Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Inspired Teacher-Heroes of 90/90/90 Schools

By all tests and measures, the school I am blessed to work with is full of students who achieve in the upper regions of every grid and graph imaginable on a consistent basis. Even when splitting hairs and taffy-pulling the numbers by any variable a mathematician could dream up, our kids achieve.

In the past, similarly-vested schools would visit our middle school to see what we did and how we did it. I've sat in meeting rooms with my colleagues as educators from other schools poked at prodded at our system with their questions. That hasn't happened for several years.

This week, our principal asked me a question in a casual conversation in the hallway: had I ever heard of a 90/90/90 school?

I hadn't.

Astonished, I listened as he explained this anomaly: 90% free and reduced-price lunch, 90% minority, 90% high achievement. There are schools out there succeeding in spite of its social spite of everything we know about the correlation of poverty and education.

There are heroes in education. And there HEROES in education. I hope this blog finds it way to some in those schools--I admire you and want to know more about you so that I can be better.

In an email that night, my principal shared an article with me about 90/90/90 schools. It lays out exactly how they have functioned, High Performance in High Poverty Schools: 90/90/90 and Beyond.

As I read, I thought back on our conversation in the hall as my principal wondered aloud how interesting it would be to visit these schools in order to learn from them--to cull from their practices in inspiring student growth. And we wondered aloud, if any schools from communities like ours (blessed by all standards)  has ever visited such a school? We are so used to comparing ourselves with schools in similar communities and social environments.

What if we paused to listen to schools with a far more arduous road to climb?

In my search for some names of 90/90/90 schools, I stumbled across some criticism of the 90/90/90 claim. As a matter of fact, a blog on Education Week by Justin Baeder is titled The 90/90/90 Schools Myth. In it, Baeder attacks the data. Additionally, when he asked Reeves for a list of these 90/90/90 schools, he received a few located in Milwaukee, but he was also reminded that such a request was racist:
When The Bell Curve (Herrnstein and Murray, 1994) was published with the widely accepted assertion that children who are black and poor perform badly on academic achievement tests, I cannot recall a single instance of demands for the names of students who were subjects of the studies cited. When I have demonstrated that poor and black children perform well, I am inundated with demands for verification. These demands speak volumes about our expectations of children based on their appearance and economic status.
Irrespective of the criticism, reading Douglas B. Reeves' article will be a more thorough procession through how 90/90/90 schools operate, but I cobbled together the following list of the top ten messages a 90/90/90 school promotes to its community:

  1. The consistent message of the 90/90/90 Schools is that the penalty for poor performance is not a low grade, followed by a forced march to the next unit. Rather, student performance that is less than proficient is followed by multiple opportunities to improve performance... 
  2. They “write to think” and, thus, gain the opportunity to clarify their own thought processes.
  3. ...these schools developed common assessment practices and reinforced those common practices through regular exchanges of student papers. One teacher would exchange papers with another teacher; principals would exchange papers with another school; and in one of the most powerful research findings, principals would take personal responsibility for evaluating student work. [How about THAT for leadership?]
  4. ...these schools are achieving their success without proprietary programs...None of the 90/90/90 Schools used a specific “program” or any other proprietary model in order to achieve their success.
  5. ...the schools devoted time for teacher collaboration. This was not merely an exercise in idle discussion nor at attempt to get along in a friendly and collegial fashion. Rather, collaboration meetings were focused on an examination of student work and a collective determination of what the word “proficiency” really means.
  6. To break the mold in student achievement, these schools discovered, they had to break the schedule...[not] to over-emphasize literacy because they disregarded science and social studies, but rather because they knew that literacy was essential for success in every content area
  7. Teachers meet together to review student achievement data at a deep level, including the sub-scale scores. The discussion is not that “math scores are low” but rather that “the sub-scales reveal that we need to work in particular in fractions, ratio, and measurement.” This leads the music teachers to develop activities in which musical rhythms reveal the relationship of whole-notes, half-notes, and quarter notes. Art teachers work on perspective and other representational art that makes explicit use of scale. Physical education teachers allow students to choose to run either a millimeter or a kilometer, and when they make the wrong choice, it is a lesson most students remember well.
  8. It was noteworthy that the schools that had the greatest gains did not eliminate special area courses, such as music, art, physical education, and technology. Rather, these courses were explicitly a part of the academic preparation of every student... Each of these teachers incorporated some of those language arts and math standards into their daily lessons.
  9. ...the principal was personally involved in the evaluation of student work. The building leader regularly met with students and parents to discuss student achievement in specific terms. Moreover, the principals personally administered common assessments every month in language arts and math. By giving up faculty meetings, the principal helped to provide additional time for collaborative scoring of student work. 
  10. The principal also encouraged every teacher to display proficient and exemplary student work in a highly visible manner. The result of these displays was that every student, parent, and teacher had a clear and consistent understanding of what the school-wide scoring rubrics meant in practice. 

Reeves' article is humbling and grounding. What I take from it is not a debate on poverty or race, but from the perspective of my building and community (being at the top for so long), we often note how little room is left for us to grow.

I don't know how true that statement is anymore.

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