional coach described her school’s approach to intervention in the following way:
Well, we’ve changed the way that we teach. We’re all involved in direct instruction. We have a master schedule so that any time if you say – if you ask me about a student and you mention a time, I actually know where they’re at and I can problem-solve or set up an intervention for them without pulling them out of their math…We have interventions, timely interventions immediately for our K-3’s as well as our fourth through eighth. And we instituted – my first year, we started using what’s called AIMSweb. It’s an assessment program and now our entire school district has adopted it this year. But this is our fifth year using it, so we can identify – we were able to identify almost immediately that we had capable students that were underperforming.
To meet the needs of struggling learners, the instructional coach oversees Universal Access time. During Universal Access, a physical education (P.E.) tech takes half the students from two classes for a period; a trained aide and/or the instructional coach along with the teacher work with the remaining students. The students are grouped according to ability; the additional instructional time is used to pre-teach, re-teach, assess, and reinforce core instruction. The coach explained the process used at their school-site:
We have a P.E. Tech that’s hired under Title I, and the P.E. Tech will take half of one class and half of another class so that the class size drops down to ten and then we put our resources, whether it’s an aide or myself. And when I say intervention, it can be an enrichment or a remediation. But that’s really our universal access time. So the kids are all leveled. And it might be a first-grader from one class and two second-graders from another class and they’re in a reading group for a half an hour, guided reading at their level. And then there’s six kids left in the classroom with the classroom teacher but they’re all at the same reading level. It’s everybody’s needs being met so it’s really exciting.
The coach also saw her role as that of problem-solver: “Whenever teachers have concerns about kids, we kind of problem-solve in their own classroom management. Because I don’t have my own students, there are times that I’ll go in the classrooms that are having challenges with students and help with that. I’ll do model lessons for classroom management.”
When asked what has accounted for the school’s success, teachers and administrators alike emphasized the importance of the instructional coach, the focus on maximizing core instruction, fidelity to the curriculum and tracking student progress for timely interventions:
Yeah, it’s instructional time spent in language arts and math. We’re just dedicated to giving huge pieces of the day for that. It’s the fidelity of curriculum. It’s the data and assessment...It’s the staff development and high expectations. And willingness of the staff to keep getting better.
The whole [thing], the data collecting, the tracking of the AIMS, the scores, tracking to get the teachers to re-teach, tracking to pull the kids out when they need extra help.
The instructional coach stressed her belief that teachers are the number one intervention, reiterating that it was her job to train and support them because they are on the front lines.
BUILDING LOCAL ACCOUNTABILITY
About 14% of incidents were focused on strengthening local accountability by setting high expectations and emphasizing that all school stakeholders – teachers, administrators, parents, and student themselves – are responsible for the effectiveness of teaching and learning.
In these schools, stakeholders discussed how critical it was to begin with a set of ambitious, but reachable goals focused on teaching and learning. Teachers shared that high expectations helped focus the school community on what mattered – student learning – and give them a sense of purpose. One teacher explained:
Creating goals for students, high expectations for students, high expectations for teachers… result in a lot of hard work and extra hours. Committed and focused teachers will always bring success to students. These things make you focus on what you are doing daily in order to improve student learning.
In one elementary school, teachers set quarterly goals for student learning in cognitive planning meetings. At grade-level meetings, teachers review data and discuss strategies for meeting student learning goals. One teacher characterized this incident in the following way: “The increased teacher accountability in team cognitive planning meetings…Although it was more stressful to me as a teacher, it kept me more focused on the objectives we targeted each quarter.” Another teacher at this school said:
This experience boosted teacher, student, and parent morale; it set a high standard for the teaching and learning at our school; it gave all a renewed sense of pride and purpose in pursuing learning. Students were motivated to continue success. Teachers were inspired to continue to invest in student achievement. Our school gained 80 points in our API score.
One elementary school decided to become a “No Excuses University” school. One core element of No Excuses University is that “each student is capable of meeting academic standards in reading, writing, and math AND that the school has the power to make that opportunity a reality.”10 Stakeholders in this particular elementary school noted that when they adopted this philosophy, it paved the way for change school-wide. One teacher explained:
It sparked determination to succeed in the minds of staff, students, and parents. Our test scores have continued to increase each year and our school environment is positive and uplifting for all. Our school has a driving vision, and all teachers have a strong belief in this unified vision.
Stakeholders also underscored the importance of holding students accountable for learning goals. One teacher said “Students have learned the importance of goal setting and understand the steps involved to achieve their goals. This is a big difference. Students are now, more than in past years, aware of how they can make a difference in their learning.”
