Teacher Excellence Narrows the Achievement Gap

By embracing research-backed instructional design, consistent PD, and strong, caring relationships, all boats are rising and teachers have gone from surviving to thriving at this once-failing middle school.

By embracing research-backed instructional design, consistent PD, and strong, caring relationships, all boats are rising and teachers have gone from surviving to thriving at this once-failing middle school.
Smiling boy; students leaving for the day

Once among the worst-performing middle schools in the state, Cochrane has been making great strides by narrowing its achievement gap and doubling student performance in the past three years.

Credit: Zachary Fink

The bell rings and most of the ninth-grade students in Ms. Johnson's English class are still standing. As she dims the lights and presses play on the laptop, it becomes clear why. Within moments, the students -- and Ms. Johnson -- are dancing and rapping along to a video: "Plot . . . Character . . . Conflict . . . Theme . . . Setting! Yes, these are the five things . . . ."

Once the song is over, the students settle into their seats, and Ms. Johnson begins peppering them with questions about the five elements of a well-constructed story: "What is the conflict in our story? How does setting affect the characters? What's the difference between plot and theme?"

  • Topic: School Turnaround

  • School: Cochrane Collegiate Academy

  • Location: Charlotte, N.C.

  • Target Audience:
  • Grades 6-9
  • Note: Demographic data below is from the 2011-12 academic year.

  • Enrollment: 620

  • Student Population:
  • 87% qualify for free or reduced-price lunch
  • 60% African American
  • 30% Latino
  • 3% Caucasian
  • 2% Asian/Pacific Islander
  • <1% Native American
  • 13% individualized education programs
  • 20% English-language learners
  • Note: Expenditures below are from 2009-10, the most recent available for state data. State totals include all budget items such as utilities, school activities, and custodial costs; district and school totals do not.

  • Total per-pupil dollars spent
  • School: $6,133
  • District: $5,346
  • State (N.C.): $8,451
female teacher portrait

Lessons from a Public School Turnaround

Running Time: 05:15 min.

This is one of the dynamic ways that students learn -- and retain -- lessons at Cochrane Collegiate Academy, a once failing middle school in Charlotte, North Carolina, that's now on the rise.

The brisk, energetic start to class is an example of an activating strategy, one of several research-based methodologies used in every class by every teacher at Cochrane. The Cochrane educators call their approach Interactive Learning (IL) and, along with the strong professional-development (PD) plan for teachers, it has been instrumental in turning around the school's long and dismal record of underachievement.

Challenges of Poverty

Cochrane is located in a low-income section of Charlotte's east side. About 87 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Says the school's current principal, Josh Bishop, "Some days our children go home and they may not have a home to go to. They may have been evicted. There may not be food or simple things like backpacks and school supplies. Those are the things that our students face on a daily basis here."

Cochrane hit rock bottom in 2007 when it was named the eighth worst-performing middle school in North Carolina. Teachers describe the atmosphere at that time as "chaotic" and "out of control, like mayhem." Recalls Shana Oliver, now Cochrane's academic facilitator, "Students were running the school, and our mentality was about teachers just surviving."

Since then, the percentage of students performing at grade level has more than doubled. The achievement gap between economically disadvantaged students and their better-off peers has been reduced by 35 percent (based on those meeting or exceeding state standards in both math and reading). But it has taken bold steps to get there.

In 2007, Valerie Williams came in as the new principal with one overriding goal: to rebuild the culture and mentality of the staff and students. The focus on student learning was laser sharp, and Oliver recalls, "If, as a teacher, you weren't here for the kids, then this wasn't the place for you." Some teachers were let go, others chose to leave, and by the end of the year, nearly 50 percent of the staff had been replaced.

Teaching Strategies That Work on Teachers Too

With only 21 percent of students meeting state math and reading standards, teachers at Cochrane knew they also needed to change what they were doing in the classroom. Williams discovered a professional-development program directed towards classroom instruction called Learning-Focused. She sent four of her teacher leaders to Atlanta for four days of training.

The teachers returned with a basic instructional model that they then tailored to meet Cochrane's needs. The result was IL, which focuses on the student classroom experience -- specifically promoting collaboration, inquiry, and a high degree of interaction. In practice, IL is built upon the ten best research-backed teaching strategies that they identified for their classroom instruction. They call this list the Top Ten IL Non-Negotiables, and teachers must implement all ten in every class, every day.

There was some good fortune at play, too. In 2008, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District implemented a standards-based, targeted-assistance program called TI MathForward™. Developed by Texas Instruments Inc., MathForward's goal is to improve middle school math and algebra performance. Each student receives a graphing calculator so they can do practice problems and get instant feedback on the classroom's electronic whiteboard. Teachers get a precise reading on how well the students understand key concepts, and the students stay engaged thanks to the cool gadgets. The program is credited for boosting math scores not only at Cochrane but across the district as well.

MathForward has added a technological approach to IL's student-centered goals and also works well with the non-negotiables list. The non-negotiables aim to expand students' attention spans through less conventional practices such as limited lecture time and student movement as well as more-standard strategies such as focusing lessons on essential questions and summarizing at the end.

This model was a significant change and posed challenges for many of the teachers, especially some of the veterans, so working out a solid PD plan was critical. Oliver took the lead in developing a program, and Bishop, who became principal in 2009, has provided critical support.

