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.
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?"
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.
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."