GAINESVILLE, N.Y. — More than a dozen third-graders were doing squats on a snowy Monday morning, followed by punches and push-ups, but they weren’t in gym class — this was math.
They counted in unison by threes, then by fours, fives and sixes to the tune of “Oh My Darling Clementine.”
“On Thursday we’re going to learn sevens,” announced Lockwood elementary teacher Ashley Cummings as the children caught their breath. The room erupted in cheers. “Yay! Sevens!”
This isn’t a scene you would have encountered a few years ago in this small rural school in upstate New York. Lockwood has been buffeted by many of the same educational sea changes as other New York schools over the past decade. A new math curriculum would start out with promise but end with confusion. Test scores would tick up, only to plunge the following year.
But something remarkable happened last spring. The close-knit school located across from a potato field in Wyoming County was one of a dozen in the state to go from floundering on state tests in 2012 to scoring better than most on the more difficult exams administered in 2014. They did it, in part, by ignoring Albany and the dictates of the state education department.
By all appearances, the school hasn’t changed much. The same principal has guided it for over a decade. Very few teachers leave; teacher turnover in 2012 was 5 percent. Enrollment has held steady at around 350 students; they are mostly working class and white.
So if they didn’t fire half the teachers, toss the principal or become a charter, how did this previously unexceptional school crack a code that most districts across the nation are struggling to decipher?
“We went rogue,” said Letchworth superintendent Julia Reed.
New York, like most states, has been engaged since 2011 in a mad rush to prepare for the new, more rigorous academic standards known as the Common Core. With fundamental changes to education coming, thousands of teachers in New York needed training. Reed credits the state with a Herculean effort, but when she read through what Albany was requiring of schools, she pulled hers out of the state’s preparation process in 2011.
“They had five people training upwards of 45 districts — and those five people still had their own jobs to do,” explained Reed. “They couldn’t possibly train people fast enough … the result was that some teachers never got the training.”
Reed has close to 30 years of experience in the system and that’s part of what steeled her to the pressure she got from some state education department staff after she decided not join the regular plan, she said. Reed had taught for a decade, served as principal of Lockwood for close to five years, and then spent 11 years as district curriculum director before becoming superintendent two years ago. Those years, she said, taught her what it took to make large-scale changes in a school.
She became her schools’ own trainer, spending 50 days in Albany over the 2011-12 school year at the Common Core training sessions. “I should have bought property up there,” she said dryly. She also brought her principals and teachers with her, sometimes for several days at a time.
“That way the teachers weren’t getting the training third hand,” Reed said. “We are talking about a huge change in the way teachers teach.”
The district’s early jump, along with direct access to Common Core materials, was crucial to students’ progress, school staff members say.
And progress was evident. In the spring of 2014, 65 percent of Lockwood students were deemed proficient in the state math exams, up from 40 percent the year before, and considerably higher than the statewide average of 36%. Also that spring, 51 percent passed English with proficiency, a jump from 25 percent the previous year, and 20 percentage points above the 31% statewide average.
Testing experts and school administrators caution that the big increases are slightly deceptive because the school only goes to fourth grade: With only two testing grades and small numbers of students, small changes look bigger, they say. In addition, in 2013, a cohort of students weak in English graduated to the middle school, which helped Lockwood’s gains in 2014.
School officials say they had much work to do, given the subpar performance that had plagued the school for years. Only 32 percent of third-graders were proficient in state English exams in 2013. A year later, as fourth-graders, they registered a jump to 47%. In math, the weak group also made improvements in fifth grade.
These kinds of increases, after years of stagnation and decline, “are nothing to sneeze at,” said Aaron Pallas, professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. “If a school is doing well on these exams, and they’re not cheating, I think you can say they’re doing something right. That wouldn’t have been true about the previous tests. They are less predictable.”
Lockwood teachers also say, notably, that they did less testing last year during the school year than in any year in recent memory and basically no test prep in advance of the state exams. Many New York schools, desperate to show improvement on state exams, have devoted weeks, even months, of the school year to test prep. Saturday academies, after-school tutoring and in-class lessons have been devoted to taking practice exams and learning test-taking strategies.