Moreover, a couple schools also raised expectations for parent involvement in student learning. For example, one middle school required teachers to reach out more frequently to parents in order to strengthen parent accountability. In another elementary school, a parent outreach program was established to educate parents about the curriculum and standards so they could support their students in meeting higher expectations. One elementary school teacher shared:
Our expectations are much higher for all grade levels…and parent involvement is vital…I don’t think that many public school families are aware of how rigorous school is today. By bringing them into the classrooms, it makes them more aware. For example, one student in my classroom was a very reluctant learner. A team of teachers and coaches met with his mother and later his father. We discovered that he needed his parents to reinforce how important education will be for his future. His mom now volunteers in class.
Finally, the process of raising expectations, setting goals, and reviewing progress enabled stakeholders to see their successes. Many teachers and principals discussed the significance of accomplishing the objectives that they had established:
The morning our principal told the staff that our school scored a 790. I felt so proud of the work the staff had done, and happy the students attended a good school.
We provided a common goal for all teachers and students to strive for. Our principal communicates the goal to students and teachers on a weekly basis. And the students continue to meet and exceed the yearly goal, EVERY year.
PAVING THE WAY: MAKING NO EXCUSES
One exemplary elementary school serving approximately 200 students in the Northern California area largely attributed their success to the high expectations and focus on teaching and learning of the entire school community. When asked in an interview how the school was different with QEIA than previously, the principal commented: “Pretty much in every way.” He went on to explain that the characteristics of the school - being in a high poverty area with the majority of students on free and reduced lunch - have not deterred teachers and staff from the belief that all children can achieve excellence:
We’re 80 percent free and reduced. That’s high poverty and I think expectations were not as high as they are [now]. And so, we understand poverty. We understand circumstances but it’s not an excuse. I think right now the staff as a whole believes in kids and has the concepts and idea of developing excellence for all and won’t just say that but they’ll back it up and they’ll pretty much do anything they can to help kids. I mean nobody’s asking them to but the teachers are so dedicated.
Additionally, students were aware of their responsibilities and commitment to their own learning. The principal explained: “When kids go to P.E., they may miss P.E. that day so they can get that re-teaching lesson. And the kids understand it. It’s not a punishment or anything. They just need to know it’s time that they’re going to get with the teacher to learn that concept.” A teacher at the school echoed the principal’s sentiments about raising expectations:
We believe that our circumstances are not a reason not to perform. That’s the biggest thing and I want to tell you right now. Of all the other stuff, that’s the biggest thing that’s made the biggest change. Because, we can bring in anything. You can bring in any kind of strategy and if you don’t really believe, it’s not going to happen.
Prior to QEIA, teachers noted that the school had a reputation as an underperforming school in an impoverished neighborhood. One teacher described: “Yeah, [we were] looked upon as a dumping ground as far as parents go, the community goes, and I believe- and I’m going to say this, the district goes, too. I’m sure that’s how it was looked upon. The change is unbelievable.”
Since QEIA, teachers described having more of a focus on teaching and learning and “making every minute count.” One teacher emphasized: “I think we are much more conscious of how we teach, making sure the kids are engaged all the time and focusing in on what they actually need - re-teaching, immediate feedback.” In addition to teachers being more focused, they worked to instill this same type of direction in their students: “And showing the kids where they are and where they need to be. So they are aware, and they’re not just coming to school to learn, they have a focus too…Why are we teaching this to you? And letting them understand so they have buy-in on why they’re learning.”
The school’s API has increased over 200 points since QEIA began; one teacher enthusiastically shared: “I would say it’s is almost a complete turnaround here at our school. The academics are better. The kids are more in control. They want to learn. Our reading scores are just skyrocketing.”
With the belief in success and evidence of success, came more success. One teacher shared: “Like I said, success breeds success, and that’s been a huge help having every employee at the school onboard. So, we are all willing to do what it takes to get students to learn. Expectations of students because since we’ve started QEIA, our students know what to expect no matter what classroom you go into, because we’re all doing what needs to be done.”
RECOGNIZING AND REWARDING STUDENTS
Stakeholders in three exemplary schools highlighted the significance of student reward and recognition programs. These types of programs typically focused on recognizing students publicly for academic achievement. In one elementary school, for example, student achievement rallies are used to recognize student progress; rallies take place five times each year. Parents are invited, students are photographed, and their names are added to the “Hall of Fame.” According to stakeholders, these rallies were instrumental to motivating and inspiring students. One teacher explained:
Student achievement rallies are a big hit with students and parents. Most students enjoy being kept in the loop as to where they stand academically, by being recognized and awarded for their growth/progress. Student achievement rallies occur 5 times per year. In my opinion, students apply themselves better when they recognize their efforts or progress is being recognized. They each try to sustain that progress.
