From the Field

Colton Middle School: Accelerating to the Top in Academic Gains

In 2015, Principal’s Exchange began partnering with Colton Joint Unified School District cabinet-level administrators to reimagine their systems and practices and accelerate learning and achievement across every student demographic. At the time, a significant number of the district’s schools were underperforming in math and English Language Arts (ELA) based on standardized test scores. While the district had used multiple strategies to improve student outcomes, they experienced limited or inconsistent success.

Principal’s Exchange started by helping district administrators identify their success and challenge areas by using classroom observations, student shadowing, staff focus groups, and analyses of historical and current achievement data. Based on these findings, the Principal’s Exchange team met with administrators regularly – coaching them on how to deepen their role and engagement as lead educators and increasing their accountability for teacher and student performance.

In 2016, these administrative supports were followed by a week-long Summer Training Institute at Colton Middle School, that was open to administrators, teaching coaches, and teachers prior to the school year. Principal’s Exchange facilitates Summer Training Institutes with each of its partners to provide an in-depth orientation of its equity-grounded, data-driven approach to systems change and to preview how this approach will be implemented throughout the partnership.

Once the 2016-17 school year started, Principal’s Exchange provided Colton Middle School administrators and subject teams with a robust suite of practical and tactical strategies and tools to address each of their challenge areas. These included working with them on: aligning curricula to state standards, designing and evaluating formative assessments to measure student progress, and facilitating structured Data Reflection Sessions to deepen collaboration around what was and wasn’t working using data analytics to inform and tailor their support strategies.

As a result, Principal’s Exchange is excited to announce that after its first full year of partnership, Colton Middle School rose from one of the district’s lowest performing middle schools to one of its highest in both math and ELA. Colton Middle School and Principal’s Exchange are looking forward to entering the second year of their partnership and keeping the momentum moving forward.

Education Week: Hidden Labels Hold Students Back

Hidden Labels Hold Students Back: Five questions for school leaders to move beyond tracking
By Robin Avelar La Salle & Ruth S. Johnson
February 5, 2018

Schools used to blatantly track students. Beginning in the early 20th century, many schools funneled students into high, medium, or low groups of expected academic achievement and educational attainment, regardless of their potential. Once labeled, students most likely remained in those groups throughout most or all of their schooling, which undermined their future workforce opportunities.

However, dating back to Howard Becker’s development of the “labeling theory” in the 1960s, sociology research has long suggested that students’ images of themselves may become intertwined with the label. Regrettably, most schools and districts still have systems for “sorting” students, which are often rooted in tracking legacies associated with race, income, ethnicity, gender, and language status.

Many districts are working to change their policies and practices to align with higher standards and expectations for all students. This is promising, but such a transformation requires vigilance, courage, and the will to assess and to call out and eliminate detrimental sorting systems. Leadership by administrators, teachers, school boards, parents, community, and even students is necessary to expose and shift systems of harmful sorting.

We have worked with hundreds of schools in dozens of districts over the past 20 years through our consulting work, partnering with schools and school districts with diverse student populations to improve student achievement. Here are some major questions we’ve learned that schools and district leaders should be asking to keep expectations high for every student:

1) What systems in our schools are creating the academic results students are currently getting?
It is imperative that results are analyzed by using multiple indicators to reveal how all students are performing. High-achieving schools and districts may have pockets of underachieving students whose performance is masked by aggregate data. If the results indicate a need for improvement, responding correctly is critical.

One of the most common approaches we have observed is a phenomenon we describe as the “wallpaper effect,” which occurs when often well-intentioned school and district leaders launch programs or interventions based upon limited data without full understanding of the most critical underlying issues.

2) What are our hunches about those results?
We all may have a lot of hunches about the underlying causes of academic disparities, but everything is just a hunch until we analyze pertinent data. To bring authentic issues to light, school and district leaders must combine data from academic, discipline, and other indicators, examined from every possible angle. These findings often show a vast difference in underlying conditions and frequently dispel myths about why some students are underachieving. Consequently, these data inform leaders about which crucial academic inequalities to address.

3) What types of decisions do we make about students based on their labels?
Decades ago, many struggling students were labeled “special education,” even if their struggle was simply being an English-language learner. Today, we hear labels like “Title I kids,” “long-term English-learners,” “at-risk students,” and so on. Students’ labels and grouping may limit access to premium educational experiences. For example, does a student identified as an English-learner, or student with disabilities, or one who has been suspended get as much access to a high quality, enriched schooling experience as a student labeled “honors”?

If students are in the same group for much of the day, leadership must be concerned about equity issues: Is this grouping linked to differential expectations? How does it inform students’ expectations for themselves? If students need additional support, the support must result in students becoming more proficient after the intervention. Leaders must analyze evidence concerning proficiency and ensure an exit strategy so that students can be eventually moved out of these groups and not be defined by what should be temporary challenges.

4) What are the results of the programs initiated to support students’ academic needs?
It is essential to scrutinize the contents of curricula and courses. For instance, at the secondary level instead of algebra, some students may get guided toward readiness for algebra; instead of biology, life science; and instead of English literature, senior English. The course titles vary, but they all are less rigorous versions of expected requirements for college and career readiness.