“Last year we put the least amount of emphasis on the tests than we ever had,” said Billy Bean, Lockwood’s principal since 2001, who also taught at the school for nine years.
“There is no research that says test prep works, so, no, we didn’t do any,” said Reed. “There are a lot of publishing companies making a lot of money on having kids take test after test, and it’s not new instruction so it’s not doing anything.”
School staff said there was something deep that needed to be overcome as the changes progressed: frustration bred by years of substandard performance.
“We had tried everything,” said Bean. “Every time a new curriculum came out, we tried it. Nothing worked.”
Lockwood’s path from struggling to some success was not smooth, nor was it easy. There were battles lasting several years, not the least of which were conflicts that had to be addressed among the adults in the district.
Lockwood, like many New York schools, had been fighting for several years to stay afloat in turbulent waters. As political interest in education intensified in the past decade, districts repeatedly re-organized and attempted — and then scrapped — school turnaround strategies. Teachers submitted to an unforgiving evaluation system tied to tests that seemed to change emphasis every year. Last year, throughout the state, many teachers and parents went into full revolt after the Common Core exams were ushered in and startlingly lower scores were posted. Parents boycotted tests, principals went public with their opposition and teachers were openly demoralized.
“I’ll be honest,” said third grade teacher Traci Krist, who has been a Lockwood teacher for 18 years and whose son attended the school. “When I saw all of this I said oh no, not again, we’re not doing this.”
It wasn’t just that the new standards were the latest of so many changes; it was also that they were asking students to perform tasks often taught in later grades.
Teachers had long struggled to explain some of the more complex math concepts, as well as critical thinking skills, to Lockwood students, some of whom were dealing with economic hardships and domestic upheaval.
The students are relatively homogenous, about 97 percent white with extremely few English language learners and about 12 percent with learning disabilities. Some parents work at the large factory farms that dominate the area. Others work at a nearby hospital, the Morton’s salt plant or at a collection agency about an hour north. There are also skilled electricians and plumbers who form a stable working class core at the school.
But there is also a lot of poverty. The median income in Gainesville, where Lockwood is located, is less than $23,000. Persistent hardship in the area has left drug addiction and broken families in its wake and more than 40 percent of Lockwood students qualify for free or reduced lunch. There are students being given up for adoption by single fathers too overwhelmed or unwilling to cope. Some children are in foster homes after their mothers landed in jail or the adults in the household fell victim to substance abuse.
Some of these problems spill into the school day. Bean huddled in his office one afternoon recently with a petrified looking child who had “joked” about bringing a gun to school. But most, including those struggling with trauma at home, were intently engaged during classes, on a cold November afternoon.
Aware of the social issues weighing on many students, and worn down by failures in the past, teachers said when they weren’t convinced they could make headway in 2011 when they were presented with the new, more advanced material.
“We were just shaking our heads, like, how are we supposed to do this?” said Tyler King, who attended Letchworth schools and is now in his fifth year as a third-grade teacher. “When we first saw the [curriculum], we were just like, no way.”
“The concepts were a lot greater than we gave our kids credit for,” Krist added. “We didn’t expect our kids to be able to do a lot of these things. I think we underestimated them.”
And it wasn’t just the teachers who balked at the latest educational fix-it proposal.
“We had to change the culture of the way we think and look at things, including principals,” said Bean, as he sat in a room with Superintendent Reed. “Did we kick a little bit and scream a little?”
“A little?” Reed interjected.
“OK, so we did,” acknowledged Bean, who in his spare time plays in a punk rock band. “But there was nowhere to go but up.”
“There was a year of anger, anger at me,” from teachers in 2011 and 2012, said Bean, “It’s hard, listening and learning. It’s such a radical change from what they’d done in the past … But if you see kids learning, and having success, it really makes you keep going.”
The staff had begun the process of change early. In 2010, Reed had attended a national standards conference in Chicago and had become convinced that, like it or not, the Common Core was coming. She liked what she thought was a more in-depth approach to learning that would challenge students to comprehend instead of just memorize.