Teachers and principals who described pathways related to student rewards noted that such programs changed the culture of the school and promoted a more academic focus: “This has changed the culture of our school from social to academic. Awesome change.” Another teacher noted:
It has fostered a motivation in my students to do better...as well as a new sense of pride and belief in themselves as learners...It has also increased a sense of student pride in their school. They took more ownership for their learning and their school.
PAVING THE WAY: THINKING GOLD
At the exemplary high school, staff and administrators highlighted student reward programs as really making a difference in helping to boost achievement on state tests as well as foster a visible, ongoing academic culture on campus.
The exemplary high school implemented a three-level student incentive program, called Think Gold. Level 1 includes students who scored advanced on three or more scoring areas of the CST, and Level 2 consists of students who improved on their test scores overall. The third level - The 380 Group – is comprised of students who pass the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) the first time they take the test.
To get students interested and excited about Think Gold, the school hosts a carnival at the beginning of every year to kick off Level 1. A special dance called the “White Out Dance” is used to recognize Level 2 students. In an interview with the principal, he proudly pointed out a Hall of Fame poster hanging in the main office recognizing the achievements of the top-three scoring students in each content area of the CST. The principal went on to eagerly share: “We’re waiting any day now for our CAHSEE results because our goal was to increase the number of students passing by five percent to reach our top score ever.”
As part of the program, students receive rewards when they advance to one of the levels. The most successful incentive of the program has been the free lunch pass: “The number one incentive they want is early outs for lunch. That’s the number one. It’s free. It doesn’t cost any money…the kids who get up and walk out of class every day early for lunch with their gold card that’s a different color. It’s got gold sparklies and the whole bit; that’s really what the kids want.”
The success of the program has also trickled into other schools in the district. One teacher commented: “Other schools have been watching us as a model and finding their own incentive programs…my daughter [who attends another school] came home, and said ‘I got passes to the prom.’ So, that’s kind of my vision. I just see it as very positive. Yes, our kids come from lower socioeconomics. It does not deter them from academic excellence.”
According to teachers and administrators, the primary purpose of the program is to provide extrinsic motivation for students with the hope that it becomes intrinsic. One administrator shared:
My personal opinion [is] we don’t have a lot of data. That’s the problem with this program, is it’s all about what you perceive. And when we first started, our kids hated the testing environment. They hated it so bad, they would not come to school…The last two years, we haven’t had to go get a student. They’re all showing up. They’re taking the tests pretty seriously in the beginning- last year. This year, we walked into classrooms and we could not believe the intensity. The kids are really focused on it. So, I believe it’s become intrinsic much quicker than we thought it would.
On changing the academic culture of the school, the assistant principal shared: “They really see it every day. It’s a reminder every day…And that has helped with our testing environment.” Additionally, the principal communicated on the value of the program: “I think there’s a different feel on campus than there was. And so changing the culture, changing the mindset was critical.”
USING STUDENT DATA TO INTERVENE
The meaningful use of student data to intervene with struggling students was considered by many to be paramount to school success. Effective data use resulted in greater understanding and awareness of student needs. At one exemplary elementary school, teachers created student profiles, based on data that were used to tailor instruction. One teacher described data use in the following way: “This year, at the onset of the school year, we completed student profiles as an effort to get to know our students before the first day of school. The purpose was to direct us to understanding our students’ backgrounds to gain information on how they learn best. This experience allowed for all members to implement differentiated instruction at its optimal level.”
The ongoing use of data for monitoring student progress was particularly valuable because it led to timely and focused interventions. As explained by one teacher in an exemplary elementary school: “Having a literacy coach who progress monitors all students has made a positive increase in our school success…It’s important to have the support of another teacher whose sole job is to create specific interventions or groups according to our data.”
It was common for teachers to remark on the significance of learning how to work with data, “dig data,” and understand data. At one exemplary elementary school, their new principal was particularly focused on the use of student data for improvement. Nearly every teacher interviewed commented on the expertise of the principal regarding data use and interpretation, and they appreciated an instructional leader who helped them digest data more effectively. The principal explained: “What teachers tell me is that I am able to explain it and help them translate looking at the data into next steps. I am able to help them see things differently than they had seen them before.” A teacher elaborated: “I mean it definitely changed with the new administration. Now with previous [principals], we used data, but like I said, I don’t think we really had a clear understanding as to what we were looking at. And she understands it backwards and forwards.”
PAVING THE WAY: FOCUSING ON DATA SCHOOL-WIDE
At one exemplary middle school in Southern California, stakeholders described the culture of the school as being highly data-intensive. Specifically, data is used to determine what to teach, what interventions are needed, as well as to determine the type of training and collaborations that are needed. The Assistant Principal remarked: “Data…that’s the first thing we look at. You walk into a school. You just look at the data. You want to see what the kids are doing. And you look at everything from suspension rates to attendance, to the grades that the teachers are giving, to matching that with the CST scores.”
