Ten to Teen: Eliminating the D - 2

by Tracey Severns
Principal, March/April 2012

Frustrated by a rising tide of complacency that seemed to have washed over our students, resulting in steadily increasing levels of course failure at the secondary level, our board of education decided to embark on a bold course intended to refocus student effort and raise student achievement. Recognizing that 65 percent of anything would not be considered sufficient by prospective employers, our superintendent introduced a plan to better prepare students for the rigors of the global marketplace. In order to pass and to be considered proficient, students would have to work harder and learn at higher levels or fail, which would result in remediation and opportunities to try again. This simple idea—to raise the passing benchmark from 65 percent to 70 percent— required a clear and compelling mission and a well-articulated plan to implement the vision.

Once the board of education endorsed the superintendent’s plan, I adopted a mission to increase student achievement and reduce course failure while maintaining rigorous standards at my middle school. My first challenge was to dispel the notion that students had the “right to fail.” Previously, teachers believed that it was their job to teach and the students’ responsibility to learn. This belief needed to be replaced by an uncompromising commitment to student success. Informed and inspired by Alan Blankstein’s text, I challenged the faculty to consider what we could accomplish, and to imagine what kind of school we could become if we decided that “Failure Is Not an Option.” I invited those who had the conviction to create such a school to join our new Whatever It Takes committee and to help lead efforts to improve the school’s quality and character.

With the support of a growing number of faculty members, we communicated our mission to parents, students, and community members countless times and in various venues. We emphasized the messaging during every parent meeting and student assembly and in every community correspondence. Teachers revisited the mission during every professional learning community meeting, put it at the top of every SMART goal, and reviewed it at every faculty meeting. Through a steady stream of oral, written, and electronic communications, everyone knew our charge and understood that success was the only option.

Mission Possible
To achieve our goal, we needed a plan. First, I sought to determine the factors that most significantly influenced course failures. My research suggested that students seemed to fail due to one or a combination of three factors— attitude (students who were able but not willing), ability (students who were willing but unable), and attendance (students who didn’t come to school). We created a plan specifically designed to address each contributing factor and communicated it to parents, students, and teachers by posting it on the website and distributing it to all constituencies.

For “willing but unable” students, we strengthened our response to intervention program and created a greatly expanded pyramid of support, which includes homework club, daily afterschool tutoring by certified teachers, peer tutoring, mentoring, and a program that celebrates improvement. For “able but unwilling” students, we made the completion of daily assignment and strong performance on assessments matter by removing students from their fun classes (i.e., home economics, shop, and computer graphics) and placing them in a mastery skills class. We also took students out of their social time during lunch and assigned them to an academic support class. Students who submit their work and pass their classes are allowed to rejoin their friends and former classes at the end of each reporting period.

For very reluctant learners, the student, parents, guidance counselor, and principal meet to develop an individualized contract for success, designed to help the student succeed by articulating explicit responsibilities for teachers, the parent, and the student. For students who don’t come to school, we shortened the timelines that result in administrative action, require parents and students to participate in attendance conferences that culminate in an attendance action plan, and use a system of incentives and consequences to encourage students to report to school daily and on time. For the most serious cases, we file truancy charges and take the parents to court. For all students, we raised the stakes by requiring students who do not pass their major core classes (math, science, language arts, social studies) to complete the course during summer school in order to move up to the next grade. Eighth graders who do not pass their courses are not permitted to participate in the promotion ceremony and graduation activities.

Improved Achievement
Students of all ability levels benefited from the two changes that most significantly support improved student achievement. First, we upgraded our student database to include an automated system that immediately informs parents of every grade a child earns that is less than 70 percent. These “e-alerts” allow parents to monitor their child’s performance and address missing assignments and low test grades. Parents and students receive passwords and training that allow them to review the data in each teacher’s electronic grade book at any time. Second, all students have an opportunity to submit missed homework assignments the next day for partial credit and receive up to three days to retake a failed assessment for a maximum score of 70 percent. Teachers initially did not like this idea, but they came to see the benefit of providing students with multiple opportunities to learn and to demonstrate their achievement. They accepted the philosophy that because we want students to learn and the assignments are worthy, then we shouldn’t accept zeros or walk away from students who didn’t learn.

These interventions far exceeded our expectations. In a comparison of students’ grades from 2009–2010 to 2010–2011, the number of grades below 70 percent dropped 81 percent in sixth grade, 54 percent in seventh grade, and 45 percent in eighth grade. Overall, the total number of grades below 70 percent earned throughout 2010–2011 by the entire population of 1,134 students plummeted from 2,132 to 863—a remarkable decrease of 59.5 percent. A cohort analysis reveals similarly impressive results. The number of grades below 70 percent earned by sixth graders who moved to seventh grade declined by one third and the number of grades below 70 percent earned by seventh graders who moved to eighth grade decreased by 42 percent.

While we predicted the decrease in failing grades, we did not anticipate the startling increase in the number of students who earned honor roll and high honor roll. The honor roll list for students who moved from sixth grade to seventh grade increased by 49 percent and by 24 percent for students who moved from seventh grade to eighth grade. The number of students who earned honor roll or high honor roll grew each quarter for each grade level.

Of all the results achieved by the change in the passing benchmark and our decision to do whatever it takes to help students succeed, the one that is most meaningful to me is the reduction in the number of students who failed a major core course for the school year. In a year-to-year comparison, the number of sixth graders who failed a major subject fell from 66 to 1, the number of seventh graders decreased from 71 to 22, and the number of eighth graders declined from 70 to 16. Together, this represents an unprecedented decrease of 81 percent, from 207 students to 39. Failure is no longer an option.

Tracey Severns is principal of Mount Olive Middle School in Budd Lake, New Jersey.

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