School & District Management

Tight Focus on Instruction Wins Texas District Prize

By Lesli A. Maxwell — October 05, 2009 7 min read
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It took a while for four-time finalist Aldine, Texas, to win the Broad Prize for Urban Education. But it took even longer to craft the system that ultimately put the district over the top.

In fact, educators there say, the district’s instructional approach took more than a decade to develop, and is still being refined.

At a time when hard-charging superintendents, controversial teacher-pay plans, and pressure for school “turnarounds” dominate headlines, Aldine won the 2009 prize with a steady approach focused squarely on teaching and learning.

“The whole place just works,” said Ledyard McFadden, the president of SchoolWorks, an education consulting company in Beverly, Mass., who visited the district for the award’s sponsor, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.

Spreading the Credit

“They are a tight unit, and it doesn’t feel like any of the processes and strategies at work there are being driven by any one person,” Mr. McFadden said. “You can spread the credit pretty evenly from the top to the bottom of the organization.”

Superintendent Wanda Bamberg visits classrooms during a tour of the Lawrence A. Eckert Intermediate School, in Aldine, Texas. More than a decade of careful, patient attention to instruction paid off for the Aldine district, which won the 2009 Broad Prize for Urban Education.

Mr. McFadden and other outside reviewers arrived in Aldine earlier this year to examine how the school district, which had been named a finalist for the Broad Prize every year since 2006, had bested its peers statewide in reading and mathematics. They found a well-honed system of curriculum and instruction that educators have been refining for years.

The Aldine Independent School District’s system of “managed instruction” spells out clearly for teachers what content is to be taught and when, for every grade level, across every school.

Serving 63,000 students—84 percent of them eligible for free or reduced-price meals and 31 percent English-language learners—in a working-class community in metropolitan Houston, the Aldine district managed to break the “predictive power of poverty” when it comes to student achievement, according to the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation.

Origins in Accountability System

But it took more than a dozen years for Aldine to get to that point, said Wanda Bamberg, a veteran of the district who became superintendent in 2007. The effort began in 1995, when Texas rolled out its accountability system for schools and began to factor minority students’ test scores into ratings that were highly publicized.

Aldine, Ms. Bamberg said, didn’t look good. The gap on state exams between black and Hispanic students, on the lower end, and their white peers was 30 points or more in some grades.

“Everyone was working hard, but we didn’t rely on best practices and data, and, as a consequence, people’s hard work wasn’t producing the results we see now,” said Viola M. Garcia, the president of the Aldine school board and a member since 1992.

Those stark numbers, along with recognition that the district’s high student-mobility rate was a major challenge, sparked a districtwide push—led by then-Superintendent Sonny Donaldson—to map out exactly what needed to be taught and when over the course of a school year. Educators focused on creating that guide around the state standards that were then known in Texas as the “essential elements.”

“That’s where we had to start,” said Ms. Bamberg, who at the time worked in the district’s curriculum and instruction department as the director of middle school language arts.

“We needed some uniform way,” she said, “to make sure that every student, regardless of whether they were in one of our schools one week, and in another of our schools the next, weren’t missing content.”

Next, district leaders set benchmark targets, and later, the benchmark assessments to measure whether those targets were hit.

Over time, Aldine’s system evolved to fully integrate curriculum and instruction and professional development for teachers with student-achievement data. That information comes from regular, frequent assessments, as well as results from state tests and nationally normed exams.

Teachers of 2nd grade math, for example, can give a test, take the test sheets to a scanner, and, within an hour, look at how their students performed, Superintendent Bamberg said.

“Those immediate results allow them to make decisions about what to do the next day, about what needs to be retaught, and how to group the kids based on what skills they need to spend more time on,” she said.

Six-Week Cycles

Students must be assessed every six weeks in all subjects, at the conclusion of a scope-and-sequence cycle. For secondary math and science, assessments are given every three weeks, because of lagging rates of improvement in those subjects, Ms. Bamberg said.

The challenge for teachers, she noted, is balancing the needs of students who may require some skills to be retaught with the imperative to stay on pace to cover all the skills within the six-week intervals in time for the district assessments.

“They don’t have the luxury of spending six weeks on fractions,” she said. “It can be very difficult.”

As teachers work through the scope-and-sequence cycles, they tap into the Triand system, a commercial, Web-based tool that

provides model lessons that have been vetted by the district’s curriculum experts. They also use Triand to submit their own lesson plans for weekly reviews by their principals.

The model lessons, said Ms. Bamberg, “are a great asset for new teachers.” That’s important in a growing district that hires roughly 300 to 400 teachers a year.

“They can look at Miss Smith’s lesson, as well as at her student data on how well she taught a certain skill, and consider using all or part of that themselves to get the same successful results,” Ms. Bamberg explained.

While Aldine’s curriculum is largely dictated by the central office, there are opportunities for flexibility based on the needs of children in an individual school, said Mr. McFadden, the consultant who visited the district as part of the Broad Foundation’s evaluation of its finalists for the award anounced last month.

“But any decision to make changes must be defended and backed up with data,” he said. “It’s a very rigorous process, but if someone offers good rationale for changing something, the district leaders listen to them and allow them to innovate.”

Development of a culture in which educators constantly examine student-achievement data—and are willing to talk constructively about what failed and what succeeded—is an elusive aim in many districts, Mr. McFadden added.

“Where that comes from is really hard to say, but it’s something that Aldine has taken years to work toward,” he said. “This is not a story of restructuring, it’s one of refinement. This is a really mature organization, though it’s not a stagnant one.”

Cultivating the district’s instructional model somewhat gradually was a deliberate strategy, Ms. Bamberg said: “Doing that gave people an opportunity to buy in.”

The district relies on principals to keep the system working well at the school level.

“Anything that we add or change to the curriculum, we train our principals first,” Ms. Bamberg said. “They can’t support teachers or hold them accountable if they aren’t aware of how it should work.”

Stable Leadership

Ms. Garcia, the school board president, credits much of the district’s culture to stable leadership. Aldine’s transformation, she said, began with Mr. Donaldson, the superintendent from 1996 to 2001. His successor was Nadine Kujawa, a former head of the curriculum and instruction department who oversaw much of the development of the current system.

Ms. Bamberg, who also served as the chief of curriculum and instruction before becoming superintendent, has continued to push for refinements and improvement, Ms. Garcia said.

“We’ve always believed that what we are here to do is to teach children,” she said, “so having a leader whose major strength is curriculum and instruction is paramount.”

The school board recently adopted a policy to formalize the district’s commitment to using managed instruction.

“All of the processes are in place after many years of evolving, and we were concerned about sustainability,” Ms. Garcia said. “We want this work on curriculum and instruction to outlast all of us.” Mr. McFadden has little doubt that it will.

“I think over time Aldine developed a great set of tools and processes to make sure that, number one, students are receiving the content that they are supposed to, according to state standards, and that, number two, [district officials] are perfecting the way to deliver that content over time,” he said. “Third, the system allows them to figure out when students aren’t getting the content so that they can provide them with the additional supports and interventions they need to get it.”

The district is still on a high from winning the Broad Prize, which carries with it $1 million in scholarship money for students, Superintendent Bamberg said. But she added that there’s much more work to do, especially to increase the high school graduation rate.

“It’s gratifying to have our improvements recognized by this prize,” she said, “but it’s important for people to know that we still have many challenges ahead, and much more that we want to do for the children in our district.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the October 07, 2009 edition of Education Week as Tight Focus on Instruction Wins Texas District Prize

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