Editor’s Note: Top school leaders and assistant principals know how to distribute leadership throughout the building—“Leaders Grow Leaders.” They clearly understand that no one person can know everything nor can one person do everything that needs doing. Meaningful and lasting school improvement requires collective effort that makes use of the combined knowledge and experience of the entire staff to effect long-term, systemic change. Creating a school culture that identifies and develops teacher leaders is no longer an option. In this post, Stu Singer, The Teacher Leader, takes an excerpt from his book The Algebra Miracle and uses NASSP’s Breaking Ranks Framework and the Process Circle to lead us through the beginning stages of the change process.
By Stuart Singer, The Teacher Leader
“The Algebra Miracle” chronicles the remarkable story of the Algebra program at a high-poverty public high school from 1993-2011. Many of the strategies that were employed in that success story can be utilized by other schools in a variety of subject areas. This is the first in a series of posts designed to outline the steps that can create a school environment resulting in extraordinary academic achievement.
Some problems are easy to see
It was not difficult to determine that the Algebra 1 program at Stuart High School in Fairfax, Virginia was struggling. A quick glance at the numbers justified the assertion. Year after year it was failed by more students than any other in the building. This fact, however, did not make Stuart HS unique. Algebra 1 had a similar status throughout the district, the state and the nation. Adding to the concerns was the reality that Algebra 1 was the foundation upon which all succeeding math courses were established. A poor performance in this class virtually precluded progress in higher level math courses. The frustrating problem was that this situation had existed for years with no long term solutions being found. In 1993 the county’s Coordinator of Mathematics set out to find the root causes of the problem. His methods and the strategies employed as a result at Stuart over the next fifteen years can provide a template for attacking the most difficult of academic achievement problems at any school.
It was not the usual suspects
The best path for finding solutions to student failure is by studying available data. The critical step is analyzing the information in an effective manner. The Coordinator’s initial study of the grade statistics revealed little of substance. He discovered that there were no specific demographic groups, teaching staffs or classroom approaches that were making a significant difference. While some schools were having more success than others, it was determined that these student bodies tended to be more academically successful in all subjects.
Going deeper into the data
A discussion with a group of math department chairs led the Math Coordinator to a new potential source of the difficulties in Algebra 1. Many schools noted that their students in Algebra 1 Part 1 were experiencing significant problems when taking the second year of the course. At that time the state of Virginia allowed Algebra 1 to be taken either in one year or it could be split into a two-year course of study. While it would not be surprising that students in the slower course would find the curriculum more challenging, a closer look at the results gave the Coordinator some extremely disturbing insights. For every individual who had performed poorly in Part 1 (grades of C or D) the results in the second half of Algebra 1 were disastrous. But of far greater concern was the performance of the Part 1 students receiving grades of A or B. In the vast majority of cases, these students were receiving poor or failing grades in Algebra 1 as well.
Why were these students performing so badly?
These discussions led to testing that showed that even the best performing individuals in the classes were mastering only 30% of the material and after the long summer vacation they were entering the second year with very little background in the subject matter. For the less successful students that number shrank to near zero.
The Coordinator determined that the problem was created by forming classes that were populated exclusively by weak Algebra 1 students. In order to meet the needs of the majority of the classroom population, teachers were slowing down the pace of their presentations. The results were disastrous. But this information eventually led to a unique and highly successful solution.
Finding the causes rather than the symptoms
School problems are usually not very coy. They present themselves with scant investigation. But the obvious solution is not always the best. Cogent and effective answers can be far more elusive. And usually the real problem is hidden in a large stack of data. The best plans are rooted in verifiable statistical facts.
Next: Step 2—getting everyone onboard