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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Editor's note: Anne O'Brien is our guest blogger today. She is a project director at the Learning First Alliance, a Teach for America alumna, and a former public school teacher in the greater New Orleans area.

In the 2011 budget proposal, President Obama has called for major changes to No Child Left Behind. Chief among them: replacing Adequate Yearly Progress, the government's pass/fail reporting of school performance, with a more accurate and nuanced system of accountability.

While many support the idea of a new and better accountability system in theory, this proposal has come under fire. And I understand why-it doesn't include many details. We can't embrace a system we know nothing about. But we can embrace the administration's recognition that the current system of AYP needs to change. Case in point: Portland's George Middle School, "a school that is thriving by common-sense standards, but failing by official ones."

Historically, George Middle School -- where over 80 percent of students receive free or reduced price lunch -- has been one of the lower performing schools in Oregon. But during the past decade, this school has shown steady growth. Today test scores are near state averages in reading and math, despite data showing that students are coming in to the school farther and farther behind.

Many factors have contributed to the school's improvement: a new master schedule ensured teachers can provide the differentiated instruction all students need to succeed; a restructuring plan placed teacher leaders at the helm; and computer software provides direct instruction to students as part of their academic intervention.

One key aspect of the school's improvement was its transition to a community school. Thanks in part to participation in a county-wide Schools Uniting Neighborhoods (SUN) initiative, George has more than 30 community partnerships offering a wide range of resources to students. To name a few: Multnomah County School-Based Health Clinic provides free health care to students, and a nearby high school and Big Brothers/Big Sisters program provide volunteer mentors. Also, extended day partners offer a wide range of sports and activities, including golf and chess, as well as academic support. Other partners offer parent education programs. The school is now known throughout the community as an access point for social services.

Yet despite the fact that it has made tremendous academic growth and has transformed itself into a valuable resource for the community it serves, George has been labeled a failing school.

It has not made Adequate Yearly Progress for seven years running, missing targets for one particular subgroup in one particular area -- not always the same subgroup, and not always an academic subject (sometimes its attendance). So, the way the current accountability system is structured, the school doesn't get credit for what it has done well.

As Principal Beth Madison says, "No one looks at the fact that our kids actually had miracle performance"-- performance due in large part to the hard work of school staff and partners in helping students overcome both the academic and nonacademic challenges they face. Madison can thank her lucky stars that the Portland school district recognizes her school's success and won't hobble her with one-size-fits-all reform strategies.

But not every school will be that lucky.

For so many schools like this one, we need to rethink and revise AYP reports.

What are your thoughts on this topic? We are interested in hearing from all teachers, including those at schools similar to George Middle School. Please contribute to this discussion!

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Dr. Mike Todd's picture
Dr. Mike Todd
Chief Learning Officer

Growth will not be enough if SB 6 goes through in Florida. How do you feel about teachers getting their professional certificate renewed by proof of increased student performance? Districts being levied another mill on local taxes if they do not instill a salary schedule that has performance bonus components?

Rachael's picture

our ESOL center school in the middle of a low economic part of Jacksonville has not made AYP in a while too. Some of our ESOL students fall under more than 2 categories (ex: Hispanic, low economic, and ESOL). If that child fails in one category, he has basically bombed it all! We are trying our hardest to beat the "game" of AYP, targeting the more than one category student and giving them extra support all year: pulling our PE, Music, and Art teachers during their free period and tutoring, but this is a close to impossible feat with students who don't speak English. Schools can't pass AYP with students learning English.

Carol Bryan's picture

I agree that AYP sometimes is so narrow that it doesn't acknowledge the great accomplishments in challenged schools. It can be very discouraging for staff at failing schools to know the great leaps that have been made but then to see failing based on AYP. In a previous school where students entered very far behind, I started to find ways to measure and celebrate the growth even when AYP said we were failing. One thing that I did was administer a beginning of the year assessment (particularly valuable with math) and an end of year. While the end of year numbers were still low (60%); when compared with 10% in the beginning of the year you could see growth. I think that when dealing with schools and students the measure needs to be as adaptable as the situations/students that we teach.

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