How one high school is tackling the achievement gap

  • Article by: SHANNON PRATHER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 25, 2014 - 1:44 PM

Coon Rapids High tackles racial test disparities in five ways.

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Coon Rapids High biology teacher Nathan Hoekstra, right, talked with junior Beresford Jimmy, who was among those in class making a model of folding proteins. The school is putting a greater emphasis on having students talk and work in small groups, as opposed to listening to teachers all class long.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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It’s big bragging rights for the state’s biggest school district.

While the Twin Cities’ other large districts struggled to lessen the disparity between white and minority students’ proficiency in reading, math and other core subjects, Anoka-Hennepin surpassed goals set by the state. In math, the proficiency gap between white students and minority students dropped from about 22 percentage points in 2011 to 17 points in 2013. In science, it ticked down from 25 points in 2011 to 23 in 2013.

Shrinking the “achievement gap” is a formidable goal dissected and analyzed at the highest levels of government and education.

But how do you tackle it in the classroom?

Coon Rapids High School, like the rest of the district, has seen steady improvements. In some cases, the improvements are dramatic. Black students at Coon Rapids High increased their science proficiency from 20 percent in 2012 to 55 percent in 2013. The gap between black and white students was just 3.4 percent.

Principal Annette Ziegler spoke recently with the Star Tribune about the ways the school is trying to make headway. It’s also improving the classroom experience for all students, she said. The strategy includes a number of steps:

1. Eliminate prerequisites for honors and advanced-level classes.

If the goal is to attract more students to try advanced placement and honors courses, why tell them “no” when they try to enroll? Realizing that prerequisites and GPA requirements were ­deterring kids from trying more-challenging courses, administration eliminated them about five years ago.

“Why set up walls? Why put them in a box?” Ziegler asked.

While the percentage of students of color at Coon Rapids High has remained about 25 percent, the percentage of ninth- and 10th-graders of color enrolling in honors and AP courses has doubled. For example, in 2010-11 10 minority students enrolled in ninth-grade honors physical science. This year, 28 minority students are taking it.

There also have been efforts to individually recruit students.

“Teachers are encouraged to speak personally to all students who they think could succeed in an honors, advanced/AP course,” said Bjorn Lund­gren, Coon Rapids High School’s professional learning communities coordinator and teacher on special assignment. “There has been a specific schoolwide goal to make our enrollment in honors courses more equitable.”

2. Write what kids need to learn on the board every day. They’re called learning targets.

The point of class should never be a mystery. Clearly stating the goal each day ensures that everyone — students and teachers — stays on track. Teachers write the goals on the whiteboard or post them in the class. They’re usually “I statements.”

“It instills hope for students. Students now can identify that they may only need work in one learning target instead of feeling like they don’t understand the class in general,” Ziegler said.

3. Let students talk.

The old-fashioned class lecture where teachers talk for an hour and students listen is largely antiquated. To master concepts, kids need to talk it out and explain concepts to others.

“I get nervous as a principal if there is silence. If there is a certain level of volume and discussion, I know learning is occurring,” Ziegler said.

Now teachers often plan small-group work and learning stations where students move around the room. It’s the biggest adjustment for some teachers, who often equate order with silence.

District spokeswoman Mary Olson said it’s often summarized like this: “Teachers have gone from being the sage on the stage to the guide on the side.”

Part of letting students speak and talk out problems is for teachers to resist the urge to chime in during awkward pauses. “It’s what we call a productive struggle,” Lundgren said. “You’ve got to let the students work through things on their own.”

4. Have teachers compare their work.

Teachers who handle the same subject see their classes’ test scores compared to their colleagues’. That includes quizzes, unit tests and final exams. That side-by-side analysis and discussion helps teachers ­figure out what’s working and what’s not.

“That’s been very private in the past,” Ziegler said.

Teachers kept their student scores private out of fear of judgment or negative consequences. Now they meet regularly to discuss their results. Lundgren helps teachers analyze the data in what is known as “professional learning communities.”

“We also encourage teachers to approach their courses as a team, collaboratively working and planning for the best instruction possible,” Ziegler said.

5. Make tests count.

For generations, teachers everywhere tallied course grades based on a mix of test scores, homework and class participation. Oftentimes, that formula made it possible for students to fumble on every test but still pass without a real understanding of the subject.

“It lets them squeak by,” Lundgren said.

With the advent of standardized testing, teachers and administrators realize “A for effort” is really a disservice to children. Now most courses weigh tests heavily, often counting 70 to 85 percent of the course grade.

Teachers still expect class participation and assign homework, but it’s viewed more as practice where children can make mistakes and learn without it always going into the gradebook.

It’s a transition for kids, too. “They are so extremely motivated by that grade,” Ziegler said.

Giving tests more weight also provides critical feedback for teachers, students and parents.

“This provides parents with more detailed information on how their students are doing in the class,” Ziegler said. “The conversation can change from ‘the student may not be a good test taker’ to ‘your child didn’t master learning target three and this is how we can help.’ We also try to identify whether a student lacks academic knowledge or lacks support and motivation, so we can help.”

Cautiously optimistic

Ziegler stressed that there’s no magic formula and that dramatic gains made in one subject one year with one group of students can slide the next with a new group of kids.

Ziegler said the goal is to promote best classroom practices and maintain long-term gains.

“Individual teachers have done these practices on their own for decades. Now the school is trying to help teachers use these more systematically,” Lundgren said.

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804







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