Third graders in Karissa Pickens’ classroom at Glenn O. Swing Elementary are reading an article about the flu — how to avoid it, or, should a scratchy throat or bleary eyes strike, how to respond to the symptoms. Graphs and tables accompany the piece, and they are the point of the morning’s review.
A board near the door states the reading standard being covered: “I can use information from text features, illustrations, and the words to understand a text.” Reminders from previous days are squeezed into the statement. Lines from the term “text features” lead to examples: “photo,” “table of contents,” “caption.”
The teacher calls on students to name a symptom. From a chart in the article, one mentioned sneezing; another offered headaches. Chills, one added.
The discussion moves briskly, with Pickens providing feedback, reminders and encouragement. When students don’t immediately respond on one question, Pickens challenges them. “I see people looking at me,” she said. “Go back to your text.” In seconds, answers arrive.
Luella Copeland, an 8-year-old who has attended this school since kindergarten, said that lessons, reviews, assignments, and practice give students plenty of opportunities to show what they know. Plus, she added, every teacher expects students to explain their thinking and responses.
“You can have the right answer, but you have to be able to add to it,” she said during a break. “Details — things from the text that support it. I love that our teachers really tell us what they want us to do and show us a lot about how to do it.”
Student performance at Glenn O. Swing Elementary stands out. Children from demographic groups mired in deep achievement gaps in many Kentucky schools are high achievers here.
On 2017 state tests, the percentage of Swing pupils scoring in proficient or distinguished categories in every demographic minority group the state tracks — race, poverty, disability, English language learners, and more — outpaced the state’s average for all students in 26 of 28 measures across five subjects. On state tests in 2017, 31 percent of African American students scored proficient or distinguished in reading; 28 percent in math. At Swing, those rates were 61 percent for reading and 63 percent for math. Among English learners, the percentage of Kentucky students scoring proficient or better in reading and math were 21 percent and 24 percent, respectively. At Swing, the rates were 60 percent for reading and 93 percent for math.
‘I need to be able, in my head, to think about performance based on student work, which is a constant monitoring process,’ said Principal Scott Alter. ‘I can tell more about teams and teachers from student work than from walk-throughs in the classroom everyday.’
Scott Alter, the principal, credited the academic performance and achievement gap progress to daily fine tuning of classroom assignments and teaching, all based on needs evident in students’ work.
“We are looking at kids’ work every day,” said Alter, whose office table is a collection of children’s handwriting jotted across homework, quizzes, and compositions. “We are meeting as teams about next steps based on what may have been produced 15 minutes ago. We spend a lot of time looking at ways to adjust and improve as teachers and administrators. There’s a lot of real-time learning going on.”
To complement the academic focus, the school created a separate student support team allowing Alter and the assistant principal maximum time to collaborate with teachers, analyze what students are producing, and ensure that learning setbacks get immediate attention.
“We try to find the deepest level of what students need to know and get every student there,” said Elizabeth Bravo, the third grade math teacher. “Every part of every day is treated as an intensive intervention. We connect to real life so that what we are talking about means something. We ask questions that stretch what students know.”
Constant teacher collaboration taps combined wisdom and reinforces a culture of trust and results which, in turn, translates to students. Jennifer Young, the third grade language arts and writing teacher, said that it takes ongoing work to hit the target.
“You may get things given back and hear ‘try again,’ but you know there will be support and that we can trust each other,” Young said. “Our students know that we want to make sure they succeed.”
The combination of high expectations and ready support can make students feel challenge in the present and a record of mastery in retrospect. Third grader Luella said of her years as a student: “Back in first grade and kindergarten, everything was easy. Third grade is hard. I get frustrated if it’s hard, but I try not to mess up and stay focused.”
Cumulative academic performance by students at Swing Elementary from low-income and minority backgrounds would rank in the top 20 percent of all Kentucky elementary schools; performance by students with disabilities would fall in the top 30 percent of all elementaries.
Superintendent Alvin Garrison said that Glenn O. Swing exemplifies continuous improvement. “It’s never, ‘You can’t do it,’ it’s ‘you can’t do it yet.’ They get kids to think, write and read at high levels. When you walk in that school you can feel it,” he said. “You can’t sit there and daydream. You can’t opt out.”
