What Do We Do When They Haven’t Learned?
The implementation of a PLC is not a silver bullet, but a pathway to follow in working to ensure student learning. Implementation requires dedication and a focus on desired learning outcomes as teams work to answer the four key questions that guide a PLC:
- What is it we expect our students to learn?
- How will we know when students have learned it?
- How will we respond when students have not learned it?
- How will we respond when students have learned it?
At the junior and high school levels, answering the question “How will we respond when students have not learned?” must be a priority if a school or team of teachers is to reduce failure rates. For many secondary schools, addressing this question requires changes in beliefs and logistics. Ensuring that it is harder for a student to fail than to achieve requires the staff to focus on student learning and react when learning does not occur.
Washington Academic Middle School (WAMS), a 6–8 middle school, routinely failed one of every three students by the end of each grading period. For a middle school serving a population of 1,700 low socioeconomic, minority students in the rural heart of California’s Central Valley, a 33 percent failure rate draws little notice. The Central Valley is known for having one of the highest poverty rates in the United States, and failure has been accepted for years by placing blame squarely on the shoulders of the students and communities being served.
By the end of the 2005–06 school year, the WAMS staff had made a commitment to fully implement a PLC as they had been witness to the successful implementation of PLCs at its feeder elementary schools. The rising achievement levels of the students from the feeder schools forced the WAMS staff to reassess the belief that “these students” were incapable of performing at higher achievement levels.
As the WAMS staff developed and worked through the key PLC questions, they were confronted with logistical and scheduling issues when seeking to effectively address the needs of students who had not learned. Their answer to this issue was “student deployment.” The Algebra I team was one of the first teams to use student deployment to address the needs of students who had not learned. Collaborative teams at WAMS are organized by courses. Within the school’s master schedule, key courses like Algebra I are taught by at least three teachers per period.
Utilizing a flowchart of steps designed to answer the four PLC questions, the WAMS Algebra I team established the essential standard to be learned by all students and a pacing guide on a 10-day instructional schedule for the essential standard to be learned. The team also developed a common assessment and set a SMART goal. At the end of the 10 instructional days, the teachers gave the common assessment to determine if students had learned the prescribed essential standards.
The teachers then met as a team to review the common assessment results as compared to the SMART goal they had set. For each period Algebra I is taught, the teachers divided the students into three groups based on the common assessment results—those students who have learned the standards, those who need reinforcement of the standards, and those who need the standards retaught.
For the next two instructional days, the students were “deployed” during their Algebra I period. The teacher who was most successful in teaching the standard retaught those students with the greatest need, while one of the remaining teachers took the “reinforcement” group and the other took the “already learned it” group for enrichment targeted at deepening and expanding the learning of the standard.
At the end of the two days, the students were reassessed. Students were given the opportunity to raise their grade by demonstrating mastery on this reassessment. Students quickly learned that the goal of deployment is to ensure the learning of the standard and that deployment is not a punishment. Any student who still did not demonstrate mastery after the two-day deployment was referred for further instruction during a tutorial period and, in some instances, in a mandatory after-school assistance program. Remediation and support for individual student learning was continuous and ongoing until mastery is achieved.
Through their diligence and focus, the WAMS staff has reduced the student failure rate from 33 percent to less than 6 percent over the past four years. Student achievement levels have soared and a new pride and belief in the school and its students permeates the staff and community.
WAMS’s ranking as compared to all schools in California grew from decile 4 in 2005 to decile 7 in 2009. Measured against 100 schools with similar demographics, WAMS is now ranked in the top 10 percent of schools in California. On the California Academic Performance Index (API), which measures a school’s student academic performance on a scale of 200 to 1,000 points, WAMS has grown from a very low API of 668 in 2005 to an API of 799 in 2010. WAMS is currently 1 point away from reaching California’s established statewide school performance API target of 800.
Ensuring that it is harder to fail than to succeed is at the heart of WAMS’s deployment model. Answering the question “How will we respond when students have not learned?” by providing safety nets of support is critical at the secondary level if we are to cut failure rates and increase student achievement levels.