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A Discussion on School Reform -- Case 1: All Students Learning at Granite Junior High

by Bruce Wilson, Dick Corbett & Belinda Williams - October 30, 2000

A look at a middle school succeeding at school reform

Our shoes clacked on the marble floor. The sound bounced crisply off the dark, hardwood walls and cavernous ceiling of the seventy-plus year-old school building. Trying to conduct an interview on the run, we were tagging along with the principal as he circumnavigated the building. Even though it was the middle of a class period and theoretically the halls should have been empty, it was also lunchtime. There would be plenty of seventh, eighth, and ninth graders moving about the junior high. Some would have passes to legitimize their wandering, some would not, all would "positively, absolutely" have to get where they were going. Adjudication would be necessary.

This meant that the principal had plenty to do. The principal always had plenty to do. What that plenty was simply shifted at different points of the day. Before school there were small meetings, with parents, teachers, staff members, students, and the occasional visitor. The first few class periods provided time to resolve matters leftover from the previous afternoon. Lunchtime was spent trying to keep the lid on the boiling pot of adolescent energy that welled over as predictably as "Old Faithful." Afternoons would become the birthplace of new conflicts: "he said, she said," "my child feels her teacher has it in for her," "I need some ideas about how to handle this student in my morning class." After school came more meetings, in the school and at the district office.

Thus, we endeavored to squeeze in one or two of the questions from our carefully crafted "principals' protocol" between the myriad routine crises of the school day. Crossing from the main office toward the gymnasium, the principal explained that he was retiring. He was a fit, vigorous man in his early fifties, well into "educational" retirement age (thirty and out) but not a chronological one, and less a victim of burnout than being the possessor of a burning desire to continue to grow personally and professionally.

The decision had been long-planned but only recently shared with the school community and in a typically understated way. So much so that teachers still talked about the coming event as if it were a secret. Some in the school held out hope for a reversal. Thus, it was with some hesitation that an approaching student spoke to him:

"I understand that you're leaving us," she said with a somewhat furtive tone.

"Oh, I'm not really leaving you," the principal replied, "I'm still going to be around; I'm just not going to be the principal."

With a little more anxiety, the thirteen year-old African-American exclaimed, "But what are we going to do?"

"Oh, the new principal will be fine," he assured the student.

"But, but, but what if he doesn't know the rules?" she cried.

There was much more to the student's question than whether the new principal would know about hall passes, detentions, and when to allow pizza parties. To be sure, Granite Junior High School had rules, but the ones to which the girl referred had more to do with academics than discipline and they were not necessarily etched in stone. Rather they were more ingrained in the minds of the adults and young people. They were habits, customary ways of doing things, a set of beliefs - not a list of behavioral do's and don'ts.

The "Rules" at Granite

School was all about classwork, getting it done and getting it done with "quality." We found no misconceptions about this anywhere in the building. Everyone agreed that the driving motto of the school was that every student would complete every assignment at a level sufficient to get a B. Unfinished and unsatisfactory assignments would be worked on until they were complete and satisfactory, all the while keeping up with new work. There were no zeroes to serve as pardons, no detentions that would substitute time served for tasks undone, only "incompletes" and "not yets." Even the end of the school year offered no relief from the press of responsibility. There was summer school until that I (for "incomplete") became a B.

It sounded so simple to us intuitively to run a school based on the principle of completing work. If a task was worth giving, then it was worth doing; and if it was worth doing, then it was worth doing well. This refrain was not a mere slogan to motivate students to do their best. It was a "rule" that applied to everyone. There would be no Cs, Ds, or Fs; only As, Bs, and Is. Here is how one teacher described it:

If every assignment is valuable and meets my objective for what I'm teaching, then every assignment is worth doing. To let a child settle for not doing it then is out of the question. If they settle for what might be a D, then what objective isn't being met by letting them do that? If they are not in class, they don't get their work done, and they know we're gonna be on them.

It sounded somewhat like a nightmare really. There was no closure to an assignment, no test given only once, no point at which a teacher could just say, "that's it; time's up; whatever you've done is what is graded." Instead, students had to keep at it, at everything, until they reached "quality" -- a set of criteria for each assignment or test or project that established what a B would be.

This notion of quality was important. The teachers were concerned that they would fall into the trap of saying "all children can learn& something." This turn of the phrase would allow them to toss a lot of students into the grab bag of successful ones who in fact were successful only in an individual growth sense and not in an overall excellence one.

One teacher captured the essence of this belief by simply noting that: "The key to [student] success is having all work be done at the best level possible." So, students maintained an I until they had completed an assignment or a test on which they had done poorly. A grade of B showed that a student had demonstrated mastery. An A required students to do work beyond quality, such as would normally be associated with extra credit. Thus, all students had to meet the standard of a B or else they kept at it. This standard, according to teachers, was entirely within reach of most of the students. "We have found that students work up to what our expectations are," commented one.

