Student work a citywide focus in Boston

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As in many cities across the country, Boston has a plan aimed at rejuvenating all of its schools. For schools themselves, the first step is examining student work.

“We had to think about how to make this plan functional and figure out an entry point,” explains Gloria Woods, a principal who is overseeing the change effort in the first two waves of schools.

For Brown, the challenge of where to begin sparked a memory, “I remember sitting with a group of 1st-grade teachers at my school who were telling me they were concerned about their students’ writing. We were sitting with the work in front of us, and we were looking at it.”

Looking harder, teachers began to see what the specific problems were. In turn, teachers began to examine how they taught writing.

“This told me that looking at student work was the starting point,” she says. “You can’t develop a professional development plan or anything else until you know what you need and why, and you don’t know that until you look at student work.”

Partners developed plan

Boston’s citywide plan was developed jointly by the Boston Public Schools, the Boston Annenberg Challenge and the Boston Plan for Excellence in Schools, a foundation endowed by the business community. It calls on the city’s 130 public schools to:

1. Examine student work.

2. Identify and use a school-wide instructional focus promoting literacy for all.

3. Create a targeted professional development plan.

4. Learn and use best teaching practices.

5. Align human, time and monetary resources with the instructional focus.

6. Involve parents and the community in the process.

The seed for this initiative was planted in September, 1996, when the Boston Plan awarded $2 million over four years to 25 schools to pursue whole-school change. In the past, the foundation earmarked most of its funds for grants to teachers for innovative classroom projects.

“Four years ago, our trustees were dissatisfied,” relates Executive Director Ellen Guiney. “The grants they had been giving teachers for the last 10 years only affected a few teachers and a few kids. They even had evaluations that showed this, so a shift was made to create more substantive change in schools.”

Boston’s school superintendent, Thomas Payzant, who had been appointed the year before, was moving in the same direction.

“The superintendent wanted major reforms in the schools and on a large scale,” says Tim Knowles, deputy superintendent for teaching and learning. “It was core to him to get at all schools and not just a few or special schools involved.”

Raising more money

In November 1996, the Boston Annenberg Challenge joined in, challenging the city’s private and public sectors to raise $20 million for school reform. In less than six months, corporations and foundations pulled together more than $10 million, and Payzant committed $10 million in public funds over five years. Annenberg then kicked in another $10 million. As a result, a second group of 23 schools came on board in 1997 and the remainder in 1998 and 1999.

In January 1997, the Boston Plan initiated a series of training sessions on examining student work for school staffs, including support staff as well as the educators.

“It was hard at first to get teachers used to doing this,” recalls Sharon Haselkorn, a whole-change coach at Garfield Elementary. “Though there were some teachers that said they’d been wanting to do this, others were skeptical.

“Teachers had to understand we were not evaluating them,” she says. “We wanted them to begin to look at student work and standards to see where kids were at. We had to tell our teachers, We are not looking for your faults; we want to know if students are meeting goals.'”

It took the first group of schools two years to embrace the process.

Now, Haselkorn says, “Our teachers say they see better written work from our kids. And teachers now have a common language, and that language is even being shared with the kids. It’s not a secret around here; our kids know what good work looks like.”

To carry out what the district calls the “essentials” of school improvement, each school receives $26,000 to $81,000, depending on size, to buy materials, professional development, visits to other schools in and outside the district and the services of a whole-school change coach and content-area coaches.

The systemwide plan includes action steps, expected outcomes and measures of progress for each of the essentials.

For example, one step toward analyzing student work is creating blocks of time for teachers to get together on a regular basis.

Woods says most faculties meet twice a month for 90 minutes to examine student work and discuss instruction, and some meet more often.

“Some teachers meet on their own and even meet with teachers in other schools,” she adds. “The networking has become very powerful.”

Woods notes that having teachers do this work together also was intended to help break down teacher isolation.

Outcomes listed for this essential include teachers developing exemplars of good work and displaying the work of students who meet standards.

What matters

As Knowles sees it, larger school districts can duplicate Boston’s efforts. “Once you get beyond 30 or 40 schools, size doesn’t really matter,” he says. “What does matter is that all the major players—the mayor, the superintendent, private and community sectors— are committed to aligning resources and talking the same language.”

Knowles acknowledges there has been “creative tension” between the central administration and its outside partners. Yet he says that tension promotes change.

“Sometimes they push us and we push them,” says Knowles. “But we have a structured way to talk to each other, and our attitude is that the stakes are too high. We know this has to be a joint effort.”

Ed Doherty, the president of the Boston Teachers Union agrees, “The priorities are clear to everyone and the focus-literary-has been right. It’s been a struggle, but the progress os moving forward.”

Not surprisingly, progress has been uneven. “Some schools are taking baby steps, some are moving in leaps and bounds,” says Woods. “But it’s not a race, and we are all headed in the right direction.”

Knowles agrees, “Test scores from kindergarten though the 4th grade have shown improvement.

Last year, the middle schools, especially 8th grade, also did well. However, high schools did not fare as well. There is ground to still travel in the high schools.”

He acknowledges that many would like to see faster progress, but he says that systemic change takes times. “The first year was the ‘figure it out’ year. The second and third were the implementing years. By the end of next year, we should really see results.”