The Adelphi Elementary School treats each class like a three-course meal: with an “opening” appetizer, a “work period” main course, and a “closing” to end on a dessert-like high. It’s a recipe that has boosted achievement at the Maryland school.
“In our opening today we talked about different methods to solve multiplication problems,” says fourth-grade mathematics teacher Elizabeth Waxler. The work period had students compile their own illustrated workbooks from today’s lesson: multiplying two-digit numbers times four. And the closing featured a swap of workbooks so students could share their work and their insight.
“Our task is to create a math book that looks like a picture book,” beams a nine-year-old boy in Ms. Waxler’s class, who drew desktop computers to illustrate math problems about how many computers were sold at “Michael’s Computer Shop.”
The three-part approach at the elementary school is a central part of a school-improvement programme implemented at Adelphi after the school signed up five years ago to work with America’s Choice, a school improvement business that has since been consolidated under Pearson’s newly established School Achievement Services (SAS) group. SAS brings together all of Pearson’s professional development and consultative education businesses in order to better serve U.S. school districts.
Double-digit test score gains
Adelphi saw double-digit gains in test scores just a year after implementing the schoolwide improvement programme, and has retained those gains. The school in Adelphi, Maryland, has a 98% approval rating from parents based on surveys conducted by local officials, and it has become a “choice school” for students who haven’t made adequate progress at other nearby schools – because parents have seen what the school can do.
The school has notched up these achievements despite challenges posed by Adelphi’s demographics: about 60% of students are not native English speakers, with most speaking Spanish or different African languages as their native tongues; the school is located in a low-income, highly transient community including many fathers in the construction industry, so about half its students are new each year; and Adelphi now serves 620 pre-K through Grade 6 students in a facility designed for just 450 just outside Washington, D.C.
Yet one wouldn’t know there were any obstacles based on the wide smiles of Adelphi students clad in the school uniform of red polo shirts, khaki trousers and black shoes. The words adorning a big red heart hanging up above the main hallway seem to capture the school’s spirit: “It takes a big heart to shape little minds.”
Principal Jane Ennis, who came to Adelphi in 2008, credits the comprehensive perspective and instructional practices that are the cornerstones of the America’s Choice model with instilling a discipline that has allowed the school to improve. A central part of that approach was the establishment of model teachers who help train other teachers, and who meet regularly to assess lessons and techniques.
“In all we do, we take risks and allow ourselves to learn from mistakes we make in order to refine and continually improve our instructional practice,’” says Ms. Ennis. “With America’s Choice we learned new functional skills – it might be vocabulary and language development or something else – and it’s all part of the model's skill block structure. These new skills are then shared via collaboration in our leadership teams, which allows to us to distribute knowledge throughout our teaching staff.”
Pearson’s new Schoolwide Improvement Model
Principal Jane Ennis in the hallway of Adelphi Elementary School
Pearson recently introduced a new Schoolwide Improvement Model (SIM), reflecting two decades of research and experience at a number of key school improvement programmes, including America’s Choice, and currently provides schoolwide improvement services to over 160,000 students in 228 schools in 21 states.
Based in Washington, this new SAS division is part of Pearson’s strategy to move beyond educational “publishing” in the traditional sense of that word, and to also offer educational services including teacher training, technology and school systems.
Third-grade reading teacher Sharada Murali says one key benefit, for her, is that the schoolwide improvement work isn’t just for the students. “It’s also about professional development for the teachers as well,” says the native of India, who has taught at Adelphi for 12 years.
In terms of classroom techniques introduced through the model, each lesson’s closing is “the most amazing thing,” she says. “Students often present the closing themselves, and they feel they can go to the microphone and talk to everyone else.”
Adds specialist reading teacher Courtney Talmoud: “It empowers the students. Many are afraid to speak because they don’t have self confidence, but they know when they know something – and the teacher knows – and when students are told they’re going to close the class today, those kids just beam.”
At Adelphi, other programmes implemented under the model’s tutelage include the Principal’s Book of the Month, in which parents participate the first Friday of each month in their children’s lessons. There is also the 25 Books Campaign, in which students receive small plastic trophies for each 25 books they consume, and which is celebrated by parades around the school in which students dress up as their favourite characters from books (Power Rangers and ballerinas are especially popular).
“Getting parents to participate in the Principal’s Book of the Month is really important in terms of engaging the community,” says Ms. Ennis. “Some of these parents may not be fluent in the English language, but they flip the pages in a way that gets them involved and engaged with students' learning.”
Common Core’s focus on evidence
A book recently featured in one early primary grade programme was Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin, with illustrations by Harry Bliss.
Students are asked to draw a worm, and are presented questions about the book such as: “In Diary of a Worm the worm says that there are some good things about being a worm. Would you want to be a worm? Why or why not? Use evidence from the text to support your opinion.”
The command to “use evidence” to support conclusions is no accident.
Maryland is one of 47 states that have signed on to introduce the new Common Core state standards designed to standardize basic instruction in the U.S., and which is being formally implemented beginning in 2014. Evidence-based instruction is central to Common Core, so Adelphi is already emphasizing this aspect.
“We’re now always looking for evidence,” says sixth-grade teacher Myschelle Spears. “We stress that something should be ‘according to the author’ or ‘according to the evidence.’”
In pedagogy, as in cuisine, the proof is in the pudding.