The problem, of course, with expecting "quality" from everyone was that there were two types of students who fell behind: those who could do the work but did not, and those who could not yet do the work. The former needed pushing and constant reminders and was the source of considerable adult irritation. The latter needed more time and help and was the sole reason for the school's being organized in the way it was. As one teacher summarized, "There is a difference between mastering learning and being late and lazy." Thus, while teachers did not want to aid and abet the procrastinators endlessly, they did want to accept the consequences of acknowledging that students learn at different speeds. As a result, teachers were constantly juggled their time and patience.

I always am feeling like I am moving too fast for some and too slow for others. Some you don't have to explain the work to. So we have reteaching time. We all have a small reading class (in which everyone in the building is assigned a small group of students to work with on reading) and an aide will catch up some students in that time. And, we all stay after school to get students to make up their work.

But the skill in working with diverse student needs required more than dealing after the fact with students not grasping a concept or skill. Teachers also felt that they had to anticipate how well certain students would initially understand a lesson. Thus, they concentrated on how they introduced material.

To reach all of the kids? Sometimes I have to lecture ten to fifteen minutes and then have them answer questions about that. Or, we will read together, the whole class. Or, I will use cooperative learning which I have to monitor closely so they get all the information. But to say to them read pages 47-49 and answer the questions? I have so many who can't do that; and if they are reading, they don't know what it means. That is the biggest challenge to me. I find I might need to tell them a story first. I like to try to help them see what they're reading as a story.

Despite the frustration of having students who fell behind, especially students who procrastinated and whose parents did little to check on their assignments, the teachers in this school rarely shrugged a "what can you do - it's out of our hands." Instead, they looked inward.

Until they are responsible for their own education, we are responsible for them. Letting them cop out? NO! We are the parents here; we have to be responsible! If I make being here worthwhile, they're gonna be here. I don't think it's even the nature of the bird to be fired up about learning. Socializing is natural. If we can pique their interest, they will be. I go back to we're the adults; we know they need to be educated. Throw in some fun and let them trust me. Tell them: "we know how to teach you; the deal is you agree to do what I ask you to do; my deal is to ask you to do those things that will let you learn.

Another tension in school settings such as Granite's is that while some students are behind, others are ahead. The usual response is that teaching would be so much easier if students were grouped by ability for instruction. But students were not, so teaching was not. Other provisions had to be made to avoid "down time" for the faster students. One way was to offer "sponge" activities which could "soak up" the time of students who had finished an assignment. The art was to create activities that extended the students' learning without appearing to be busy work. To lend substance to these extensions, teachers used these as the means by which students could transform their Bs into As. That is, a B indicated that the student had completed an assignment at a "quality" level; the A meant that the student had gone beyond the basic assignment and had completed additional ones related to the same topic or skill.

A similar strategy was in place school-wide. The last thirty minutes of the school day was called "R&E," for reteaching and enrichment. During this time, students needing additional help with or time on a task went back to their teachers' classrooms; students who were "caught up" -- that is, they had completed all of their assignments at the B level -- could work on extensions to move up to the A level. The impressive part of all of this was that people regarded it as perfectly normal that some students might require reteaching while others explored the enrichment options. It was a tangible acknowledgment of the truism that people learn at different speeds.

Enacting these "rules" was a tough job for teachers. It siphoned time and energy from a job where time and energy were already at a premium. A teacher would spend fifty to eighty minutes working with youngsters. Then, during the brief class changeovers, in lieu of taking a breath, the teacher would stand out in the hall reminding those with assignments still outstanding to get them done and recruiting those needing extra help for an after school session. As for that, teachers would teach all day and then reward themselves by staying past the bell to teach some more.

The teachers used a few "tricks of the trade" to ease some of the burden. For one most of them used groups in the classroom. But teachers were quick to point out a distinction between having the students work in groups and doing cooperative learning. With respect to the latter, the school had invested heavily in having the teachers undergo formal training in cooperative learning. And teachers noted that for cooperative learning to be effective a consistent set of guidelines had to be followed:

The difference in group work and cooperative learning? You need tight control, a structured time frame, more supervision, set ways to be accountable, do not let kids hitchhike, and you have timelines to meet the rubric.

As a result of these actions groups increased the amount of help and encouragement made available to students.

You can't fail if you show up because the group will make sure you do the work. They force participation by everyone. They hold each other accountable for the work.

Teachers also structured the school day to increase the amount of time available to help students. For several years, this "structuring" essentially was staying after school for an hour or more, well beyond what was called for in the teachers' contract. Burn out was on the horizon. The teachers and the principal therefore had recently instituted the "reteaching and enrichment" period - the thirty minutes at the end of the day referred to earlier. Thus, reteaching was formally acknowledged as inevitable and natural, and - more importantly - the responsibility of the school rather than the child and/or parents at home.