Decades of research confirms the futility of this approach. Although these classes are ostensibly created to give struggling students a greater chance to succeed, the failure rate in these courses is almost always higher than classes with mixed achievement levels. Since the publication of her book Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality in 1985, Jeannie Oaks has documented how underachieving students have the best chance of academic success when they are in classes that have academic rigor, higher expectations, and higher achieving students.

5) Are there large disparities in our grade distributions and diploma pathways?
When examining grades by individual high school teachers, we often find large disparities in grade distributions for the same course taught by different teachers. Some teachers routinely award a high percentage of passing grades, while others fail a sizable percentage of their students. Disparities are attributed to curriculum rigor, ineffective teaching, and teachers’ perceptions about students’ abilities. To uproot systemic unconscious biases, schools and districts must analyze syllabi, textbooks, course requirements, grouping patterns, grading criteria, and content coverage for the same course. This analysis allows them to develop cohesive curricula and expectations for each course.

A 2017 Alliance for Education study of nine states found 98 different pathways to a high school diploma. Unfortunately, only 47 of those pathways represent college- and career-ready diplomas. A disproportionate share of the less rigorous diplomas were earned by students of color and low-income groups. It is of paramount importance that schools and districts consider what are our diplomas are worth.

Transforming systems for all students to meet higher standards is hard, but it is necessary and noble work. Many educators who are equity warriors are already engaged in meeting the challenge. Our children deserve leaders who fervently ask and answer: Does my school or district have the highest expectations and results for all children? All of our students deserve no less than the best.

Robin Avelar La Salle is the CEO of Principal’s Exchange, in Santa Ana, Calif. Ruth S. Johnson is a former school superintendent, a California State University professor emeritus, and an equity and data consultant for Principal’s Exchange. Together, they are the authors of Data Strategies to Uncover and Eliminate Hidden Inequities: The Wallpaper Effect (Corwin Press, 2010).

Education Hour Event: The Story of Precious

California School News Report: Lynwood Unified School District Named a 2017 National AP District of the Year

Lynwood Unified School District on Feb. 28 commemorated its distinction as one of three districts in the nation – and the only one in California – to be named a College Board Advanced Placement District of the Year, celebrating the monumental achievement with students, teachers, district administrators as College Board leadership presented the award at Lynwood High School.

The District received the honor for being the national leader among medium-size school districts – defined as having between 8,000 and 49,999 students – in expanding access to AP courses while simultaneously improving AP exam performance.

Lynwood Unified was among 433 districts across the U.S. and Canada to win placement on the annual AP District Honor Roll. From this list, three AP Districts of the Year — one for each district size: small, medium and large — were selected based on an analysis of three academic years of AP data.

“At Lynwood Unified, we truly believe that every student has the ability to succeed in the college and career of his or her choosing. It is our responsibility to provide the right tools and support to get them there,” Lynwood Unified Superintendent Paul Gothold said. “This represents our mantra of equity and access – it should be our students who make the choice whether they go to college, not the educational system.”

Lynwood Unified has eliminated prerequisites and tracking so that any student can enroll in advanced coursework, including AP, honors and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs. The District provides teacher training to support AP students; free AP summer camps and support outside of the instructional day; access to online tutoring courses; and District funds to cover the cost of exams.

From 2014 to 2016, Lynwood Unified School District:
• Simultaneously and continuously raised the number of students taking AP classes while improving successful outcomes (a score of 3 or higher) on AP exams, with 42 percent of all AP students scoring a 3 or higher in 2016;

• Increased student participation in AP by 17 percent annually and the percentage of students scoring a 3 or higher on at least one AP exam by 4 percent annually; and

• Increased the percentage of traditionally underrepresented minority AP students earning a 3 or higher on at least one AP exam by 5 percent annually – an increase of 101 students since 2014.

Ninety-six percent or more of the AP students in Lynwood Unified School District are American Indian, African American, Hispanic/Latino or Native Hawaiian/other Pacific Islander. In addition, more than 94 percent of the AP students in the district qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Increasing access to AP coursework while increasing the percentage of students earning scores of 3 or higher is the ideal scenario for a district’s AP program, indicating that the district is preparing a larger array of its students for the rigor of AP and college studies. Participating in AP coursework can also lead to college savings for families, as the typical student who scores a 3 or higher on two AP exams has the potential to save, on average, $1,779 at a public four-year college and more than $6,000 at a private institution.

“Our students and teachers have worked so incredibly hard, and their dedication to education is evident in this District of the Year achievement,” Lynwood Unified Board President Alma-Delia Renteria said. “I couldn’t be more proud to be part of a District that fosters growth, promotes excellence, and goes above and beyond to prepare all of our students for success in college, career and life.”

In addition to celebratory events at the district level, all three winning districts will be honored at the 2017 AP Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. in July.

In 2017, more than 3,900 colleges and universities around the world received AP scores for college credit, Advanced Placement and/or consideration in the admission process, with many colleges and universities in the U.S. offering credit in one or more subjects for qualifying AP scores.

“This award shows that Lynwood Unified School District is challenging many students to achieve at the highest levels,” said Trevor Packer, head of the College Board’s AP Program. “The teachers and administrators in this district are clearly committed to ensuring that a more diverse population of students attains the benefits of AP – that they gain confidence, learn how to craft and defend arguments, earn college credit, and are ready to succeed in college. Congratulations to all the educators, parents, and students whose dedication and hard work are behind this well-deserved recognition.”