The North Carolina Lighthouse Schools Study is focused on understanding the dynamics of school reform. It identified and then intensively studied three elementary schools where students have made dramatic gains in achievement. These three K-5 schools ranged in size from 400 to over 600 students. More than two-thirds of the students were from poor families, more than three-quarters were minority students and about one-fifth spoke a language other than English. In three years, each of these schools increased proficiency on state-mandated reading and math exams from below 50 percent to more than 75 percent. Researchers collected data on demographics and achievement, interviewed teachers and administrators, and made observations of lessons and meetings.
In a follow-up study, David Strahan, University of North Carolina/Greensboro, reexamined this data and conducted additional interviews with school personnel. School personnel reported that they created supportive environments for the students and themselves that enabled them to coordinate efforts to improve instruction and strengthen professional development. In all three schools the central component of this improvement was discussion guided by data from formal assessments and informal observations.
Focus on academics
The biggest change these teachers describe in their school’s environment was turning attention away from behavior problems and focusing on academics. Previous research shows that in schools that have successfully raised achievement rates, teachers work together to develop a strong community of shared beliefs about learning and support each other’s efforts to increase learning in their classrooms. Reformed classrooms also appear to be caring and supportive of students. In other words, schools that succeed academically reflect concern and social support for both students and faculty while focusing on learning.
Strahan reanalyzed the data from two years of study in these three schools. He studied the dynamics in each school that shaped its reform. To gain fresh insight on the factors that emerged as important to reform efforts in these schools, Strahan conducted individual interviews with any teacher who was new to the school in the last year and re-interviewed teachers whose classrooms had been studied in the previous two years. Achievement was measured using scores on the end-of-the-year reading and math assessments mandated in North Carolina. The reading aware tests involve reading page-length passages of both narrative and expository texts and answering multiple- choice literal or inferential questions. The multiple- choice math exam includes computation and word problems.
The three schools approached reform in different ways. One school began its reform efforts with character education, identifying values the faculty wished to promote. These included integrity, respect, discipline and excellence. Teachers particularly targeted diversity and the need to respect one another. In another school, teachers in grade-level meetings worked together to develop a balanced literacy curriculum that included guided reading, writing across the curriculum, word study to expand vocabulary and word recognition, and self-selected reading for pleasure. The third school used a national reform network to create lessons from kindergarten through fifth grade that encouraged ways of thinking about text: retelling, summarizing, problem solving, and identifying the author’s purpose. Hands-on activities were stressed as well. Teachers modeled learning strategies for students. Their goal was to increase learning for students with few academic skills. While these reform efforts varied considerably, teachers in all three schools, used formal assessments, daily observations of individual students and class discussions, to gain insights into their students’ learning. Then teachers worked together, discussing problems with learning and finding solutions to improve instruction.
Teacher collaboration common to all approaches
Despite differences in approach, the compelling finding from Strahan’s investigation are the similarities in the ways teachers and administrators in these schools improved instruction to increase achievement. In all of these schools, successful reform began with teachers working together to set their priorities for school improvement. Teachers coordinated their efforts to improve instruction. Concern and supportive relationships developed among staff and with students that encouraged gains in achievement. Teachers worked together to identify needs and develop strategies for improvement. They linked school-based staff development directly to daily practice in their classrooms. Over time, these schools created an environment that communicated its expectations and values to new students and new teachers. Conversations about learning and teaching routinely included data from both formal and informal assessments. Teachers identified students’ needs and if they were unsure how to meet these needs, they received help from colleagues. Collaboration and a consistently positive approach to learning characterized these successful schools. All adults in the school shared a sense of responsibility for student achievement. Strahan concludes that reform in all three schools was driven by dialogue about teaching and learning that was grounded in data about student performance.
“Promoting a Collaborative Professional Culture in Three Elementary Schools That Have Beaten the Odds”, The Elementary School Journal, Volume 104, Number 2, November 2003, pp. 127-146.
Published in ERN December/January 2004 Volume 17 Number 1