Changing how you teach, not what you teach can have a great effect on test scores!
The building, opened with huge community fanfare nine years ago but routinely logged some of the worst scores in the region.
But this time, Savusa’s heart leapt.
Every grade saw a spike in test results — most rising by double-digits. And while hundreds of students there still struggle, White Center Heights showed some of the biggest gains for math and reading in the entire state.
“I almost wanted to cry,” said Savusa. “I was like, ‘finally!’?”
Conventional wisdom holds that substantive change in public education moves at a glacial pace, and no one at White Center Heights is declaring victory yet. But after failing to gain traction for years, teachers there achieved something that eludes educators across the country: They jump-started a turnaround, and they did it in nine months.
What is perhaps most notable is that they achieved this without a staff overhaul, influx of funds or by shunting weaker students off to other buildings. Instead, they focused on something that gets little attention in school-reform debates: improved instruction.
The results have attracted attention. Only 3 percent of Washington’s 1,139 elementary schools saw passage-rate increases across their third, fourth and fifth grades last spring, and among them, most results at White Center Heights were so off-the-charts that district leaders worried briefly about cheating.
Fourth-grade math, for example, shot up by 30 percentage points.
But Alan Spicciati, chief accountability officer for the Highline School District, is satisfied that the results are legitimate. “This wasn’t a case where the scores go up and you kind of scratch you head, wondering how or why,” he said.
The reasons were clear:
A new emphasis on instruction affected everything in the building: One of three daily recess periods was cut to allow for more instructional time, and arrival even a minute past 9 a.m. required an explanation from a parent.
Instead of drilling students with exercises and work sheets, reading teachers began challenging them to reflect on the meaning of stories and nonfiction, rather than simply decoding words.
And in math, students were divided into groups based on performance — a once-common but now controversial practice — with strugglers intensively targeted for extra help.
The price tag for these adjustments was nominal — about $75,000 for materials and after-school teacher pay. Their primary driver was a blunt-spoken new principal who reels off education research as easily as making a grocery list and has a my-way-or-the-highway approach to change.
White Center Heights educates some of the poorest students in the region. More than 88 percent qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch. About 60 percent speak a language other than English with their parents.
When Anne Reece took the helm in 2012, two-thirds of her third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders could not read at grade level.
“The potential of these kids was way higher than the data showed — I could see that immediately,” she said. “But our teachers had lost so much hope that they weren’t even focusing on academics anymore. These were smart, capable people, but they’d lost faith in their ability to teach.”
Highline Superintendent Susan Enfield gave her new principal carte blanche, and Reece ran with it, observing classrooms, patrolling the playground. She paid teachers to read instructional theory on their own time, assigning them to meet in book groups and discuss their findings.
On the job only six days, she led her staff through a brutal assessment of test results, marching them through an hour of education theory and then examining, classroom by classroom, what had worked — or hadn’t.
“I kind of blasted them out of the water, I’ll admit,” she said. “But come on — we had third-graders who couldn’t even do first-grade math.”
Diagnosing students’ skill deficits through testing data was new to her teachers, Reece discovered. She urged them to drill down, study the results and realize that OK scores in reading comprehension, for example, didn’t necessarily mean students knew how to think critically. Being well-liked was not on her agenda. This is one more way changing how you teach can really benefit the students.