One Subject at a Time

By Catherine Gewertz — February 01, 2005 10 min read
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As teenagers stream out the double doors of Norview High School into a frigid winter afternoon, four history teachers gather in a quiet upstairs classroom. They are not there to discuss their students, but to take a cold-eyed look at their own performance.

They’re evaluating how well they’ve taught a unit on the Industrial Revolution, and the computer printouts they’re holding will guide them. A graph with jagged, multicolored lines shows the students’ average scores on the unit test over the last six years. Additional graphs show how well each teacher’s students scored.

Sophomore Jessica Moore waves to friends in the hallway.

Some of these sessions offer reason for satisfied smiles. But not this day’s numbers. Only 37 percent of the students passed the unit test in 2004, an all-time low, prompting sober reflection among the three U.S. history teachers and their department chairman.

What went wrong? Was it the changes they made in that year’s test? Was it their pacing? The phrasing of certain questions? They brainstorm ways to make this notoriously difficult unit more engaging this year. The teacher whose students turned in the lowest scores seeks and receives tips from a colleague whose students did better.

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A Look at the Norfolk Schools

Meetings like this one are at the heart of an improvement strategy that has delivered striking results for Norview, a comprehensive high school of 1,700 students, and for schools throughout Norfolk. The largely minority, low-income district of 36,000 students at the southern tip of the Chesapeake Bay is home to the world’s largest naval base.

Scores on state tests have soared districtwide since 1998, and Norview’s scores are no exception. They’ve risen from 20 percent or 30 percent of students passing—and in some subjects, the teens—into the 80s and 90s, while performance gaps between nonwhite and white students have narrowed or closed.

As education reformers turn to the vexing task of improving high schools, Norfolk’s approach is worth noting. It is bettering its high schools in part by capitalizing on their academic departments—an aspect of secondary schools often derided as hidebound and a primary obstacle to improvement.

Jo Lynne DeMary, Virginia’s superintendent of public instruction, says that the intensive use of data to inform teaching, and a culture of universal high expectations, are keys to Norfolk’s success. She praises Norview High as an example of what can be done to help needy students succeed, noting that it now outperforms some other Virginia high schools that serve wealthier populations.

“Norview has caught a lot of people’s attention,” she says. “Their focus on student achievement and their desire not to use any excuses, but to be absolutely focused on making sure all those students meet with success, has been an inspiration to all of us.”

A tutoring session in U.S. history.

Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based advocacy group, says Norfolk chose several pivotal focus areas that paid off. District educators mined data for guidance, staffed the neediest schools with strong teachers, and extended a revamped, unified reading program through middle school. The superintendent and school board drove the improvements by renewing the district’s focus on student achievement, Casserly says.

“There is such unity of purpose,” he says. “It really is striking to me how much progress they make when everybody in the system understands where they are going, all pulling together.”

Norfolk’s improvement drive took on an air of urgency in 1998, with the dismal results from new statewide accountability tests, the Standards of Learning, or SOLs. They showed Norfolk in the bottom third of Virginia’s 132 school districts.

John O. Simpson, the newly hired superintendent, worked closely with the staff and the school board to streamline the district’s goals and objectives, develop a clear philosophy of teaching and learning, build strong ties with community leaders, and promote the value of learning from outside experts and one another.

Consultants helped the district examine its weaknesses and laid the foundation for a comprehensive accountability plan, which requires everyone from bus drivers to central-office administrators to spell out how their departments will fuel the district’s journey to “world class” status.

A Guiding Coalition of parents, educators, and community members helped forge the district’s plan, and built the support crucial for carrying it through. Intensive curriculum alignment and staff training placed a clear focus on what was to be achieved and how.

Simpson’s leadership garnered national recognition. He retired last spring, but key leaders who served under him continue along the path they designed together.

Marian D. Flickinger, the president of the 2,000-member Norfolk Federation of Teachers, one of two teacher associations in the district, praises Simpson for letting educators, parents, and civic leaders help shape the district’s direction, rather than imposing a finished plan upon the community.

Teacher associations have no bargaining rights under Virginia law. But having seats on the Guiding Coalition enabled members to help design policies they felt would be educationally sound and likely to win rank-and-file support, Flickinger says. They helped secure agreement, for instance, that “walk-throughs” of schools, by administrators and staff members from other schools, would be voluntary and meant as a learning—rather than evaluative—tool.

“That way, we could help make believers of our members,” Flickinger says. “Everybody was brought to the table, and that was very wise. Everybody felt like they were stakeholders.”

It was against that backdrop that Norview High School began its journey. Its SOL results, and the racial gap unveiled by the disaggregation of those scores, delivered a painful wake-up call. Of 10 subjects tested, the school met the state’s target passing rate of 70 percent in only one: reading. In six other subjects, passing rates ranged from 13 percent to 35 percent. Black students, who make up two-thirds of Norview’s students, lagged behind their white peers by as much as 40 percentage points.

“We had to search deep to think what we were going to do about this,” says Bruce Brady, a 19-year Norview teacher who now chairs the history department. The school’s lowest scores were in history, forcing that department into some of the most painful reflection.

