Across the country, preparation is underway for the new school year, with clearly justified concerns over such matters as transport to school, temperature checks and social distancing, the mental and emotional wellbeing of students and teachers, and the possibility of having to combine face-to-face with online learning in a variety of different models.
In the midst of so many challenges, school leaders are also dealing with the almost certain fact that students will have learned and retained considerably less in their 2019–2020 school year than is normally the case. NWEA has attempted to quantify the combination of the usual “summer melt” (what students ordinarily forget over the summer holiday) with the fact that they will have learned much less from online teaching or working with reading packets than had they attended school: “In mathematics, students are likely to show much smaller learning gains, returning with less than 50 percent of the learning gains and in some grades”
These learning losses are not only large, but are distributed differently across socioeconomic groups. We know that low-income students have had far less access to internet accessibility and the hardware required to access on-line instruction, and are thus likely to have been even harder hit during the Covid-19 crisis. Since such students were far more likely to be academically behind their more privileged peers before Covid-19, they will, in comparative terms, be even further below grade level when they return to school.
In these circumstances, schools may be tempted to focus on the need to” remediate” their students—indeed, to do so more than ever before. Remediation in the United States has traditionally meant that teachers try to provide students whose work is deemed “below grade level” with the material that they had not learned the first time around. Often this is called “meeting students where they are.”
This well-intentioned strategy sounds like common sense. But as I have suggested elsewhere, there is strong evidence that this approach just doesn’t work. It is deeply discouraging to students, and in most cases, simply locks them into a permanent and debilitating learning gap. Instead, in that article, my co-author Daniel Weisberg and I advocate for accelerating rather than remediating.
But what does acceleration look like in practice? One way to answer this is to look at schools that effectively accelerate their students’ learning, every day, every year. Wayman Academy of the Arts in Jacksonville, Florida, is such a place. And what follows is a first-hand account from its principal, Simaran Bakshi, one of Florida’s TaxWatch Principal Leadership Award winners for 2020, who explains how the school does this.
When I became principal of Wayman Academy in 2013, it was a low-performing charter school in the poorest neighborhood of Jacksonville, surrounded by other low-performing schools. More than 90 percent of the students performed one or two years below grade level. Few parents were involved in school life. There was a chronic teacher shortage because of the neighborhood’s reputation and the school’s lack of retirement benefits. My charges were simply to keep the school open and not receive another “F” on Florida’s school rating calculation, which is a combination of students’ academic proficiency and growth.
Fast forward to three years later, and the school’s grade had improved to a “B.” Then, in each of the following four years, from 2015 to 2019, Wayman outperformed every school in the district with similar demographics and earned a “high-performing status” from the Florida State Department of Education in 2019, and is now an “A” school.
How did it happen?
My motto has always been “keep it simple,” in both my personal and professional life. In the world of K–12 education, we love to make things complex—and low performance almost inevitably results. Complexity allows teachers and school leaders to claim that they are “doing more,” while the lines of real responsibility in fact become hopelessly blurred, and the overarching “system” becomes the scapegoat for the results. Overcomplicating things especially overwhelms those teachers and students who are already struggling.
So as the principal at Wayman, I have been combatting complexity in three ways. First, I focus relentlessly on clear, effective instruction. We provide teachers with the right kind of knowledge, tools, and professional development that lead to teaching practices that work. We emphasize mastery of simple, familiar practices that research has found to have the most significant impact on achievement. And professional development is not just couple of sit-down sessions. Teachers train one another, exchange skill-sets, and receive constant feedback from our Leadership Team. This helps us create a culture of high expectations for students and teachers alike.
Second, we accelerate rather than remediate. Teachers do not water down curricula for our struggling students. Instead, we focus on expediting their growth and filling in any gaps in knowledge or skills, all while teaching them grade-appropriate content on a daily basis.
One of the ways we fill these gaps is with Response to Intervention (RTI) time, which occurs outside of the regular school day, every morning. Every staff member in the school is assigned to teach a common skill or standard, under teachers’ supervision, to a group of students who are struggling in that area. Students join different RTI groups as necessary throughout the year based on their progress and needs. This helps us to stay focused on grade-level content during school hours and move everyone forward on the same learning timelines.