By the fall of 2011, there were no text books or curriculum written to guide instruction, but Reed and Bean began pushing the staff to compare the new standards to what they were actually doing and adjusting their lessons. There were big gaps, and the teachers spent time during that year trying to write lessons that incorporated the standards, which called for more critical thinking and problem solving skills.
New York State, unlike any other in the country, hired companies to write a curriculum that incorporated the beefed-up Common Core standards. The curriculum — or “modules” — rolled out unevenly; two different companies, for example, were hired to write the English curriculum. But Lockwood tried out pieces of it in the fall of 2012 and spring of 2013. (The state doesn’t require curriculum to be taught, just requires kids to take tests that are Common Core aligned, and holds schools responsible for performance.) When the full curriculum was finally available in the fall of 2013, Lockwood teachers were well acquainted with the standards and even some of the lessons, and the school had paid for five days in the summer for the teachers to plan.
That’s where the other big change came in: The teachers planned together.
“There’s no competition, it’s a total sharing environment,” said Krist. “This is my 23rd, 24th year in education. I’ve never felt the sense of sharing and community as I’ve felt with this team.”
At that point, in the fall of 2013, there were full math and English curricula recommended by New York State, but teachers still had to create PowerPoint presentations, slides and hand-outs that they would use in the lessons.
The third-grade teachers in particular not only planned lessons together, they shared the load. The lessons were completely new, and it took time for the teachers to understand the new way they were being required to teach math. They planned to use technology, projecting parts of the lessons onto Smartboards, or large computer screens, which were time-consuming to create. So they divided up the lesson planning.
“What’s worked well for us is the whole teamwork thing, realizing that we can’t do it by ourselves and it’s ridiculous to think we can,” said King. “We show no shame in letting each other know when we fail.”
In addition, the school decided to group children by ability for 30 minutes daily in both math and English across the grade. That allowed some children to catch up, and a deeper dive for others even as they all learned the same basic material together. The change meant that for an hour each day, teachers left their classes and took a group of students that could number between 3 and 15, who were at a similar learning ability for that subject. As a result, the lessons, and the assessment of the children, had to be in lock-step. The strongest and weakest teachers worked as a team, and often met at the end of the day to discuss which lessons worked and which didn’t. They also kept track of the progress of individual students using “exit tickets” or short assessments on tablets at the end of each class.
Questions about whether the job they were doing could be done within the work hours prescribed by the teachers union contract elicited universal snorts and guffaws. “That wasn’t you I was texting about a lesson on Friday night, was it?” Cummings joked to another teacher.
In addition to the daily planning teachers did together during their off periods and lunch, the school set aside more training days than most others in the state. Letchworth has seven Superintendent’s Conference Days throughout the school year, dedicated to professional development. Neighboring districts have fewer than that, such as Perry and Warsaw, which have three, and Attica, which has five, said Julie Pernesky, director of curriculum for the approximately 1,000-student Letchworth school district, which includes Lockwood as its only elementary school.
When the curriculum that New York State chose finally did get delivered in 2013, the manual was hundreds of pages long, with a script that had minute-by-minute directions for how teachers should teach.
“I asked them just to follow the lesson, just to give it a try,” said Bean.
There were problems.
The lessons were meant for 45 minutes, but teachers found they were spending more than twice the time trying to get through them. Students surprised them in their ability to grasp more complex concepts, but not everything in the prescribed curriculum worked. For example, some math concepts needed more time for children to fully understand, so the teachers added problem sets and lessons.
After a full trial run, Bean loosened the reins.
“Many principals make teachers stick to the scripts,” said Krist. “Mr. Bean listened when we said, this isn’t working.”
“We said ‘we’re absolutely not teaching that book this year, let’s replace it,’ and we did,” added Cummings.
They also stopped using the homework that came along with the state-approved curriculum, which was usually just a repeat of the day’s lesson. “If they couldn’t do it in class, there’s no use having them get frustrated at home,” said Krist. For the students who did understand, teachers didn’t see the value in having them simply repeat the exercise. Lockwood teachers assigned their own homework.
