WEST HARTFORD–Braeburn Elementary School’s fifth-grade teachers commandeered the brick conference room off Principal Natalie Simpson’s office the week before winter break. Graded papers full of circles partially colored in and open-ended problems like ’23/3=?’ spilled out of manila folders and littered the table.
Shannon Mlodzinski, the statistician of the group, announced the results of the most recent assessment on improper fractions, distributing a list of students and scores. Sixteen out of about 70 fifth-graders got perfect scores and many others had mastered the concepts. But the test results suggested 25 students still weren’t getting it.
As Mlodzinski began making lists of these students with a green pen, all three teachers began to brainstorm what they needed to do that week in the classroom.
These so-called “data team” meetings take place every week at every grade-level at Braeburn and every school in West Hartford. Assessments are reviewed, assignments are discussed and graded, and plans for future instruction are made. Though teachers pay attention to the performance of all students, of course, they play a particularly crucial role in West Hartford’s attempts to reduce the achievement gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers.
Connecticut has the nation’s largest achievement gap when it’s measured by students’ socioeconomic status, with poor students performing almost three grade-levels below their more privileged peers, according to national exams. It’s a gap that stubbornly persists in every district in the state.
“More than half the time, the low-income students are also the neediest students,” estimated Mlodzinski. “To ask them at 8 years old to be responsible for their own homework, when some of them are wondering where their next meal is going to come from, is tough.”
Yet despite all the obstacles low-income students might face outside school, a highly effective teacher can help close the achievement gap, getting 1.5 years of learning growth from a student in one school year, regardless of the student’s background, according to research by Eric Hanushek of Stanford University.
Mlodzinski, together with other Braeburn teachers, has the difficult task of trying to live up to this standard.
A well-regarded district trips on NCLB
West Hartford, a district of 10,000 student and 16 schools in a mostly upper-middle-class suburb, has long attracted young parents with its reputation for stellar schools. Indeed, anecdotally, many parents sing the praises of Braeburn and other West Hartford schools.
West Hartford students consistently score near the top on the Connecticut Mastery Tests, joining the likes of Avon and Greenwich students with over 79 percent attaining proficiency or higher on national exams.
For years, West Hartford has known that the performance of certain groups has consistently lagged that of others. In the late 1990s, the district framed specific goals around the achievement of these subgroups-including low-income, special education and minority students. But as all test scores rose, the achievement gap remained.
And so, five years ago, the district was flagged for not making federal benchmarks for adequate yearly progress (AYP). This measure, introduced by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, mandated that schools and districts break down their test scores by subgroups. Under NCLB, an entire district can be subject to immediate state-level intervention if one or more of its student subgroups fail to meet AYP for two consecutive years.
In 2006, West Hartford–which may be taken off the AYP ‘in need of improvement list’ if it hits its bench marks for the second year in a row this year–was required to implement a district-wide improvement plan. It ended up using a multifaceted approach of revamping standards, changing teaching strategies, using assessments and using the data on these assessments to guide decisions in the classroom.
At the beginning of the 2009-10 school year, when Karen List assumed the superintendency, the district ratcheted up its reforms, forming data teams at each grade level and introducing an unprecedented number of assessments–students are assessed on a weekly basis in reading–to track student progress in minute detail and intervene at the slightest sign of trouble.
In 2010, West Hartford averaged a 20.3-point achievement gap between low-income students and their peers on the CMT, compared to a statewide average of 25.9.
“The good news is that our results keep improving. It’s steady growth,” List said. “But we haven’t figured out the absolute solution to this.”
Standing only a few inches taller than some of her fifth-graders, Mlodzinski circulates around her 24 students, sprawled over desks and on the floor at work on a final project for their geometry unit, drawing different shapes and turning them into objects from everyday life.
It’s a rare occasion. Everyone, regardless of skill level, is working on the same project. Even so, as Mlodzinski moves around the room–settling a dispute about copying ideas versus sharing ideas, and urging a little girl in Uggs to look around the room for inspiration–the former Teacher of the Year nominee knows exactly which students get it and which ones still need extra attention. She can tell how much a student has learned since the unit began and what concepts are still causing problems.
In fact, Mlodzinski started assessing her students long before they stepped into her classroom. Over the summer, she analyzed their CMT scores and compared them to an end-of-year assessment from fourth grade, developing individual tests for the first week of school to see where students stood.
“Before we get into fifth-grade math, we really need to go back and figure out what they were missing from fourth grade,” she said. “Some we found, ‘I need to go all the way back to third and second grade.’ ”
Students in Mlodzinski’s class, and in all of Braeburn, are continually assessed. In fifth grade, this translates into weekly tests for reading and monthly tests for math, as well as tests every six weeks or so in science
To help teachers process the results, not only have the weekly data team meetings become mandatory in every school but students also are released early every Wednesday, giving teachers and staff time to meet with one another.
These types of group efforts are quickly becoming a popular mode of professional development for teachers across the country. Staff at highly-effective schools spend, on average, five times more formal time collaborating than staff at less effective schools in the same districts do, according to Education Resource Strategies research that looked at nine urban high schools.
“We’ve worked very diligently at trying to find adequate time for teachers to work together,” List said. “We’re asking teachers to do work that’s much more focused than they’ve ever had to do.”
Teach them so ‘they can do it without me’
Room 132, Mlodzinski’s classroom, is tacked on to the end of Braeburn’s wing for third-, fourth- and fifth-graders by a short hallway plastered with vocabulary words. A once-temporary fixture that’s now permanent, the classroom is filled with books, separated into plastic containers by genre and author, and bulletin boards like “Math Matters” and “Think Like a Scientist.”
The lengthy list of school goals–including the percentage of low-income students Braeburn hopes to be scoring proficient on the fast-approaching Mastery Tests–are hung right by the door for all to see.
Every lesson starts out the same way: Mlodzinski stands at the front of her room, going through that day’s lesson, introducing or reviewing definitions and tossing out a few sample questions. Only after she’s guided the entire class through examples do they break up into three ability groups: high, middle and low. Sometimes these groups are formed with students from all three classrooms at each grade.
On the surface, these groups may seem like traditional tracking, where students are put with those of similar skill-levels. The practice is often criticized for not giving students in lower tracks the chance to move up. Braeburn’s answer to that concern is to keep the groups as fluid as possible; they change just as often as the units themselves do.
Those who scored a 70 or above on the pretest are generally left to congregate in the hallway or back of the room, working through more complex word-problems by themselves. The middle group of students sits at their desks working independently or with partners doing problems right at a fifth-grade level.
The lowest group–the ones who only managed to get a few questions right on their assessments, if that–works with Mlodzinski at her table. Even the homework differs for each level. The low group, for instance, may have as much trouble with addition as with finding the perimeter of an object. They’ll be drilled on their math facts first, before moving on to a worksheet with questions about perimeters.
When the unit is over, students take post-tests and chart their progress. Those who score over 80 percent on the pre-test are encouraged to shoot for a 100 on the post-test. But Mlodzinski has to be realistic about how much growth each student can make.
“My goal is always–for the kids who have to work at my table–to put them into the group that they can do it without me there,” she said.