by JEN BURRIS
and SARAH SQUIRES
How can Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) boost K-12 academic achievement? First, District 861 must make sure students are taught what they’re expected to know.
But despite years of unmet goals and promises that curricula would be aligned, WAPS’ course work has not met state assessment standards in at least a decade. A look back at archived school board meeting reports shows district officials repeatedly assured board members that test standards and district curricula were nearly rectified, though Curriculum Director Jenny Bushman explained WAPS had not yet reached that mark.
Since the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) mandate was instituted in 2003, WAPS scores have consistently lagged behind the scores of other districts in the state. The response of the district administrators’ has remained the same: teachers need time to “dig into” lackluster test data and to retool course work to ensure that it includes what the students are required to learn.
Recently announced Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) scores from the 2012-2013 school year show the majority of WAPS middle school and high school students underperformed when compared to peers across the state. WAPS seventh graders were nearly 10 percent below the state average for both math and reading, and tenth graders were approximately seven percent behind the state average for reading. There was a silver lining for the 2012-2013 school year: the performance of Hispanic students, who exceeded state averages by a wide margin in both math and reading.
NCLB created consequences for districts that didn’t show adequate progress in student achievement from year to year. These consequences led to the creation of Professional Learning Committees (PLCs), teacher groups used to identify and create plans to improve academic achievement. WAPS initially created PLCs in response to NCLB consequences for several schools, then later expanded the concept to address overall district achievement. WAPS has about 52 PLC groups, broken down by grade and building for elementary schools and by department for secondary education.
The PLCs spent the bulk of their first year creating an agenda format. The format includes five questions that PLC groups attempt to answer: What do we want students to know and be able to do? Assessing the knowledge of students — how do you know that students know? How are you going to respond if they don’t know? How are you going to respond if they do know? What are we going to do with that knowledge?
According to Bushman, the secondary PLC groups are still focused on answering the first question.
In 2012, Bushman noted that other school districts’ PLCs have taken up to six years to become “comfortable” enough to work together. She recently told the Winona Post that WAPS PLCs have spent the first couple of years creating a “culture” and identifying norms and expectations. The groups use teachers as facilitators, who lead PLC discussions and are paid $200 per meeting from the staff development fund.
According to Bushman, the elementary school PLCs have moved further along in the five questions to help alter curriculum; the elementary tests scores would appear to mirror that statement. She explained that it is easier for elementary school teachers to collaborate, because they work with the same group of students throughout the day, whereas secondary PLCs are grouped by subject.
Bushman explained that aligning curricula can be a revolving door, since tests and standards change over time. For instance, according to Bushman and Department of Education officials, a change to the 2012-2013 MCA reading test made it more difficult than previous versions.
After states were allowed an NCLB waiver, Minnesota introduced the new Multiple Measurement Rating (MMR) assessment program. The MMR removed the consequences mandated by NCLB, which, some say, reduces the urgency to improve academic achievement on standardized tests. Bushman explained that NCLB introduced accountability and created standards in education. “It started conversations, looking at where kids are at and where they need to be,” she said.
School board members voiced opinions about the need to stay updated on academic achievement in the district. School Board Chairperson Mohamed Elhindi requested a report on the progress of the PLCs during the September 19 meeting.
“We need to be more motivated, more intuitive with what we’re doing,” added board member Brian Zeller.