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Monday, October 12, 2009

Closing the Achievement Gap: One Modest Story

If you are an American overseas with a family, apart from homeschooling, there are generally three ways you can see to your kids' education. One, The Department of Defense Dependent Schools (DODDS) on a military base, but maybe you are not active-duty military and you cannot afford the $17,000 (last I heard) annual tuition. Two, the local schools which may or may not be free, but your kids likely do not speak the local language. Three, an English-language international school. The tuition will be much more reasonable than DODDS, but the quality varies widely.

I was once a DODDS teacher, but I left when I found out that even though I was a teacher, I would be required to pay the exorbitant tuition. I left DODDS and went to work for a local international school for less pay, but then again, since tuition for faculty children was free, I had more take-home pay than with DODDS. Problem was the school had a reputation for being a low achieving school. When I left DODDS, my principal berated me for going to work for that “rinky-dinky school.”

Teachers and students alike muffled their answer when asked what school they taught at/went to. There was a serious achievement gap between DODDS students/local students and the students of this K-8 international school. When I came aboard, they were thrilled to get what they considered a real live genuine DODDS teacher. I taught middle school math and science, and that first year I was given the seventh grade homeroom.

Within two years, I closed the three-decades-old achievement gap. I did not set out to raise achievement. I do not tell this story to brag. My only intention was to do the best I could for the students I had. How did it happen? First, I'll tell you what I did not do.

1.I did not lay on the mandates. I did not tell them, for example, that they would be required to take algebra in the eighth grade. Right now some states have decided that they can raise math achievement by requiring algebra in the eighth grade. It is a laudable goal, but a requirement is the wrong way to go about it.
2.I did not lay on a high-stakes test for the students to pass or else. 'Nuff said.
3.I did not ask for more funding.

Most students want to achieve unless the goal seems unreachable. My students complained that they could never be, in their words, as good as DODDS students. I told them that there was nothing wrong with them. If they followed my guidance, they would be able to stand head and shoulders with DODDS students. They believed me, or at least, they were willing to give me a chance.

So here's what I did.

First, I decided to teach math individually. Individualized lessons are really hard work. I mean really hard work, often too hard to sustain for any length of time. I went a whole year. To start, I needed to find out where they were. I paid a visit to each of the lower grade teachers and got a copy of the textbook publisher's year-end test. I gave everyone the sixth grade test. I did not tell them, but in my own mind, they had to score 70% or better for me to consider them ready for seventh grade math. I did tell them I would be giving tests until I found their level. The nice thing about the tests is there is no obvious grade level designation. You have to know the code. To those that “failed,” I gave the fifth grade test, and so on until I had found the level of each student, and then that is where I began them. One student did not get 70% right until she took the second grade test.

On the first day of school, the parents of two students came to see me after school. They said their daughters, each other's "bestest" friend, were ready for algebra right now and would I teach them algebra while the rest of the class did the regular seventh grade math.

I said, “Sure, here's the seventh grade book. On the last day of my placement testing, I'll give the girls the seventh grade end-of-year test. If they score better than 80%, I will put them straight into algebra. Here, take the books. They are welcome to review all week, during math period and at home. On Friday, I'll test them.” Both girls did very poorly on the test.

On the following Monday, I laid the ground rules. I would teach each lesson individually. Students were responsible for the homework on the lesson. Only the “seventh graders' had textbooks. Everyone else studied from material I gave them. If they had a textbook, the homework was in the book. Otherwise I provided the homework. Students studying at third through sixth grade levels were not burdened with carrying around materials that obviously identified them at the lower levels.

I had found three extra spiral-bound seventh grade teachers books in the book room. I set up a table in the back of the classroom with three chairs. Students were responsible for checking their own homework. They were amazed and thrilled with the trust and responsibility. If they got an answer wrong, they were to rework the problem themselves. If they still could not get the answer, they should ask a classmate who got it right to show them. If they still did not understand, they asked me. Sometimes so many students needed my help at once (and this was a big disadvantage with individualized instruction) it was like, take a number. When they thought they were ready, they could ask me for the test on whatever chapter they were working on. If they got 80% or better, they went on to the next chapter. Otherwise, I would spend more time with them and give them more work until they could get 80% or better.

I discovered the students at so-called lower levels were plagued with early math misconceptions that no one had ever cleared up for them. Partly it was because they had been unable to verbalize their questions, so the questions went unanswered and interfered with later learning. As we dealt with these lingering misconceptions, the students began accelerating through their materials. Soon they had all caught up to the on-level classmates. Because the only acceptable grades were 80%+, every student had As and Bs on their report cards. By the end of the academic year, all but two students had mastered the entire seventh grade textbook.

Shortly after summer vacation began, those two students visited me at home. “Will we have to finish the seventh grade book next year, before you teach us algebra?” they asked. “Of course,” I answered. “We thought so. Can we study with you during the summer so we can start algebra with the rest of our class?” I was delighted. What teacher in their right mind would say no to motivated students like that? It only took a couple of weeks and they were done. The principal said he had his own version of “Stand and Deliver.” I was just happy I would not need to individualize instruction anymore.

The following year I was thrilled to keep this group as their eighth grade homeroom teacher. It was the only time in my career I ever had the same homeroom a second year. Based on my experience with the benefits of continuity, I recommend keeping homerooms together throughout middle school and perhaps high school. As I said earlier, I was also their science teacher. When they were seventh graders, I spent extra time on the foundational basics of scientific thinking until they mastered it. Therefore I could skip this part when they were eighth graders. We ended up finishing the eighth grade science book early and spent the last weeks of school doing all kinds of independent inquiry.

While they were still seventh graders, I had the whole middle school do an in-school science fair, the first ever for this school. The following year, per teacher requests, I oversaw a school-wide science fair for all the grades. Grades K-2 did class projects. Grades 3-8 did individual projects. I trained their teachers to help their own students. Later I trained parents to be judges. I got permission to enter four of the projects in the regional DODDS science fair. At the DODDS science fair, all students were required to stand next to their projects during judging, take questions and defend their projects. All four projects took ribbons and I do not mean participation ribbons.

When they came back to school, they said, “We remember you promised we would stand head and shoulders with DODDS students and we did.” I reminded them that they did the work. Nothing would have happened if they had been unwilling to try.

At the same time all this was going on, I designed an ESL program for a group of non-English speaking middle schoolers from the local schools. Their parents had suddenly withdrawn their students from their own schools and enrolled them in our school. Within a year, all were successfully mainstreamed into the regular program. Right away I put them into PE, art and music. Second quarter they picked up math and science (with me). I had them sit in on history fourth quarter. They had a full regular schedule, including English, the next school year. I was grateful the school gave me a native-speaking teacher's aide for this ad hoc ESL program.

I cannot say I had any particular expertise or philosophy or reform ideology or anything of that sort going in. I was merely bumbling along, just trying to meet the needs in front of me. Looking back, I think I may have discovered some secrets to closing the achievement gap. These are also areas where many modern reform efforts fall short.

1.Meet the students where they are.
2.Design a program to meet their needs, and no one else's.
3.Make the program one that does not imply blame on the students.
4.Believe in the students.
5.Find ways to add continuity to students' lives.
6.Give them a reasonable goal to shoot for. For math, it was to qualify for algebra. For science, it was to do a science fair project. The DODDS science fair was a bonus. For the ESL group, it was to work me out of a job as their program director.
7.Aim for mastery of instruction.
8.Do it on a localized basis. Do not expect to scale it up because students in other schools have different problems, needs and resources.

After those two years, students and teachers no longer muffled their answers when asked about their school, but proudly announced their affiliation.

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