Finally, the teachers worked in teams. Four or more of them had the same group of students for all of their major subjects. The "or more" referred to special education teachers who joined the teachers in class as part of an inclusion effort in the school. This enabled them to apply a consistent set of expectations, to support one another's efforts, and to share ideas about working with students, particularly those that seemed to be having difficulty. The teachers rarely acted on a student problem or considered a redirection in their lessons without consulting teammates. In fact, before we could begin an interview with one teacher, she let us know in no uncertain terms that everything was done from a team approach and that it made no sense to interview her without including the others, especially the special education teacher with whom she team taught the class.

More significantly, the special education teacher became an additional resource to improve students' chances of receiving extra needed help. For example, in one eighth grade classroom we visited in the matter of ten short minutes we observed a brief glimpse of how two adults could ensure all students were following along with a lesson.

The class in question had been reading a passage from a social studies book. One of teachers directed the lesson while the other floated around the room to answer questions, offering gentle, but insistent reminders to students about the importance of staying on top of their work.

If you are not with us, you won't be on the bus. Let's all get on board.


The bus is being loaded. We're taking tickets. Everyone get on board.

Every few minutes the two would briefly confer privately about whether students were understanding both the instructions for tasks and the content. They referred to this as a "tag team effort." During the course of the lesson, every child had multiple opportunities to indicate their understanding in the presence of one or both of the teachers; and each teacher came through the exercise a little less exhausted.

Teaming really helps us here. If something is not working for a student, we bring the student in (before the whole team) with their parent and create a program to get the work done.

A teacher new to the school and the challenges of an urban environment, but not to education was blunt about where she would be without the help of her peers.

Teaming makes this school so successful. I would be in the dark without it.

Did everyone "follow the rules?" for as one teacher explained succinctly, "the bottom line is this is a lot of work." Estimates varied among those we talked to, but people seemed to suspect most of their colleagues really believed in and were committed to what they were doing. They also said that the other ones did not stay around long.

I would say eighty percent have bought into the program. There are other people like us in other buildings in the district, but they are in the minority. Here, we're a majority. If you don't get on board, you don't stay.

So the "rules" applied to all in the school. It would be misleading to suggest, however, that "how we do it here" was applied rigidly or blindly. Clearly, teachers were frequent in pointing to troublesome aspects and compromises. However, the core tenet that all assignments worth doing were worth doing and would be done did not find itself discarded with the dirty bath water of the difficulties created by living up to that belief.

So What?

Is all of this hard work making a difference? Are all students learning? If one listened closely to the faculty about students learning at different speeds and rates, one might conclude that using standardized test scores to assess the progress of such a decidely nonstandardized population would be folly. Perhaps it is. Nevertheless, test scores remain the main course at any debate about educational effectiveness and the state's assessment program lent credence to Granite's efforts.

Despite being the poorest of the five junior highs in the district, Granite was second in the number of students reaching proficiency on the eighth grade writing assessment. This number was even seven percent above the district average and two percentage points below the state average. Moreover, there was no difference in the performance of its African-American and Caucasian students. Such was not the case at the junior high in the district that most resembled Granite in diversity.

Given the usual caveats about making numbers say anything one wants them to and needing to add a considerable amount of dash to the results, the school rightly placed modest importance on these numbers. However, they did acknowledge the results as an indication that they were "on the right track" in giving all its students an opportunity to succeed at school work regardless of race and that students were making progress toward meeting a reasonable standard of performance regardless of their economic or racial situations.

But still nagging in the back of our typically skeptical researchers' heads were the questions: Who was really learning to be responsible here? Was it the students or the teachers? If the teachers continually stayed on students to do their work, when would they learn to work without that crutch? We posed this to one of the teachers and we remember the response properly chastened:

Adults are responsible until kids see the value of getting an education. If they don't see the value, they aren't going to take responsibility - neither now nor when they are on their own.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 30, 2000
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10619, Date Accessed: 5/22/2022 10:45:34 PM

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About the Author
  • Bruce Wilson
    Independent Researcher
    E-mail Author
    Bruce Wilson is an independent educational researcher who also serves as an adjunct professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. His recent research focuses on the student voice in urban school reform. The results of this work are presented in a forthcoming book, Listening to Urban Students: School Reform and the Teachers They Want.
  • Dick Corbett
    Independent Researcher
    E-mail Author
    Dick Corbett is an independent educational researcher who also serves as an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His recent research focuses on the student voice in urban school reform. The results of this work are presented in a forthcoming book, Listening to Urban Students: School Reform and the Teachers They Want.
  • Belinda Williams
    University of Pennsylvania
    Belinda Williams is the Managing Director for Research and Development for the Center for Health, Achievement, Neighborhood, Growth and Ethnic Studies (CHANGES) at the University of Pennsylvania. Her recent work focuses on the impact of cultural environments on the cognitive development and the academic achievement patterns of poor children. She is the editor of the ASCD publication, Closing the Achievement Gap: A Vision for Changing Beliefs and Practices
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