The academic gains offer important momentum for a district that faced deep budget and achievement issues two decades ago. “The kind of positive environment and culture you see at Glenn O. Swing is permeating the district,” said Julie Geisen Scheper, a school board member for the past six years.
Efforts to keep students on track don’t stop with teachers. Asking questions and engaging in thoughtful conversation are part of the curriculum. During a science lesson about motion and combined forces, Luella noticed a fellow third grader looking puzzled as she scanned the textbook.
Luella eased across her desk and quietly brought up the topic of balanced forces. After sharing a thought, she asked, “Do you agree?” Sensing uncertainty, Luella kept probing for an entry point, as her teachers might. She asked, “What do unbalanced forces do?” The girl responded, a conversation began, and soon, Luella’s classmate was finding the answer.
ISSUES IN CLASSROOM WORK
Achievement gaps are usually defined by test scores — often a snapshot of student achievement on the day of state or national standardized exams. Meanwhile, the bulk of learning in schools grows from daily classroom work. Research on improving achievement and reducing gaps between demographic groups points to the importance of setting high expectations based on standards that teachers understand. Toward that goal, monitoring and improving teachers’ knowledge of necessary content and skills, knowing how well teachers cover academic material, and gauging the level of mastery demonstrated by students all need ongoing attention. Reviewing daily classwork can also provide a clear understanding of students’ strengths and how they are improving. Some questions that might spark a local conversation:
\\\\\ How does your school or district set expectations and monitor the quality of daily learning experiences and results of classroom assignments? How does that process improve teacher and student performance?
\\\\\ How often do teachers and administrators analyze and discuss students’ work? What kinds of conversations result?
\\\\\ What happens when some or most students lack a solid understanding of topics covered in class based on results of quizzes, tests or other assignments?
\\\\\ Do teachers give specific feedback on student work? Are discussions about feedback part of a regular collaborative review with peers or administrators, leading to ways for teachers to improve their own practice and give students a better sense of how they can improve?
A prominent national voice in examining achievement gaps has been The Education Trust, based in Washington, D.C. Its founder, Kati Haycock, long emphasized the importance of high-level standards, a challenging curriculum and extra time and help for students who are behind. In a 2001 article in Educational Leadership, Haycock shared lessons from students whose work fell into the achievement gap divide. “We have come away stunned,” she wrote. “Stunned, first, by how little is expected of students in high-poverty schools — how few assignments they get in a given school week or month. Stunned, second, by the low level of the few assignments that they do get.” She continued, “in too many schools, some students are taught a high-level curriculum, whereas other students continue to be taught a low-level curriculum that is aligned with jobs that no longer exist.” More recently, the Education Trust looked at how classroom assignments connect with math standards.
\\\\\ A focus on student work can also lead to developing in-depth assignments that take teaching and learning to higher levels. The Center for High-Quality Student Work is a resource for developing and displaying projects that challenge students and produce impressive products.
Each month, the BRIGHT SPOTS blog showcases impressive learning in Kentucky schools.
IN JUNE \\\\\
BUILDING ACADEMIC CHAMPIONS at Johnson County Middle School
ABOUT GLENN O. SWING ELEMENTARY \\\\\
RACE: 48% minority
INCOME: 86% eligible for free/reduced price meals
\\\\\ Statewide in 2017, Kentucky students whose family income qualified for free- or reduced-price meals posted scores on state tests that averaged about 60 percent of the scores of students whose backgrounds did not make them part of any achievement gap demographic (white, non-disabled, English-speaking students from middle- or upper-income families). At Glenn O. Swing, students who qualified for free- or reduced-price meals performed far above that 60 percent state trend: the Glenn O. Swing student average on the reading test was 87 percent of the statewide non-gap-group student average. In math, the school’s average was 97 percent of the state non-gap average. In social studies, the school scored 11 percent higher than the state non-gap average. In writing and language mechanics, the school scored at about 83 percent of the state non-gap average.
\\\\\ Hispanic students at Glenn O. Swing far outpaced the state average: in reading, 72 percent scored proficient or better on the 2017 state test while 90 percent scored proficient or better in math. (Hispanic students make up 18 percent of the school population.) Statewide, proficient percentages in reading and math for Hispanic students hovered at about 40.
\\\\\ In reading, math, social studies and writing, Swing’s students with identified disabilities had higher rates of proficiency than the statewide total for all students.