What Sustainable Education Reform Looks Like
What does a strong public school system look like? It’s hard to envision with today’s political and economic climate, but America can provide a great public education for every child. The National Education Association (NEA) and its members know where to start.
Last December, NEA laid out its Leading the Profession Action Agenda, incorporating proven best practices in education from thousands of teachers around the country and input from the independent Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching, created by NEA in 2010 to examine the teaching profession and make recommendations on maximizing teacher and teaching effectiveness. This year, NEA expanded that vision by introducing five domains of education quality: the quality of the professional, the profession, the schools, education policy and the union.
So what does all that look like in practice? In Marysville, Washington, educators in three schools supported by NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign (PSC) are planting the seeds for sustainable education reform in their district.
Solutions Unique to the School, Students and Community
The Marysville School District is located 35 miles north of Seattle, Washington and includes the Tulalip Indian Reservation. Two schools in the district, Totem Middle School and Tulalip Elementary School, received School Improvement Grants beginning in the 2010-2011 school year. In February 2011, Quil Ceda Elementary received a second round School Improvement Grant and merged campuses with Tulalip for the 2011-2012 school year. Both elementary schools are on the Tulalip Indian Reservation.
Sixty-three percent of students at Quil Ceda and Tulalip are American Indian, and a high majority of students receive free or reduced-price lunch.
“Our biggest challenges are not academic, but whole child issues,” said Chelsea Craig, a 2nd grade teacher at Quil Ceda and Tulalip, and certified Tulalip Tribal Member. “Many of our students are facing family challenges both from generational oppression and poverty that affect behavior in a way that a traditional classroom can not address alone.”
To help address those challenges and lead school-based change, staff at Quil Ceda and Tulalip are deeply invested in incorporating more of the students’ culture in their learning and build deeper ties to the school community. “We feel fortunate to have a tribal community that is very interested and invested in the success of their children,” said Quil Ceda Principal Kristin DeWitte.
Each morning, students start the day with a cultural assembly that includes singing and drumming. While helping connect the Tulalip culture to the school, the morning assembly also helped connect the school to the community this spring when they experienced a tragic loss of a former student. It is Tulalip custom for the whole community to come together and support loved ones who lost a family member. Tribal members walk the deceased to the cemetery with the older men leading the songs. On this day, they ran out of prepared songs on the walk when Craig called on one of the young students to “sing our morning song.” The student led two songs by himself, with the whole community following.
“The community was so impressed that such a young man could lead a song, and I know this happened because we sing and honor the Tulalip people every morning at our school,” said Craig.
Including the students’ culture at school seems to be paying off in the classroom. Manya McFarlane teaches third grade at Quil Ceda and Tulalip. At the end of the school year, she asked each student to write a list of “things that were fun about this school year.” Several students listed more than 100 items, with most items centered on academics.
“We are very proud of the work they have done.” Said McFarlane. “I did not lower my expectations for my students, I helped make it possible for them to reach the expectations.”
Collaboration and Data Changing the Profession and Professionals
The three priority schools in Marysville have quite a bit in common. The teachers, support professionals, administrators, community and union are all focused on the same goal – providing a great public education for their students. The way they do that is maintaining deep and engaged collaboration, keeping high standards for their profession and offering strong support for their students.
Because the Marysville School District recognized that building the capacity of staff and establishing teacher leaders is critical to education reform sustainability, they used some of their School Improvement Grant on extensive professional development for educators.
“Teacher leaders change the climate of the school,” said DeWitte. “Teacher leaders focus on what we can do and keep the resource of hope alive.”
As a result, data teams were created at Totem and Quil Ceda and Tulalip. The data teams serve as natural, job-embedded professional development where educators can research instructional strategies together, problem solve and work with math and literacy coaches to develop pre-and post-unit assessments. The coaches also help teachers learn how to collect and analyze the data from the assessments.
Here’s an example of how a math data team works at Quil Ceda and Tulalip: Students are given a pre-test at the beginning of each new unit. The test is based on the core standards that will be covered in that unit. During data team meetings, the results of the test are used to determine student needs. In the classroom, small groups are formed based on where the students measured, and whole class instruction is also based on the data.