By using podcasts to dispense administrative information and logistics, Bishop has freed up faculty-meeting time to be used for PD instead. Every week, teachers spend 30 minutes evaluating all the recent student data -- including common assessments and homework -- and then another 30 minutes in PD, learning ways to adjust their instruction to meet the areas of need the data has revealed.

An important feature of Oliver's PD is modeling. Incorporating all ten best practices in one class (see a sample lesson plan) can seem daunting to teachers, so Oliver runs her sessions just like a class, using the same set of non-negotiables. The teachers confirm that seeing and experiencing themselves how it can be done has helped them implement the strategies in their classrooms.

See how Cochrane teachers are trained in their non-negotiable classroom strategies.

Comment on this video, download, and more

Relationships Are the Key

The last indispensable piece that has made the entire turnaround at Cochrane possible is a strong emphasis on building positive relationships. Bishop and his team have made it their business to provide genuine emotional and professional support all around. As Bishop describes, "Having those relationships with each other and with our students, that's what works, that's what makes a difference here at Cochrane."

And it's also built a level of trust that allows teachers to challenge their students. "They're willing to go a lot further with you academically if they know that you care about them personally," explains Johnson. For the students, it's been the little things the teachers and staff do to show they care. For instance, they

  • greet students individually as they enter the classroom and pay attention if something seems amiss;
  • show up to students' sporting events;
  • ask students questions such as "How was your day?" and "Are you doing all right?" and then take the time to listen to the answers;
  • model the same politeness and respect in their speech and gestures that they want to receive in return;
  • work with students on how to cope with what's happening at home;
  • remember that students watch carefully how adults behave, what their attitude is, and how they interact with other people.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District won the Broad Prize for Urban Education this year, and Cochrane has made great strides of its own in the past three years. But the educators at Cochrane know they still have a long race to run. They have just launched a one-to-one laptop program, are working on building better relationships with more parents, and are continually honing their instructional model to reach more students.

Because Cochrane is truly on the rise, pride in the turnaround is on everyone's lips, from students to teachers to office staff to administrators. Johnson sums it up this way: "There are so many stigmas that seem to suggest that students from this demographic cannot learn, that they are destined to fail. But now we have data that proves that our students can go so far. That's a testament to what education can do."

This article originally published on 10/18/2011

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Comments (5)

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District Elementary Academic Support Coach

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Thank you for sharing your ongoing process of success with a demographically tough population. Your accounts of the variety of ways you have raised your expectations of teachers, which in turn has created a culture of success for both your teachers and their students is extremely helpful for me to learn about. Leveling the intellectual playing field for disadvantaged students is fundamentally essential for their equality as citizens in a global world. Congratulations on the strides you are making to do this for your students.

Utilizing Podcasts to effectively communicate the business of school is a great idea and way to free up precious collaborative teacher-time for on-going professional development, an essential component of turning around a school. It makes perfect sense to incorporate modeling how it looks in a classroom, as you provide teachers a structure and the tools to be successful with their students during your professional development. Your non-negotiable lesson structure incorporated research, the "science of teaching" giving teachers a framework for success. In turn, this structure does not stifle the "art of teaching" which is equally essential for reaching and teaching all of our students.

In my large urban district, we are in the process of implementing an Instructional Model based on Pearson and Gallagher’s (1993) original work on Gradual Release incorporateing the changes made by Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey. Like your structure, once implemented it is a structure of non-negotiables, which frames effective instructional practice in each and every lesson. Gradual Release is not what we teach it is how we teach. Our content, the “what” is folded into our structure and is standards based. Effective teachers make these dry as ink; complex standards come alive and become relevant and achievable for their students. One area Fisher and Frey’s work with Gradual Release has brought to the forefront for us at an elementary level is the importance of releasing our students to independence daily. We have been holding their hands and not expecting them to assimilate the learning at an independent level on a consistent, daily basis. Really, we have expected independence mostly just on the “test.” This daily independent part of the model gives us concrete formative assessment data to shape where we go next with our instruction.

In response to a previous post on surface feature errors which prompted me to make this post, while I appreciate an editor who understands the rules of our English language and cleans up my work, editing is the finishing touches. Seeing these errors in my opinion misses the depth and breadth of your work. Without this depth, the surface is a thin sheet of ice on a lake, it may look solid but cannot hold the weight our students need and deserve.

I expect there are probably surface errors in my writing here. If I waited for my coworker friend editor, this post would never be. Corrections are welcome.

To Cochrane Collegiate Academy, well done! Thank you for sharing.

Principal at Cochrane Collegiate Academy a Charlotte Mecklenburg School

In 2011 we experienced drops

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In 2011 we experienced drops in 6th grade ELA and math and also in 8th grade math. In each of these areas we lost teachers early in the year and we were never able to fill these spots with certified teachers. This is a challenge for many schools.

Citizen who understands Education is the most important piece in society.

Penny, my first thought was

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Penny, my first thought was that you were being too picky. The more I considered it, though, the more I agreed. Good catch, though unfortunate.

Measuring success

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Not that test scores are the best way to measure success, but this is what the article uses. Looking at the test scores on greatschools.net, it does look like there have been overall dramatic gains over the last four years. However, there are some significant drops in 2011 in 6th grade ELA and math, and 8th grade math. I'd love to know what happened.

Something's amiss

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I just quickly read over the sample lesson plan, ostensibly written by a teacher of English, and found an abbreviation error, incorrect possessive formation and incorrect word usage (roll instead of role!).

Something is seriously wrong here...

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