Success in the City
A once troubled urban school system is lauded for blazing a new path to academic progress
These sorts of conversations will play out time and again at every single school in Norfolk, where all teachers serve on data teams typically arranged by grade level or subject. The idea is to pinpoint and remedy instructional problems as soon as possible--and well before the end of the year, when it's often too late to do anything about failure except hold children back. "This type of formative assessment is designed to improve teaching and learning all year long," says Doug Reeves, chairman of the Center for Performance Assessment, an independent consulting organization that has been working with the district for over a decade. "It's a physical--not an end-of-the-year autopsy."
Indeed, testing is front and center from Day 1 at schools like Ocean View Elementary, where four oversize, candy-colored charts sit outside every classroom, waiting to map the children's progress in reading, math, science, and social studies over the year, on a variety of short monthly tests as well as statewide ones. Here, nonproficient students are identified quickly and there's immediate intervention--an instructor doubles back and teaches fractions in a different style, for instance--and then retesting until the child passes. "We used to hear a lot of excuses--the kids aren't studying or behaving, parents aren't doing what they're asked--and no one says that now," says Principal Lauren Campsen, who has seen achievement rise in all areas in the past several years and believes that this immediate, widespread improvement helped get all her teachers on board. "Our students are our students--the demographic stays the same--so the only thing you can do is change what you do."
While such teachers and administrators are held responsible for their students' performance, the climate in Norfolk is empowering rather than punitive. "We said to teachers, 'You're going to be held accountable, but it's not going to be a means to fire you, only to make you a better and more successful teacher'--although it took a while for them to believe it!" explains Denise Schnitzer, a 32-year veteran of the school system, who took over as interim superintendent last year after Simpson retired. "We always said it's ok to make mistakes as long as you learn from them; if you find in the middle of the year that strategies aren't working, that's the time to change."
Midcourse corrections . Northside math teacher Alfreda Jernigan, for one, was close to tears when she saw her eighth graders' first quarterly benchmark test results in pre-algebra last year, which fell well below 70 percent. "It was hard to think that I had failed in some way," she says, "but you have to remind yourself that those are [diagnostic] numbers and you can only learn by looking at them." Jernigan took a step back and, with the help and support of her fellow teachers, studied the available data and was able to spot specific weaknesses and make instant changes: For starters, she added a daily skills review with five warm-up problems to address the fact that students were having trouble applying basic concepts like fractions and decimals to more advanced questions involving equations; she also changed how she spoke in class to reflect the way test questions were worded. Her students' performance improved significantly over the rest of the year.