At first blush, Lancaster seems an unlikely home for a full-scale initiative to improve urban schools. The local tourism industry, after all, trades on the area’s reputation for uncorrupted pastoral beauty, and brochures promote the “simpler life” led by Lancaster County’s many Amish residents.
But beyond the miles of rolling farmland and Pennsylvania Dutch souvenir shops, the 10,800-student Lancaster city district face many of the same challenges as larger urban school systems throughout the country: a growing Spanish-speaking population, a majority of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, and state test results that have remained stagnant.
And now, education leaders here are hoping that a recent switch to a standards- and assessment-driven system will raise achievement and head off the threat of a state takeover. By analyzing state and district student-assessment data, educators are working to home in on the specific academic areas that most need improvement.
“We’re taking a system that was frantic and doing good things in random ways, and focusing it,” says Eleanor Dougherty, a senior associate with the Washington-based Education Trust, which is helping implement the Lancaster district’s improvement efforts. “We’re making an implicit system an explicit system--which is what disadvantaged kids really need.”
Under a program put into effect in 1999, Lancaster students take district-chosen tests in such core subjects as mathematics and language arts at the end of every marking period, or once every nine weeks. Administrators use those results, along with data collected from state test and other assessments, to target areas for improvement.
To pinpoint weaknesses at the school and classroom levels, and ensure that teachers are equipped to redirect instruction in a way that meets the identified needs, the district has assigned a master teacher, or “instructional facilitator,” to each of the district’s 19 campuses.
School officials say the instructional facilitators are crucial to making sure that the data gathered from the districtwide assessment are used in constructive ways.
The facilitators work with teachers in their assigned school four days a week. On the fifth day, they receive training and plot out the district’s nine-week assessment with members of the support staff from the district’s office of teaching and learning.
At King Elementary School last year, instructional facilitator Teri Cammerata demonstrated lessons on how students can use imagery to begin writing assignments after a district assessment revealed that students were struggling to find appropriate openings to their stories.
“The scoring results drove the instruction,” Cammerata says. “The staff feels a sense of relief that this is something tangible we can do to make improvements.” District administrators say the instructional support, along with the regular checks on student progress, has given teachers a new focus on meeting the district’s standards.
“We’re taking a series of snapshots in time of what kids are doing, and doing it often enough that it enables teachers to make adjustments along the way,” says Marilyn Crawford, the director of the school system’s office of teaching and learning. “It’s so much better than holding our breaths once a year and waiting.”
So far, the efforts appear to be reaping rewards. Just one year into its new assessment policy, the district logged modest, but notable, gains on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment by increasing the number of students who scored in the middle and upper ranks of students statewide. On last year’s tests, roughly 43 percent of Lancaster’s students scored in the lowest quartile of students statewide, compared with almost 50 percent of students in 1999.
Staving Off a Takeover
Then again, Lancaster had a lot of room for improvement. The district has been targeted by the state’s Education Empowerment Act, a measure signed into law last spring by Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican. The law gives low-performing districts three years to improve reading and math scores or face a state takeover.
Lancaster qualified for the list because at least 50 percent of its students scored in the lowest quartile on the state assessment in reading and math in 1998 and 1999. An average of 51.3 percent of Lancaster students were among the lowest scorers in the state for those two years.
“We just want to make sure [the new law] doesn’t interfere with what we’re trying to do,” says Superintendent Vicki L. Phillips, who was hired by the district two years ago with a mandate for change.
She points out that Lancaster began executing its recent changes before it was singled out by the state. “We’re pretty confident that we’re not at risk for takeover,” she says. “But we’re also confident that we need to keep working.”
To guarantee that students and teachers see connections between the different grade levels, the instructional facilitators from all the schools collaborate to choose district assessments for elementary, middle, and high schools.
During one recent Friday meeting, the facilitators went through a process they call “sipping” with a high-school-level writing assignment once given in a Massachusetts state assessment. SIP stands for “standards in practice,” a method Lancaster uses to gauge whether a given task considered for use in a districtwide assessment meets academic standards.
Once the facilitators agree on the type of assignment they will give students, they “map backward” from that particular task and brainstorm the skills students would need to be taught to complete the assignment.
One assignment they discuss involves an analysis of a passage from a short story. The instructional facilitators agree that students would need to learn how to read and deconstruct short stories, as well as understand different elements of literary analysis.
Later, they will create a scoring guide to go with the assessment to help teachers acquire a comprehensive understanding of the type of work expected of their students.
The process doesn’t always proceed smoothly, and on this particular Friday, some facilitators express concern that the instructions accompanying the essay assignment are unclear and could lead students astray. By the end of the meeting, Dougherty of the Education Trust tells the facilitators to go back to their schools and ask teachers to write down and submit all the reading and writing exercises they assign over the course of one week to their students.
“We’re doing an inventory of the reading and writing tasks,” Dougherty says. “We need to understand if we’re working at grade level or below grade level.”
District administrators say they are already seeing the benefit of having all the teachers and students in a district working toward the same set of goals.
At Lincoln Middle School, for instance, teachers took a hard look at their assessment results last year and decided that, as a school, they needed to build more reading time into the school day. The school this year eliminated homeroom in favor of an additional reading period.
“This year, we really have a chance to improve,” says Susan Maher, the instructional facilitator at Lincoln. “Before, we’d talk together about the kids we teach. Now, we’re talking about what we teach.”