(Sections in italics are fictional stories made from composites of multiple actual experiences.)
A district resting on its socioeconomic laurels
As the Business Official for the Newburgh Enlarged City School District and as a consultant for the New York State Association of Small City School Districts, Charles Winters compiled extensive data sets on student outcomes, demographics, local costs and state support. Mr. Winters used the “scatterplot” graph to display the results because he found it was an effective visual for illustrating multivariate data.
Mr. Winters’s school district comparison data became a key element in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit and a companion lawsuit filed by several small cities in New York State that ended in 2006 with a plan to redistribute $5.5 billion in new aid to school districts in the state with the primary focus on serving the largest poverty populations.
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I’d come up with a similar measurement based on free and reduced lunch data while I was an urban schools superintendent and before I met Mr. Winters as a way to rate the performance of elementary schools within a district. His much more comprehensive and mathematically accurate system was based on three criteria: free and reduced school lunch percentages, U.S. Census data on poverty and income data from New York State income tax filings. He found a combination of all three that was the best predictor of student performance on the state tests.
When I used Mr. Winters’s system of measurement, the Candle Central School District revealed itself to be a weak performer in comparison with other districts with similar demographics, relatively low poverty and multiple resources.
Judging by Candle Central’s test scores from the previous year (the first year of Common Core testing in the state) teachers hadn’t adjusted to new test expectations. They needed a better handle on curriculum.
I took the job and almost immediately contacted the head of the local school district consortium BOCES (Board of Cooperative Education Services) and arranged for teacher and administrator training. I booked myself and three of the four district principals available during the summer into a three-day-long session of sixth grade math Common Core curriculum training for teachers.
The Candle elementary and middle school math teachers opted out of the training (no pun intended). A lot of that had to do with the fact that they weren’t informed of the training until a couple of weeks before it took place. The elementary school principal and the superintendent who preceded me were both consumed with trying to find new jobs at the time and, as a result, no planning was done to have the teachers available for the summer training.
The training emphasized the new Common Core sixth grade math expectations in ratio and proportion, algebra, coordinate and plane geometry and number line graphs and the more complicated and intricate word problems students were expected to solve with the new Common Core tests.
After all I had read and heard about the Common Core and how much anger it produced in schools and communities, I was struck by the fact that it wasn’t all that different from the previous math curriculum. It had fewer topics that were dealt with in greater depth, including more pre-algebra and graphing and pictorial/preliminary equation problem solving tasks.
The curriculum presented a higher level of challenge than the old curriculum, but the challenge levels and approach to instruction made sense and aligned with expectations in other countries that outperformed the U.S. on international measures of student academic performance. In short, the Common Core asked students and teachers to do what they should be doing. It was a good curriculum, better than the one it had replaced.
As a former math and science teacher, I could understand the changes in expectations, so I used the training time to evaluate the outlooks and thought processes of my principals, as well as those of teachers from other districts in attendance.
Teachers from the other school districts illustrated the contrast between teachers who have been teaching to a lower standard and teachers using strategies that allow students to meet higher Common Core standards.
The blame game
One of the teachers at the training was Ruth Weiss who had 20-plus years of experience teaching sixth grade math in one of the several smaller urban and socioeconomically diverse school districts in the area. She loved students and loved her job.
She peppered the trainer with questions over all three days of training. Most related to how she could effectively retain the creative projects she used with her students and still bring about high scores for her students on the Common Core tests.
For example, Ruth’s sixth graders used proportions and similar triangles with averages of multiple data measurements to estimate the height of the flagpole in front of the school. They also predicted the time it would take the district’s grounds team to mow the lawn inside the track by computing the area and measuring mowing rates with the grounds team in other areas of the school campus.
She had them estimate the daily average revenue for the cafeteria by surveying lunches and snacks purchased in a set time period, computing revenue estimates based on posted prices and discounts available to students with pre-purchased meal cards as well as students who received free and reduced price lunches and comparing it to the actual weekly revenue reported by the cafeteria staff.
She had students estimate the time it would take three different electric-powered model cars to traverse terrain in the school’s parking lot based on previous measurements for cars. Ruth ended the school year with an elaborate project that required her students to predict flight-to-ground contact times and distances for water balloons shot from a toy cannon set to different angles to the horizon.
Ruth was clearly concerned she had too much new and unfamiliar material to cover in sixth grade Common Core math, and she worried about her students who were weak in basic math facts (7 X 9 = 63) and computational skills (713/23 = 31).
New curriculum expectations would interfere with the real-world projects that typically motivated her students.
At lunch on our third and final day of training Ruth confided in me while holding back tears. The first year of the new teacher evaluation system in which 20 percent of teacher performance was based on their students’ standardized test scores had just passed, and Ruth was rated as a “developing” teacher, which was just barely above the lowest teacher performance category – “ineffective.”
Ruth said the low rating was caused by two things. First: She chose a challenging local assessment that pulled down the scores. Each teacher, with school district approval, chose a local student assessment that counted as 20 percent of the teacher’s evaluation and some chose poorly. Second: She refused to replace her customary student projects with test prep activities.
During training Ruth learned some strategies that would allow her to keep the best of her projects and simultaneously improve her test scores on the new Common Core tests.
The strategies included:
• Completing several projects after the standardized tests were given in April.
• Figuring out which projects help teach skills students need to know.
• Accumulating a portfolio of project work that’s effective, tried and tested.
• Sharing projects with other teachers and trying out their projects later in the year after the standardized tests are administered.
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