A parent-teacher conference in the school cafeteria.

Out of that soul-searching came a leadership role. The history teachers took the first steps toward “content teaming” and vertical alignment, which would become bulwarks of Norview’s improvement strategy, with the blessing and support of its principal.

Picking up on the district’s drives to use data and revamp curricula, the history faculty met after school, on weekends, and over the summer—many of those hours without pay—to craft guidelines on what should be taught and tested in each unit of each class. They adopted common grading policies and pacing. They composed banks of hundreds of test questions, and learned how to use a computer program that would analyze the results.

At first, the teachers modeled course content around the Standards of Learning. But after a few years, they became convinced that students should know far more than what was required on the state tests, says Brady, and they expanded the course content. That move echoed the district’s oft-cited mantra to see the state tests as “the floor, not the ceiling.”

Content teaming had difficult aspects, and not everyone was a fan. Particularly tough were the team meetings, in which teachers faced data on their own performance. For a while, session leaders blocked out teachers’ names next to the lines showing their class scores. But eventually, such courtesy measures were dropped.

“Those early sessions were really painful,” says Linda Partridge, the chairwoman of Norview’s mathematics and science department. But she believes that content teaming is valuable because it forces teachers to “teach to the standards, rather than to our passions.” A math teacher, she jokes that without agreed-upon pacing, she might linger forever on conic sections, shortchanging topics she loves less.

Some teachers disliked the new system and chose to leave, Brady says. He speculates that some found the uniform content and pacing overly restrictive, while others chafed at the increased and public examination of their performance. Some, he suspects, didn’t like or agree with the influence the SOLs were wielding over the school.

For others, support of content teaming took time. “Our department was reluctant,” says Sharon Blumenthal, the chairwoman of the English department. “History had to bring us along. But I see it makes us much more reflective on the work we’re doing. And working in teams means we’re never isolated.”

Kendra Hendrix, a sophomore, ponders a problem in her Algebra 2 class.

History teacher Camille Riek likes the feedback she gets from the analysis sessions. Occurring every few weeks, they enable her to adjust her teaching to meet students’ needs more quickly than waiting months for state or national test results. And the data are used again later in rewriting tests or shifting plans for upcoming units.

As content teaming worked its way into other academic departments at Norview High, it was unfolding in various forms in Norfolk’s other schools. A couple of years ago, Norview teachers began designing a vertical-alignment process, borrowing an idea from the College Board to better prepare students for Advanced Placement work. That process is still being developed.

Starting with the goal of what students should know in each discipline by graduation, teachers “back mapped” through each course and grade, specifying where students must be academically when they begin and end each course, says Blumenthal. When done right, teachers are working collaboratively across grade levels to ensure students are well prepared for the next level.

In conjunction with the vertical alignment, Norview undertook an early-identification process, reviewing PSAT and 8th grade SOL scores to guide promising students into higher-level work. Students whose performance is borderline for such work can still sign up, if they and their parents sign a contract with the teacher agreeing to the course expectations, Blumenthal says. The Advanced Placement enrollment has risen, while minority participation has increased.

The vertical alignment has boosted students’ confidence and enabled teachers to focus their teaching at a higher level, proponents say.

“When my kids come into my classes speaking comfortably about literary criticism, and Aristotelian principles, I don’t have to waste time reteaching,” says Blumenthal, who teaches AP English. “They have it. They can move on. It pays off in students’ confidence.”

Marjorie L. Stealey, who has been Norview’s principal for 13 years, says content teams have been pivotal to the school’s improvement. But those early test scores showed that a change in culture was also necessary. Staff leaders brainstormed to define a set of beliefs and practices that should infuse school life, including equity, respect, and higher expectations for students and staff.

Norview also tried harder to enlist parents’ participation. The school schedules PTA meetings on the same nights as major school events, a strategy that helped enlist parent support for higher academic goals after hundreds watched a slide presentation about lagging test scores.

The school also began offering weekly conferences with all of a student’s teachers for any parent who requests them. Every Wednesday after school, conversation buzzes around a dozen or more tables in the cafeteria as teachers and counselors rotate from table to table, talking with parents.

Junior Gamion Kelly receives help from his advisor.

Stealey also took deliberate steps to build a culture of achievement and inclusion, such as holding student-led retreats for cross sections of staff and students to discuss ways to build a respectful school environment, and starting a support group for high-achieving black male students.

Norview began displaying in its hallways the photos of students who scored 1000 or more on the SAT. Teenagers have confided to Stealey that they’ve taken the college-entrance exam several times to gain inclusion in that display. A similar photo display has been mounted for those in AP classes. The numbers of pictures in each are growing.

Stealey acknowledges that the last six years have required relentless focus, energy, and hard work. But, quoting noted Harlem educator Lorraine Monroe, she says that helping disadvantaged students is “holy work,” and that viewing it that way can produce good results anywhere.

“Any school in America can do this,” says Stealey. “You can’t bottle it. It may not be the exact same formula, the exact same ingredients, in each place. You have to find your own way. But it can be done.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as One Subject At a Time


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