Two weeks ago, members of the Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board of Education were presented with school student performance data that showed several WAPS schools were performing well below state averages. While some schools earned high marks in the state’s new system of evaluating school and student performance following the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver—others did not. On the lower end, Madison Elementary scored merely 9.16 percent; the high school earned only 11.59 percent.
At that meeting, the low scores elicited a challenge from board member Mohamed Elhindi. “What can we do during the school day that we are not doing?” he asked. “I think staff are phenomenal, but we need to do more. The data says we need to do more.” What, he asked, can we implement in the next two weeks that will make a difference to kids who are struggling?
The response Elhindi received from district administrators at that September 20 meeting was that they would get back to him. Teachers needed to "dig into" test data, he was told. Teacher teams called Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) would be working on it.
Two weeks later at the Oct. 4 board meeting, school board members were briefed on the work accomplished during the first PLC meetings of the year. However, coming up with ideas to improve instruction through PLCs will take time, it became clear during the briefing. Elhindi again called for ideas for things that the district could do right away to help kids who are struggling at school.
“At the last meeting you presented some of the test scores and where we stand [in academic proficiency],” said Elhindi. “I guess I have an interest in knowing what we can do, immediately, to help struggling students. The PLCs will help in the future, but what can we do now?”
WAPS Curriculum Director Jenny Bushman said the first step is for teachers to look at the test score data, which can be analyzed in a way that shows areas where individual students are having trouble. Math teachers at the high school have already requested that data, added Bushman. Once that data has been dissected and sorted, teachers can tailor what they are doing in the classroom to needs. But, she cautioned, “It takes time to build some of that.”
Bushman also cautioned the board against “knee-jerk” reactions to poor test scores, as the Minnesota Department of Education warns districts against employing major changes based on “one assessment on one day.” Last year, the high school focused on reading after previous test scores showed students were not meeting proficiency standards, she said, and the most recent test scores show those students are now struggling more in math.
Elhindi gave an example of the kind of program that could be used in the near future to assist kids who are having trouble with math and other skills, an example he had seen work in his own profession with higher education students. Called Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), free on-line courses can help students work at home on concepts they’re having trouble with. Elhindi said college-aged students often arrive on campus not prepared for college courses, and use MOOC to help with remediation.
It’s free, and it works, said Elhindi, adding that it was the kind of program he wanted to see school officials bringing to the table to help students, now. “If you just look at really successful models, in our own school, we see 67 percent of our incoming students, when they do this course, based on test results…they become prepared. The evidence is there,” Elhindi told district leaders.” This is the type of thing I’m talking about. How can we make these things available?”
Bushman briefed the board on the work of the PLC teams thus far this year. The PLCs are teacher groups at each school that collaborate to find the best ways to increase student performance. At the elementary level, teams are grouped by grade level at individual schools. At the secondary level, the teams are divided mostly among subject areas at each building site. In total, there are about 55 PLCs in the district.
Each group has a facilitator, explained Bushman, and at the first meetings, teams worked on building a “foundation for collaboration.” In education, she said, teachers tend to work in isolation, so it takes time to build a team approach. Bushman said she was on a PLC team earlier in her career that took six years before it found a “comfortable place” with regard to that collaborative work.
Some of the other team-building skills the groups worked on were outlining how they might come to consensus, something Bushman said was critical, since there will often be disagreements among group members.
While the work that each PLC does in the coming months and years may vary widely, each will operate under the same meeting agenda that help keep the teacher teams on track. Bushman shared the agenda questions that each group will focus on. What knowledge and skills do we expect our students to learn? How will we know if our students have learned expected outcomes? How will we respond, individually and collectively, when our students have difficulty learning expected outcomes? How will we respond, individually and collectively, when our students have already learned expected outcomes? And, how can we use the evidence of student learning and improve our practice?