When the principal was asked in an interview what has accounted for her school’s success, she concurred with the Assistant Principal and highlighted three main areas:
➊ It would be a very, very deliberate, conscious, persistent focus on student academic needs;
➋ It would be consistent use of data to drive whatever decisions; and
➌ It would also be teaching kids to self-monitor. So, not only are we monitoring, they’re also self-monitoring.
On teacher explained that they use the data to focus, drill down, and be specific with how to adjust instruction to better assist students:
It’s become more specific. Because we know not only is it standard number sense 1.5, we know specific within that standard what might be causing problems for kids, whether it’s the language, or the way we’re presenting something…QEIA has really helped us become more focused, as opposed to just talking about something generally. Because it’s not just that the kids have trouble with integers. It’s specifically subtracting integers, and it’s specifically bigger ones.
On helping students to self-monitor, one teacher shared the significance of students being able to see where they fall on district benchmarks through data displays:
I don’t think any other school I’ve ever been to has mentioned using the data in this way… the kids can come in and see how they did on the benchmark by the color. They’re color-coded so they see their color and they know where they fell in the benchmark.
The teacher followed up by saying that her students feel pride and excitement over their improvement on tests. Classes at the school even have friendly competitions over test scores, but more importantly, students feel in control of their own learning:
I think the kids are more aware of their own performance. Now, it’s not about people telling me how I’m performing. Now, it’s about I also know how I’m performing and I can verify it and confirm by doing X, Y, and Z. If I want to change it, I also know my pathway to change it. So, I think they’re just more attentive to the academics.”
The first report in this series highlighted the importance of leaders for school improvement and identified 20 characteristics of exemplary administrators. The report noted that high performing schools tended to have principals that embodied those characteristics. Not surprisingly, a few teachers in these exemplary schools identified a change in leadership as a critical incident on the path toward improvement.
Several of the QEIA schools visited as part of this project experienced principal turnover due to staffing changes made by superintendents, retirement, or principals seeking other opportunities. When highly effective principals joined the staff at these QEIA schools, they infused schools with new ideas, clearer expectations, and focused plans for how to collaborate to change the tide. One elementary school teacher talked about the significance of her principal’s leadership and said:
She helped us to pull together as a staff, learn what true collaboration is all about and use the smaller class sizes to our advantage. In focusing all of our efforts, we are now able to pinpoint specific areas that we can address. It has also created a climate of family with our staff and our students. We are one big team.
PAVING THE WAY: OPENING DOORS
For one exemplary middle school serving approximately 1200 students in Southern California, the change in leadership since QEIA began has made all the difference to the school’s success. Parents and teachers alike attributed the success of the school to the new administration, largely the principal. In interviews and focus groups, they talked about the differences between administration s and the characteristics of the new principal, which mirrored many of the characteristics of exemplary administrators described in the first report of this series. These characteristics included being visible, approachable, fair and decisive, as well as data-driven, and having high expectations for all.
Many teachers commented on the open-door policy of the new administration: “The administration before, close-door policy. But this administration, very open. They’re out and about. They’d rather be here than at conference or off-site. They’re interested in the kids because it’s for the kids and then everything else follows.” From this open-door policy ensued a sense of trust that was fostered between administration and staff. One teacher shared: “If somebody has a problem, you don’t have to schedule an appointment. You don’t have to call and say, ‘Can I come see you?’ If you have a problem or concern, you come talk to us, and so there is a trust thing.”
Parents reiterated the feelings expressed by teachers regarding the critical role of the administration in helping turn the school around. One parent serving on the School Site Council recounted the decisive and data-driven nature of the principal:
I remember when we were in the School Site Council, [the principal] was saying that he was going to put his money, or he was going to go towards what statistically, or what was proven to work. If he didn’t see it in the numbers, he wasn’t going to continue with the program. And that’s really helped out the kids, because if it’s not working, then get rid of it, and let’s move on.
Other parents appreciated the compassionate nature of the principal and noted feeling welcome and an essential part of the school community. One parent who was aware of the principal’s prior success at a neighboring elementary school commented:
The only reason why my kids came here is because of [the principal], because I saw what he did at [the elementary school] which had a lot of issues and problems too…And as a person…you feel comfortable around him. He’s like a family member. Let’s put it that way. And, we all want the best for our kids, and you put yourself around a person like that that really cares, not just says that he cares, but he can show it in his actions. That’s why my kids are here…That’s why my kids are here.
Another mother echoed: “That’s what I’m saying is that it’s not just a principal and student. There’s a relationship there, and he cares. So, it makes a big difference in a child’s development when they know people care about them, and they’re not just a number or a student.”