In Alan Blankstein and Pedro Noguera’s groundbreaking new work, Excellence through Equity, contributor Susan Szachowicz tells the compelling story of the transformation of Brockton High School—a school serving a racially- and socioeconomically-diverse population that had been ranked one of the lowest-performing schools in Massachusetts—into what the Boston Globe calls, “a symbol of urban hope.” Excerpt from Chapter 1:
The turnaround at Brockton High started with a team of teachers who were distressed by the failure rate and determined to do something. Calling ourselves the Restructuring Committee, we began our first meeting by posting the MCAS scores with a question under them: Is this the best we can be? And with our resounding “NO,” we took our first steps toward improvement.
Initially we learned a hard lesson about trying to focus solely on the test. When we noticed that in the first 3 years of testing that there were always Shakespearean readings and questions, we launched a “Shakespearean offensive” across the school. Our “Shakespearean offensive” turned quickly into the Great Shakespearean fiasco when that year there was not even one mention of Shakespeare on the MCAS. Our Restructuring Committee realized that school improvement could never be about outguessing a test. An examination of our data illustrated that our students were struggling in reading, problem solving, vocabulary, thinking, and reasoning skills, and the failure was not limited to any one group. We could not think solely about remediating particular students who were failing because our data clearly illustrated that the failure was widespread.
Instead of thinking about test preparation, we asked ourselves a series of questions that helped us frame our literacy initiative. Our discussions around these pivotal questions changed our thinking:
- What are we teaching, how are we teaching it, and how do we know the students are actually learning it? We determined that we were focusing primarily on content, compartmentalized into highly structured departments. While many of our teachers were highly skilled in instruction, many others struggled and relied primarily on lecture and teacher directed activities. And in response to the question about how we knew the students had learned the material, we came to the difficult realization that we were not doing a good enough job with that. Our look in the mirror revealed to us that at Brockton High the quality of a student’s education totally depended upon the teachers he or she had. We really did not have any schoolwide standards.
- What do our students need to know and be able to do to be successful on the MCAS, in their classes, and in their lives beyond school? That was perhaps one of the richest discussions we had, and it led directly to the development of our literacy initiative. Essentially we defined literacy and how our students would demonstrate mastery of these literacy skills.
- We are not likely to get any additional staffing or resources, so what resources do we have now that we can use more effectively? The resource of time was our area of focus. A great deal of time in the day was not instructional. Study halls could no more be on any students’ program—students needed to be engaged, focused, and directed. We had some work to do with our schedule. But it wasn’t only about the students’ use of time. Our faculty meetings typically were used for administrative announcements, preparing for safety drills, or discussions of union business but not regarding educational issues. With the support of the principal and superintendent, we began using our two contractual faculty meetings per month for improving instruction. These faculty meetings now became Literacy Workshops during which we trained our faculty to teach the literacy skills we identified.
- What can we control, and what can’t we control? We knew that we couldn’t control the challenges our students face every day of their lives: poverty, homelessness, violence, family turmoil, transiency, language acquisition—we could make lots of excuses for failure. But instead of wringing our hands and feeling sorry for our students and ourselves, we decided to take a hard look at the 7 hours a day we had our students with us, and we knew we needed to ask ourselves how we could best use that time for their academic achievement.
The rich discussions our Restructuring Committee had as we wrestled with these questions led us to our tenacious focus on improving all of our students’ literacy skills. We recognized that helping our students acquire these literacy skills needed to be the responsibility of every teacher in the school, not just the English or math departments. All meant all. The implementation of the Literacy Initiative provided a model of schoolwide focus on clearly defined literacy skills and the commitment that every teacher would be a teacher of literacy with their content serving as the context for teaching those literacy skills. That tenacious schoolwide commitment was the key to our improvement. No longer would the quality of a student’s education be totally dependent upon the luck of the draw with teachers. Now all students would have the opportunity to master a set of skills and thinking routines that would help them succeed not only in school but in their lives beyond Brockton High School.
OUR FOCUS ON LITERACY FOR ALL
As our Restructuring Committee discussed what our students needed to know and be able to do, we began creating lists of skills, and soon we classified them into four areas: reading, writing, speaking, and reasoning. Within each of those areas, we detailed a series of objectives, or literacy skills, that every student at Brockton High would be expected to master. These essentially defined the school’s academic expectations for student learning in specific, measurable ways. Essentially we defined literacy for our students, and we were determined to teach our students these literacy skills.
Drafts of these literacy charts were presented to faculty in small interdisciplinary discussion groups facilitated by members of the Restructuring Committee as well as to the School Council, including parents and students, and even to the Chamber of Commerce in the city to seek input. It was essential that these literacy skills were clearly stated so that all teachers, students, and parents understood them. Also, each of these skills needed to be applicable in every content area so that any teacher, no matter what the class, would feel that students would be more successful in his or her class if they mastered these skills. Teachers’ voices were important in this process, and after months of discussion, revisions, more discussion, and more revisions, we established a set of literacy objectives in reading, writing, speaking, and reasoning (see Figure 1.1).
Once the literacy charts were finalized, they were posted in every classroom. But simply posting them in classrooms would not change instruction. Our challenge was again about the adults—how could we change instruction so that every teacher, no matter what the discipline, taught these literacy skills in the same way? Every student deserved to learn these skills; they needed to learn these to be successful. It was about equity.