When it comes to student achievement, demographics need not be destiny

The Union Leader’s David Solomon has done a major two-part followup, the most extensive reporting done to date, on the annual Smarter Balanced Assessment results released recently.  The front page lead was headlined, “Low-income students can thrive, testing shows.”  The second piece identified among schools that performed well in high poverty area a, “Common thread: Parents, others engaged in children’s education.”

He found, as expected, that districts continue to struggle with a long term issue: schools in wealthier districts fare better on assessments than districts with more low-income students. However, he identified a number of schools with high poverty levels that nonetheless scored higher than the statewide average in either math or English.  Here’s a map showing these districts.  Five of those districts really beat the odds in that they scored better than the state average in both math and English:  Russell Elementary School in Rumney and Wentworth Elementary, both in a Plymouth-area district; nearby Whitefield Elementary; and two Rochester-area schools, Wheelock Elementary and Valley View Community School in Farmington.

He found that some of these schools used to be among the lowest performing on the annual statewide assessment. But the schools determined that key could take charge and transform their learning environments and the results showed in their higher assessment scores.  For instance,

“Our data was hovering below state performance, and in 2009 we took a nosedive,” said Melissa Hough, assistant superintendent and curriculum coordinator for the White Mountains Regional School District, where Whitefield Elementary is located.

Five years ago, the district and all of its schools were rated “in need of improvement” and facing the sanctions of No Child Left Behind. The turnaround began, said Hough, when the district began to get all the schools on the same playbook.

“We had a lot of things going on that were distracting us,” she said. “Lots of different programs and ideas and schools doing different things, so we decided we needed to be on the same page across the district, with a focus on curriculum and instruction.”

He goes on in what is more an analysis than a newspaper article:

A coordinated approach throughout the school district was a recurring theme in conversations with many school officials at the low-income but high-performing schools. Other common approaches were:

• Intense focus on one-to-one contact with students;

• Continuous assessment of student performance in one way or another, and immediate intervention on individual academic or behavioral problems;

• Constant promotion of a positive school culture;

• Lesson plans closely aligned to the curriculum standards;

• Investment in computers for students, and student-focused use of federal money targeted to low-income schools through the so-called Title 1 federal program.

High expectations are also key. “Honestly, I think our performance was modest,” says Principal Jonann Torsey at Russell Elementary in Rumney. “We are definitely looking at improving that.”

The stakes, she said, are too high to settle for anything less.

He goes into all this in more detail in the companion piece.

Our own observation is that, while these successful districts are using many of the tenets of student centered learning. Personalized learning, where students’ skills and interests are put first rather than a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching, and constant, immediate feedback are some of the pillars of this approach.

These schools and districts are doing a great job at putting students at the center of their learning and coordinating the process and are reaping the benefits.

Read the full articles here.