At the end of the unit, students are given a post-test. The data from that assessment is shared with the students so they can see their progress. It is also used by the grade level data teams to determine if more intervention is needed and serves as a discussion tool for what worked and didn’t for teaching that unit.
“What we’re doing is centered around data,” said George Camper, a math coach at Quil Ceda and Tulalip. “Even when you have a nicely aligned curriculum and understanding of standards, there’s a mismatch of what students need and where they are. Using data to bridge that gap has been a tremendous change for us.”
At Quil Ceda and Tulalip, staff spend one hour, two days a week in collaboration time. One day is with a grade level team, the other is with a content team. Totem educators meet daily for 45 minutes.
“We have more assessments that are giving us a lot of very good feedback about student deficiencies and strengths,” said Thomas Sturm, a 7th grade language arts and social studies teacher at Totem. “We’re able to use our collaboration time together to really study what we should focus on and what our next step should be in our instruction.”
Teacher Leaders Increase Academic Rigor
POWER and PRIDE guide the school climate and culture at Totem. Administrators and staff first worked on building the POWER principles of pride, ownership, warmth, encouragement and respect. “We saw a dramatic change in the way students treated each other, teachers and the school,” said Totem principal Robert Kalahan.
Once the POWER principles were a natural part of the school culture, they developed the PRIDE principles of being productive, responsible, inquiring, dedicated and engaged – geared towards the academic behaviors Totem students were expected to demonstrate.
After experiencing success in improving student behavior and attitudes about learning, staff at Totem turned their focus to increasing academic rigor.
During the 2009-2010 school year, 12 percent of Totem’s eighth-graders were taking algebra; 88 percent were in eighth-grade grade math focusing on pre-algebra concepts. The following school year, Dara Schmoe, an eight-grade algebra teacher new to Totem at the time, wanted to increase the number of eighth-graders taking algebra.
Working with her colleagues, Schmoe developed a plan to add another algebra class to the schedule mid-year, and how to accelerate the learning of the students transferred up from eighth-grade math. Using the 30 minutes of academic intervention time Totem has at the end of each day, the students new to algebra got a double dose of the subject every day. That year, 45 percent of Totem’s 8th graders were in algebra and 89 percent passed the end of course exam.
Now, 83 percent of 8th graders at Totem take algebra, with 100 percent projected for the 2012-2013 school year.
“It’s exciting to see that if you accelerate your students, they not only get caught up, they get ahead,” said Schmoe.
The success of the eighth-grade algebra students has also translated to other subjects. “I can say without a doubt there is a direct correlation between the students in algebra and their understanding of variables in science,” said Tim Hall, an 8th grade algebra and science teacher at Totem.
“The staff at these schools have found their voice as professionals,” said Arden Watson, President of the Marysville Education Association. “They have an avenue to be decision makers along with their principals about what needs to happen with students.
It’s clear that the educators at Totem and Quil Ceda and Tulalip have been actively engaged in defining the standards for their profession, supporting peers, and leading decisions that affect student learning in Marysville. What’s also clear is the role of the Marysville Education Association (MEA) in leading its members through these new practices and reforms.
“We’re not always coming forward with problems,” said Watson. “We problem solve.”
Leveraging the resources of NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign, the local association has provided direct support with strategies around Response to Intervention implementation and Professional Learning Community development. At Totem, a $10,000 grant secured by MEA through NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign helped the school install a new laptop computer lab.
Educators in the Marysville priority schools have also participated in Washington Education Association and NEA-led professional development focused on cultural competency and effective data use, in addition to traveling to national forums organized by PSC to share and learn from other school districts engaged in school reform.
With the help of NEA’s Public Engagement Project, Quil Ceda and Tulalip held a community conversation in April with 60 community members. And using PSC’s connection to the Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project (PTHVP), a national effort designed to improve communication between families and schools, staff at Totem are receiving training on parental engagement.
Union-led change goes beyond just providing resources to members and schools. At Totem, the MEA building representatives played an important part in creating a schedule that protected personal planning time but also made room for collaboration time. “Without the support of the local association, we might not have been so willing to think outside the box in creating our school’s structures that have been so powerful,” said Kalahan.
“I feel proud because a lot of the interventions, strategies and ideas are coming directly from our members,” said Watson. “They are part of the process and not waiting for someone from the outside to come and tell them what they need to do. The change is coming from within the school.”