Success in the City
A once troubled urban school system is lauded for blazing a new path to academic progress
Norfolk, VA.--It's hard to tell exactly when the Norfolk Public Schools hit rock bottom, but 1998 was particularly dismal across the board: Just 38 percent of third graders passed the state's Standards of Learning, or SOL, test in English; 26 percent of eighth graders were proficient in mathematics; and a mere 18 percent of high schoolers passed Virginia and U.S. history. For John Simpson, who took over as superintendent that same year with a mandate to boost achievement for all of the district's 37,000 students, the only solution was to completely shake things up. "When I arrived, people were unhappy, but many of them had the attitude that given a fairly poor and high-minority population, that might be all that they could do," says Simpson, who shifted the district's focus to improving instruction, with an emphasis on testing, testing, and more testing--and a dash of accountability thrown in on the side. "There was no room for excuses anymore."
Today, Norfolk is one of relatively few bright spots in the often bleak landscape of urban education, boasting impressive, ongoing gains of all sorts. Over the past seven years, for instance, the proportion of district students passing the SOLs has jumped in every subject, including a more than 60 percentage point leap in both fifth-grade history and Algebra 2. Educators have also made significant strides in narrowing the achievement gap--a goal considered the holy grail of inner-city education--with black students closing in on their white classmates' scores in all subject areas. In recognition of such successes, the district won the prestigious Broad Prize for Urban Education last week, beating out such rapidly improving big-city peers as New York City and San Francisco. "This is not a one-year phenomenon--this is a district that's made real, impressive, consistent progress," observes Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and a member of the review board for the award. Norfolk's record "is really significant cause for optimism, both there and because it shows what's possible across the country."
While there are many reasons for the district's turnaround, including shifting the best teachers to the neediest schools and the introduction of a standard, aligned curriculum, chief among them is assessment. Indeed, unlike peers who have bucked No Child Left Behind's focus on high-stakes exams, Norfolk has fully embraced the idea (41 of its 49 schools met the federal law's Adequate Yearly Progress requirements this year)--and even taken it a step further. All schools here test students on at least a quarterly basis, with many offering additional weekly or monthly assessments. Administrators and teachers then use the results to track progress and make specific, data-driven decisions about teaching and learning.
Data driven . At Northside Middle School, a dozen teachers and administrators from various grades and subjects gather on a recent morning to confront a towering pile of late-breaking data on last year's eighth-grade SOL writing exams. Small groups huddle together and pore over the question-by-question result sheets for all those who did not pass, analyzing incorrect responses by every possible differential, from gender and race to specific instructor, and looking for patterns. One is immediately clear: "This double negatives thing is really killing them," says a teacher, pointing out that it's the only problem that fewer than half the students got right. The discussion turns to the pervasive use of slang in the broader community, and the group agrees that merely correcting "I ain't never"s in class isn't good enough. "We need to look at some kind of buildingwide push," says Principal Andrea Tottossy, who then suggests that poor grammar in student essays is another glaring problem and wonders aloud whether teachers are correcting misplaced commas and apostrophes or focusing more on content in a new schoolwide writing program. "We definitely need to take baby steps to include grammar--we're ready for the next step," she advises, and a social studies teacher tells her colleagues that in her class she's introduced a related exercise in which students edit each other's papers, with great success.
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.
Such strategies can be a lot of work for kids as well as teachers--but they don't seem to mind. "Sometimes I think if I have to take another assessment test, I'm going to scream, but when I get my SOL scores back and they're so high, I know it's really working," says Heather Hensley, a senior at Lake Taylor High School, once called a "dumping ground" for difficult teens by a city councilman. "I ain't never really passed a test, even in class, before I came here, and last year I passed four SOLs, so I know they're doing something right," chimes in classmate Khalil Moye, who attends extra-help sessions after school, as well as optional Saturday classes, where, in addition to writing and test-taking drills, the school provides breakfasts from student favorites like Chick-Fil-A and Sonic. "Even the hardest thugs in this building come to Saturday classes--everyone comes--and even if they're just there for the food, they're still learning."
Reaching the previously unreachable is Lake Taylor Principal Noah Rogers's mission, and a revamped curriculum, constant teacher training, longer school hours, and strict attendance and truancy policies, among other innovations, have helped get results: In 2002, fewer than half of students here passed the SOL math exam, while just 63 percent succeeded in history; last year those numbers improved to 72 and 84 percent, respectively. Attendance is also up, and the dropout rate is way down, along with discipline problems. "The message I've got for these kids is, 'If you're poor, it doesn't matter anymore--if you've got the smarts, you're going places," says Rogers, sitting in his office surrounded by photos of recent graduates who are thriving at colleges like William and Mary and Penn State--and glancing periodically at a security monitor that allows him to see his hallways at all times. "We are proof that change is possible."
Lessons learned . Take Theodore Ford, who was classified as "emotionally disturbed" in middle school, and who as a ninth grader was still getting into fights on a regular basis, skipping classes left and right, and--when he did manage to show up--goofing off with friends instead of focusing on his work. The result was C's and D's and worse. During his sophomore year, however, the teen's electronics teacher encouraged him to get his act together, sharing a story about how his own brother's life had taken a difficult turn after he flunked out of school. "I realized it was time to grow up," says Ford, who started staying late for tutoring in subjects like history and geometry and showing up early on Saturdays. Today, the 17-year-old senior is taking chemistry, Algebra 2, and Advanced Placement government, among other courses--and getting his fair share of A's and B's. "I wanted to do better, and lots of people here wanted to see me do better, which gave me the confidence to keep on," says the soft-spoken teen, who also captains the football team and DJs at school pep rallies and dances. "It's not easy--it takes a lot of work--but I think it will be worth it."
Some critics charge that Norfolk's intense focus on high-stakes testing is coming at the expense of a broader education, while others contend that the district's achievements simply can't be repeated in larger and poorer inner cities. But defenders counter that much can be learned from the school system's example. "There's no magic here," says Andrew Rotherham, codirector of Education Sector, a new Washington, D.C.-based think tank and a member of the Virginia State Board of Education. "Norfolk simply put in place the right ingredients--they used state standards and assessments to inform instruction, have strong leadership across the board and had a coherent plan.... Other districts can do that, too."
Back in Norfolk, there is excitement over winning the Broad Prize, but the focus quickly shifts back to the remaining challenges at hand, from Ocean View's current obsession with improving fifth-grade science scores and Northside's focus on eradicating double negatives for good to Lake Taylor's concern about boosting the graduation rates of African-American males. "We can't declare victory yet," says new Superintendent Stephen Jones, who cites larger goals such as closing the achievement gap entirely--and in the right way--by 2010. "Everybody expects minority kids to be on par with their majority counterparts, but that's the floor for us," he explains. "We don't believe in closing gaps by lowering the ceiling; we believe everything should move at the same time." He pauses for a moment and murmurs, "Yes, there's still plenty to do."
A DIVERSE DISTRICT
Norfolk is a predominantly minority urban district where 58 percent of students receive subsidized school lunches.
White 26 pct.
Black 69 pct.
Hispanic 3 pct.
Asian 2 pct.
MAKING THE GRADE
Third graders have made steady progress overall and have narrowed the black-white gap on state math tests
Percent passing: White, District average, Black
[chart labels] 0, 20, 40, 60, 80, 90 pct.; 1998, '99, 2000, '01, '02, '03, '04, '05
Source: National Center for Educational Accountability; USN&WR
This story appears in the October 3, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.