MUST READ: Grade Expectations
To judge by its demographics, Brockton High School looks like lots of urban high schools that have failure written all over them. The sprawling complex is the largest public school in Massachusetts, with more than 4,100 students navigating its maze of hallways. Nearly 70 percent of them, more than twice the statewide average, come from low-income homes, and two-thirds are black or Hispanic, the two groups that sit at the lower end of the achievement gap. One-third of the school’s students don’t speak English as their first language, also more than double the statewide average.
All too often those indicators point to dismal student achievement levels, and that was certainly true at Brockton High School in the late 1990s. Nearly half its students were failing the English portion of the state’s high-stakes MCAS exam and 75 percent were failing math. That’s when Sue Szachowicz and a handful of her colleagues, alarmed by the prospect of thousands of Brockton students being denied diplomas when the MCAS exam’s high-stakes graduation requirement took effect in 2003, began a highly focused effort to turn things around. The results have been extraordinary, with the school now tracking the statewide average for MCAS in English, and recording among the largest achievement gains of any school in Massachusetts.
Szachowicz:So what does literacy and reading mean? It means that you know how to do pre-reading and use vocabulary and read for content and generate a response to what you’ve read. What does writing literacy mean? It means that you can also generate a response to what you’ve read, viewed, or heard. You can write an open response. You can debate an issue. You can compare and contrast. In speaking, it means you speak in complete sentences. We drafted these skills. Every one of them has a set of definitions. We wanted every teacher that looked at them to say, “Yes, a kid ought to be able to do that in my class.”
So, starting in the 2000-2001 school year, we tackled writing first. We felt out of all of them, that was the key to a kid’s success. Test-wise, writing was over 50 percent of the MCAS test. But, as I said, we had learned our lesson—it wasn’t just about test prep because we failed at that one. But writing is thinking, so if we could get our students writing differently, they were going to be thinking well and they were going to be reading more intensely. So we trained every teacher in the school on a format of writing instruction.
SZACHOWICZ: I picked up the phone, and he said, “Szachowicz, Commissioner [David] Driscoll here.” At which point my heart sank like you wouldn’t believe. I had a knot in my stomach that was beyond measurement. Front page of the Globe. A scandal, whatever it is. And he said, “What did you do down there anyway? You are the most improved school in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.” I don’t think I could speak for five seconds – which is a miracle. And he said, “I’m coming to Brockton High to tell everybody.”
Szachowicz: The evaluation instrument is contractual. And it’s horrible. It’s just check boxes. It’s broken. However, we’re pretty good here about saying, what can we control and what can’t we control, and what do we have that we can use differently? Well, beside the check boxes it says, “comments.” So we had an opportunity. I called Research for Better Teaching [an Acton-based consulting organization run by noted education leader Jon Saphier, which specializes in teacher development and teacher evaluation] and said we need some help, but you can’t change our instrument. They helped us use it much better and that has changed all of the evaluations. We train every new administrator in how to do this and it’s now a pretty powerful evaluation tool.
And we’re looking at work from one class and we said, “Look at the results Ms. Nelson is getting. Geez. How come her kids are getting this and this and others are not?” We started pairing teachers up, so that if you’re getting really high level writing in your class and I’m teaching the same group of kids and I’m not, we put the two teachers together—not to beat anybody up, but to say, what do you notice about the work produced here?