Core Skills, Not MCAS, Turned Brockton High Around

Thursday, October 7, 2010
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by WGBH News
Oct. 7, 2010

Brockton High School.
Brockton High School.

BOSTON -- The city of Boston is in the midst of a concerted effort to overhaul its struggling schools.

Last week, Boston Public Schools superintendent Carol Johnson announced a proposal to shutter six of the district's lowest performing schools. Six months earlier, at the end of the last school year, the district fired five school principals and announced that all of the teachers at six of the twelve schools the state had identified as "underperforming" would have to reapply for their jobs.

Closed doors and staff shakeups have become a normal part of education reform. But just outside of Boston, there's a school with an unconventional turnaround story -- a school that kept most of its staff and capitalized on its own culture, transforming itself from one of the state's roughest schools to one of the state's top MCAS scorers. And a report by Harvard economist Ronald Ferguson has put it on the national stage.

Brockton High School school certainly doesn't fit the mold of the state's best-performing schools. About 2/3 of its 10th grade class is black or Hispanic, and 64 percent of its 10th graders get free or reduced-price meals. The school as a whole has a whopping 4,300 students.

For a long time, Brockton High School was performing even below other low-income, high-density schools. In 1999, 44 percent of the students were failing MCAS testing in English, while 75 percent of the students failed the MCAS mathematics exams."It was like a slap across the face," Principal Susan Szachowicz told WGBH's Callie Crossley, of seeing those scores.

For Szachowicz, then a history teacher and a Brockton High graduate herself, that was a wake-up call. She and other teachers knew that a law that would go into effect in four years time that would require students to pass the math and English MCAS exams in order to graduate. "We were going to have three quarters of our students not getting a diploma if we didn't do something differently, and fast," Szachowicz said.

'Restructuring' Brockton High School

Szachowicz and about 20 others were pulled into a restructuring committee tasked with figuring at what, if anything, could be done about the abysmal scores. It wasn't easy to find people to join. "It was really who we could beg," Szachowicz remembered.

The committee's first meeting was simple, and grim. "I took a marker, and I wrote the failure numbers on a paper, in giant, smelly marker, and said, 'Is this the best we can be?'" Szachowicz said.

For most of those teachers, it wasn't. So they asked themselves what their students would need to be successful, and chose four crucial skill areas -- reading, writing, speaking and reasoning. Then, set about embedding those skills -- real-life skills the teachers themselves used in their every day lives -- into all aspects of the school's curriculum. The group decided early on that their efforts wouldn't be tied to the MCAS. "There's no speaking component on MCAS, and we can't stand how the teenagers speak -- have you heard them?" laughed Szachowicz.

Szachowicz  and the rest of the committee had to teach the other teachers how to turn subjects like science, history and Physical education into opportunities to build core skills -- not just a time for students to repeat facts.

Sczachowicz uses her own classroom as an example. Before the restructuring, if a student didn't understand a primary source document, she would simply tell them to read it again. Now, she needed to teach them to "actively read" and analyze the passage.

A distance from MCAS didn't mean the efforts were unstandardized. "It was very structured, and we monitored it like crazy," Szachowicz said.

Slow, Steady Improvement

By 2001, the students were doing better -- and more and more teachers wanted to join the restructuring committee. Seven years later, in 2008, Brockton High School's students showed more improvement on their English MCAS exams than 90 percent of the state's other high schools.

In a time when many education advocates are speaking to the importance of small schools, Szachowicz said Brockton High School's culture and identity -- including its large size -- was crucial to its resurgence. "We didn't want to build a wall in the middle of the school," she said.

Szachowicz contends that with the right approach to teaching, change is possible in any kind of educational institution. "It isn't about structure. It's about instruction," she said. "The most powerful change agent is the classroom teacher."

And teachers, Szachowicz continued, need guidance. "Are you preparing the teachers appropriately? If teachers are just left to, 'Oh, just go ahead and do what you want to do,' that's not such a good strategy."

Szachowicz has the same advice for those turnaround schools in Boston. "Literacy," she said. "What is the mission that you want for you school around literacy?" And then, she adds, "empower a team" from within that school to implement it.

WGBH'S Jess Bidgood compiled this report.

Test Drive Teacher's Domain

Thursday, September 23, 2010
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A treasure trove for K–12 teachers, Teachers' Domain offers more than 2,300 free, classroom-ready media resources from the best in public television. Register for free access, and you'll find easy-to-use resources — including audio, video, lesson plans, and interactive activities — from Nova, Frontline, Design Squad, American Experience, and more.



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Jazz in the classroom

Wednesday, August 25, 2010
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If it isn't Broken...

By Kerry Healey   |   Monday, August 23, 2010
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"There are innumerable things that need reform in Massachusetts. Let’s start with a political culture that has handed the last three House speakers federal indictments, add a growing number of senators and state reps dishonorably discharged fighting allegations of bribery, sexual assault and drunk driving. Milquetoasty ethics reforms have done nothing to stem the tide of disappointing revelations about politicians that were sworn to act in the public interest.
Or we could reform the pension system, so that we are not making promises to new State employees that tax-payers can ill afford. Or we could reform the way cities and towns buy healthcare insurance so mayors and city councils do not have to choose between laying off teachers and firefighters or paying double digit increases in healthcare premiums. All of these areas are ripe for reform.
But I open the Boston Globe last week and read instead that school officials are planning on reforming one of the few things we have unequivocally gotten right in Massachusetts: the MCAS! I’m stumped: Massachusetts has, for the last 6 years, been consistently placing first or tied for first in the nation in reading and math for 4th and 8th graders on the so-called National Report Card, the NAEP test. We also have out-performed the US on the prestigious international assessment of student Math and Science skills, theTIMSS test, where Massachusetts eighth graders tied for top in the world in math skills along side students from Singapore!
Yes, we have a huge and unforgivable gap between the scores in our best schools and our poorest performing urban school systems, but the MCAS has only highlighted that problem and created greater accountability for educators in under-performing schools. A new test could mask that gap.
State education officials quoted in the Globe mulled aloud whether to join with other states to create a national test similar to the MCAS—why would we ever take the risk-- and go to the expense--- of changing something that is working? Why change a test that has made the Massachusetts schools the envy of the nation and model for national education reform?
I worry that this is election year shenanigans, and that cynical politicians are looking for ways to court the teachers unions—who have always detested the high-stakes MCAS test. I hope I’m wrong. For the sake of our kid’s future and our state’s economy we must never play politics with the MCAS."

You can make a difference

Wednesday, August 18, 2010
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WGBH and Boston Promote Summer reading

Wednesday, August 18, 2010
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BooksWGBH’s Kids Media Matters and the City of Boston are partnering this summer to promote reading to local children. WGBH President Jon Abbott, VP for Children’s Media and Educational Programming Brigid Sullivan, and special friend Arthur joined Mayor Tom Menino at the Tadpole Playground on Boston on July 15 to announce that WGBH will give 5,000 books to the City of Boston’s ReadBoston Storymobile Program. Among the books being donated are Arthur’s Reading Race by Marc Brown; Martha and Skits by Susan Meddaugh; and Curious George Finds a Friend, adapted by Steven Krensky.

Attendees show off their new books.
Mayor Thomas Menino, Arthur and WGBH President Jon Abbott hand out books to attending children.
Attendees enjoying some of the 5,000 books donated to the ReadBoston Storymobile program.

Mayor Tom Menino, VP for Children’s Media and Educational Programming Brigid Sullivan, and Arthur pose for a picture.

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