Third, we limit assessments to those that give us useful information about our students’ strengths and weaknesses. The assessments are carefully planned at the beginning of the school year, and instructional time is not compromised. For us, this means administering three formative computerized tests each year that monitor student learning and allow our teachers to better tailor their instruction; four growth-monitoring assessments each year to measure how much progress students have made in set amounts of time; and weekly exams to determine how close our pupils are to grade level.
Here’s how this works in two true-to-life classrooms at Wayman Academy, one each in math and English language arts.
Ms. Smith, fifth-grade math: Her first lesson to her class of twenty-two students was on adding unlike fractions. Our diagnostic assessment data showed that twelve of the children were at a third-grade level on that skill—two years behind. Ms. Smith started the lesson by teaching the fifth-grade concept to the whole class. She then had the class work on fully planned, differentiated independent work that was tailored to each students’ mastery of the prerequisite skills—skills meant to be taught in lower grades—that they’d need to understand the new concept. Struggling students had various gaps: some struggled with halves, for example, and some with breaking fractions into smaller units.
Ms. Smith did not go back to teaching third-grade work for multiple days, as it would have left the entire class behind. Instead, for each day’s fifth-grade-level lesson, she focused on filling the gaps that prevented students from grasping it. And then she used RTI hours for those who needed more help. Differentiation in her classroom, however, was relevant to what was being taught that day, so that students could follow along and soon catch up with their on-grade-level peers. The objective of the lesson was applicable to all students. She did not focus on filling the years’ worth of gaps at a slow speed by moving backwards. She pulled the students up to grade-level faster by keeping the focus only on fractions. The resulting data showed that the whole class mastered unlike fractions within the specified time.
This is a daily scenario in Ms. Smith’s class, and the data support her method of teaching. This teacher’s students have outperformed those in the best schools in the district—not just in growth, but also in proficiency, for last four years. There are several Ms. Smiths in our school.
Ms. Jones, fourth-grade English language arts: She introduced her class to a lesson on drawing inferences from a text, and the diagnostic results had shown multiple students one or two grade levels behind on that skill.
She introduced the fourth-grade standard, and then broke the students up for independent work or group activities. Her students were required to read a text, note specific details, and then synthesize them to achieve new understanding. The work was differentiated for various ability groups, but crucially, every child read the same text. The guided groups that Ms. Jones met with were based on the prerequisites required to understand what it meant to infer something. Ms. Jones helped her students slow down and list the important, relevant details on graphic organizers. Then they relied on their background knowledge to make connections, generate predictions, and draw conclusions. Reviewing those “mini-inferences” led to deeper understanding of the text. Finally, that understanding was brought to bear in whole-group discussion.
Since reading requires a broad range of foundational skills, it would have been easy for her to wander into teaching other skill sets instead of staying focused on one. If a student struggled with sounding out a word, for instance, she did not slip into teaching phonics, but rather stayed focused on the progression skills needed for inferencing. The students connected better throughout the lesson, as Ms. Jones kept them within the range of current grade-level skills.
Dealing with students’ wide range of background knowledge and skills when teaching them a new on-grade-level concept is different than simply teaching below-grade-level material. Teachers needs cadence, a rhythm all students can learn in. Explicit planning is the key to help students with learning gaps. It can be done.
At Wayman, i-Ready data over the last four years show consistent progress. At the beginning of the academic year, is not uncommon for only 15 percent of students to be proficient in reading and 20 percent in math. Yet by the end of the year, a full 65 percent or more attain proficiency in reading, and 70 percent do so in math. Tier 3 students, who require the most intensive help to get up to grade level, have a success rate of 95–98 percent of moving up by one grade level or more by the end of the school year.
A school’s performance is directly tied to what we teach and how well we teach it. When we keep it simple by focusing relentlessly on high-level instruction, good things happen. Students accelerate, teachers thrive, and schools shine.