Saturday, February 25, 2012

Raising the Bar, Literally

We often use the expression "raising the bar" in education, but most people use this high jump reference in regard to general standards or even some other concept that may be vague or a bit abstract. When I use that expression, I am thinking of this particular data piece that I would like to share with all of you now. 

Below is a scatter plot I lifted from a presentation that I first saw at a conference several years ago by noted researcher Doug Willms developed through his PISA research. The line on the chart below shows average reading literacy score relative to socioeconomic status. As expected, there is a clear correlation between these two factors. The data rep from the Ministry of Education tells us that socioeconomic status the slope in BC influences at approximately 5-7%, which is "quite good" when compared to most other jurisdictions and their steeper lines, where socioeconomic status is not as effectively moderated by the other factors in the equation. This is one of the reasons BC education system typically places in the top 2 to 5  in the world when these types of comparisons occur. Essentially, a higher and flatter line is better.

If you look further at the scatter plot, you should notice that there are many dots all along the continuum on either side of that line, indicating that some individuals from very humble environments are still very literate, and vice-versa. The average may trend upward, but the scatter plot tells much more than the average does, which is usually the case. My understanding is that most achievement scores in public schools would look something like this literacy scatter plot – whether it would be FSA tests or English marks or whatever it may be, and this shows why I am uncomfortable using socioeconomic status as a reason to simply disregard tests like the FSA, or the ones that currently exist in our Graduation Program. In our system there are students that achieve all along the continuum despite their household wealth, and we should be using that information to identify their specific learning needs and support them with their learning.   

The next chart (also lifted from Doug Wilmms) gives a picture of what our role should be in the education system in a slightly broader sense. Wherever our students are performing in the "current" situation, it should be our objective to "raise and level" that line by improving all students' performance, and reducing the difference in achievement between our poorest students and our richest ones. 

Currently I work in a school whose clientele is not particularly wealthy. The decline of the logging industry has not been kind to our little town, and I felt when I arrived there was a bit of a malaise in the school community around student success. We have made some progress in the last few years through the hard work of the staff, the drive of our students, and improved support from our parents, and as much as we still have a way to go in our journey, there has been a genuine shift in what learning looks like in our school and our results have bumped up as a result. In the BCELC school leadership sessions, principals were told that the strategies that we use to support struggling learners also work for confident learners, and these will indeed "raise and level the bar" in our schools. These are some of the more specific strategies and concepts that I think have helped us to do that for the students at our school:
  • A caring and supportive school culture where students are known and valued as people. Without this in place first, the rest of the list is unlikely to have much impact
  • Ongoing PLC sessions that build the vocabulary and skill set of the teaching staff regarding Assessment for Learning
  • A renewed focus on the 2004 Graduation Program, tracking our struggling students closely, and placing a priority on supporting them through the key road blocks 
  • Adding a literacy class to the middle school exploratory rotation and using the DART reading test not just to update district data, but as a means to inform teaching practice
  • School decisions based on what is best for student learning, which often means protecting instructional time at the expense of other activities. This has meant fewer assemblies, shorter or fewer school-wide activities, and more contact time back into exam weeks etc.
  • Weekly Learning Services Team meetings involving principals, school counsellor, alternate ed., learning assistance teachers, and an open invitation for all staff to attend to talk about students, and then apply support and intervention strategies and resources  
  • Sharing the goals of the school, our focus on learning, and the types of strategies we are trying to use with the school community
  • Encouraging different learning options as a means to complete graduation requirements
  • Encouraging a shift away from recognizing what students are doing (task completion) towards what they are learning (concept mastery and skill development)
  • And perhaps most importantly, not just believing all of our students can be successful - insisting on it
When I hear the expression "raise the bar" I now immediately think of student performance, and all of the opportunities that will avail themselves to them as a result of academic success. Developing authentic literacy skills, mastering core math concepts, passing required courses as well as demonstrating proficiency by passing the exams that come with them (writing these takes up .03% of total instructional time K-12 in BC) and graduating from high school preferably with the broad range of 21st century skills needed to continue learning through both formal and informal means, are some of the key landmarks of success in school. If the main purpose of school in a democratic society is to give each of our students the maximum chance to be successful and to use education as a means overcome inherited economic disadvantages, then "raising and leveling" the performance bar has to be the primary objective of our work. I believe we can have a significant impact on student learning and performance in the school system despite inherited socioeconomic disadvantages, and even within a climate of labour unrest and impending educational change, we should still insist that we do

1 comment:

  1. Hello Peter Jory Thank you very much for your article. Great picture, very interesting information. I totally agree with you that there are things that can be done to facilitate the needed TOOLS for students to achieve the goal of basic learning in today´s society. It is a must that educational boards have to consider as a priority. Again Thank you very much for your information!