Chartering and Choice as an Achievement Gap-Closing Reform Report
Effective strategies for educating African American students have a long history of discussion and debate, and those strategies are characterized differently by various educators and researchers. However, there are common themes.
CCSA visited three highly effective charter schools to identify best practices, as part of the Chartering and Choice as an Achievement Gap-Closing Reform report:
- Watts Learning Center in Los Angeles
- KIPP Bridge in Oakland
- St. HOPE Public School 7 (PS7) in Sacramento.
Observations, interviews, focus groups and school materials were assessed at the three case study schools to determine the extent to which research-based best practices were observed and what practices the three schools held in common.
Strategies Observed at Successful Schools
In each case, the schools were found to consistently use the strategies discussed in scholarly literature as effective for African American students, and all can be implemented by any public school.
1. A clear mission statement focused on academic achievement and developing students
Each of the case study schools has a clear mission statement focused on academic achievement and developing scholars.
2. Knowing, understanding and catering to students' diverse needs
These educators consistently emphasized high expectations as a central element African American students need to excel. They also expressed the importance of understanding where students come from, their environment and the things they go through. "Call and response" techniques, music, and movement were seen in some form at each school. Course materials and content incorporated diverse voices and cultures. Classes in these successful schools were interactive and engaging. Teachers explicitly connected content to the "big picture" and reiterated the usefulness of what was learned and the importance of education to students' lives. Student voice and autonomy were encouraged.
3. A standards-based curriculum focused on critical thinking skills
Academic rigor was the hallmark of these schools and classes. Each case study school had a standards-based culture that focused on lesson planning and quality instruction. Classes were not marked by basic skills instruction, but rather activities that stimulate high-order thinking and creativity. While these schools utilized direct instruction, students were highly encouraged to ask questions and engage in discussion. Students were provided with many opportunities to showcase their talents and did so freely. Learning often culminated in synthesizing projects or activities. Academic attainment was celebrated and students congratulated each other for being smart. Academics took precedence over everything.
4. Results-focused instructional practices
The school leader and teachers set goals for instruction for the year and monitored progress over the school year through data use to make sure those goals were being met. Instructors sought to fine tune their instruction according to students' needs, differentiating instruction and providing intervention. Vocabulary development was woven into many activities across all disciplines. Teachers took their time to explain concepts to students. Continual feedback was given to students and parents.
5. Curricular and instructional decisions are based on data
These schools engage in deep data analysis and make use of that data to direct their program. Each required some form of a weekly planning process that utilized weekly assessments, analysis of data, and plans for improvement. School leaders and teachers examined student performance to make decisions about student groupings, re-teaching, program allocation, remediation and professional development.
6. Explicitly teaching test taking strategies
In these schools, there was no arguing about whether or not testing is the best way to assess student knowledge. Living within the reality of testing accountability, schools specifically prepared students for the test-taking process. These schools also incorporated the CST into their school culture. They held pep rallies and celebrated CST performance.
7. School leader serves as instructional leader
Teachers saw the school leader as an instructional leader, always advising teachers and sharing best practices. The school leaders were all former teachers. These school leaders spent a lot of time in classrooms and walking the school grounds.
8. Strong school culture is explicitly built and re-enforced at the start of each school year
Strong school culture was clearly evident in these schools. High expectations abounded and translated into celebrations of student success and a strong sense of pride, pride about academic excellence. In addition to all the work taking place at these schools, there was also a lot of warmth, care and friendly interaction. Teachers displayed a positive attitude to and about students and vocalized their care for students' well-being beyond academics.
9. Parents are included as full partners in students' education
The parents were seen by the teachers and school leaders as partners in the students' education. Each school discussed unifying around the child's education and best interests as the strategy they used to engage with their parents and families.
10. All members of the school are held accountable
In addition to the many ways students and parents were held accountable, these school leaders and teachers had high standards of accountability for themselves as well.
11. Structures are intentionally put into place to help achieve the mission of the school
These educators carefully crafted their schools and thought strategically about every policy they implemented and norm they instituted. The academic schedule was designed to allow for teacher preparation and collaboration. English Language Arts and math were given more time and frontloaded to the morning. Instructional time was highly guarded. Schools had requirements for grade promotion and graduation; they did not practice social promotion. Students were expected to respect teachers and behavior systems of rewards and consequences were in place to ensure that happened. Uniforms were required at each school and that policy was enforced. These effective schools had longer school days and school years. There was regular school-to-home communication. Also, students were provided numerous extracurricular opportunities to help ensure whole-child development.
Practices Not Observed
Among the many best practices observed at these successful schoools, it is important to note specific practices that were absent:
1. Militaristic Discipline
These effective schools were not ones of militaristic, hard discipline or cultures of command and control.
2. Teaching to the test
Teachers implemented a standards-based curriculum and students and parents were taught about what the California Standards Test (CST) is and why it is important. However, they did not "teach to the test" or engage in "drill and kill" test-prep strategies. Testing was not the focus of the curriculum.
3. Superficial celebrations of culture
While these schools are implementing culturally relevant pedagogy and confirming research-based practices, they did not invest heavily in cultural celebrations or other external displays of culture - a "heroes and holidays" approach to culture making.