The teachers were also keenly aware of the parents’ exasperation and distrust of the new curriculum and didn’t want that stoked. School staff spoke to the parents about the new curriculum, tried to listen to their concerns and invited parents to meetings to ask questions and get guidance.
“I had difficulty switching to it,” said Christina Sheer, 42, mom of a second-grader and kindergartener at the school and who also attended Letchworth schools. “I wanted to be able to help him, and I didn’t learn that way. As a parent, sometimes you don’t know how to answer their questions, and it’s hard.”
Flexibility allowed teachers to move students through different ability groupings and call for help as needed.
“I was allowed to be a professional,” said Eric Drumma, who has taught for 19 years at Lockwood, has two children attending the school and is also the teachers union delegate. “My colleagues communicate with me as a reading teacher, and if they need something I will find one-on-one time throughout the day, and that’s again because we’re allowed to have a flexible schedule and I can change it based on student need.”
That sense of ownership and investment was evident one November afternoon during an English lesson taught by Krist. Drumma crouched between two students who seemed on the verge of losing focus, with his arms around each one’s shoulders, almost physically bringing their attention back to what was being taught. He prowled the room, inserting himself into the small clusters of children by asking questions or just listening. Krist was teaching a fairly complex passage, straight from the Common Core curriculum, with key words like “physical environment” and “climate.” The script said to teach the entire passage as a whole, but the children were struggling so she broke it down into three parts.
It wasn’t just the Common Core
There are some changes at Lockwood, however, that administrators say cannot be linked directly to the Common Core standards. School staff members say they are as focused on academics as they are on the social and emotional needs of the kids and building a sense of community and belonging in the school.
Bean moves very quickly down the long, wide hallways of the school with kids calling out hello to him. “Happy birthday,” he says to a boy as he whizzes past. Then he slows. “You OK?” Bean asks a girl with rumpled hair and puffy eyes. “You look tired.” The girl is quiet but smiles slightly and nods. “They just moved again,” he says softly to another administrator once they are out of earshot.
The massive economic crisis that took hold after 2008 never loosened its grip on the area. Bean established a weekend food program so poor children would have healthy meals when they weren’t at school. Children who eat breakfast at school are given it at their desk so they don’t miss instructional time. And the school implemented a social-emotional curriculum in pre-kindergarten through second grade that’s part of an anti-bullying effort. “It’s basically empathy training,” said Bean. “It’s knowing when to say you’re sorry, how to read faces. You have to have the behavioral piece in place for learning to happen.”
The school also benefits in some ways from its isolation, creating a very connected community. The vast majority of teachers who have school-aged children send their kids to Lockwood and a significant number of parents themselves attended Letchworth schools. There is not a lot of mobility within the small school, which is surrounded by cornfields and is about an hour’s drive to the nearest mall.
“I don’t know how a district does anything when you have a turnover of administrators and superintendents and principals and teachers every three years,” said Reed. “It becomes less about where you’re going to go next year and more about where your kids are going to go next year.”
In addition, space is plentiful and classes are small — on average about 17 — and Lockwood enrolls just 350 students through fourth grade. As a result, the school staff has an intimate knowledge of kids and their families.
Although educators warn that test scores can never tell the whole story about a school, it is notable that economically disadvantaged students at Lockwood made even more progress on the 2014 exams than students who were not. Last spring 40 percent of Lockwood students who were eligible for free or reduced lunch passed the state English exam, up from 6 percent the year before. In math, 54 percent passed, an increase from 27 percent the year before.
Lockwood staff says the children’s progress came down to what happened in the classroom and the extraordinary preparation and teamwork by the teachers before they even opened their doors.
As a massive snow storm that would bury nearby Buffalo under five feet of snow the following day gathered north of Letchworth, King told his principal, “Billy, we can’t have snow days yet. I’ll pick everybody up.”
“Yeah,” Krist agreed. “We have stuff to do.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education.
Correction: This story has been updated to correctly spell Ashley Cummings.
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