Alexandria Commentary: Improving Academic Achievement

Alexandria Commentary: Improving Academic Achievement

Academic achievement is not accidental but rather the result of a sustained focus on rigor, relevance, engagement and coherence. At its best, academic achievement reflects a relentless determination to reach and teach all students. Sustained achievement results are typically rooted in three key areas.

There has to be coherence between WHAT is taught, meaning the curriculum; HOW it is taught and assessed, meaning instructional approaches and strategies, and ways of demonstrating understanding; and WHY, which is relevance to real life application. In absence of coherence, many students simply work to receive passing grades while others may disconnect from school altogether.

We continue to show progress in a number of academic areas. For example, we have recently received national College Board recognition as 1 of 6 Virginia school divisions with an increased number of students across various racial and ethnic groups taking and passing Advanced Placement exams.

However, we can see the challenges when we look at the summative performance of our schools and division priority data. Fifteen of 16 schools are accredited, but four of them are accredited with warning in one or more of the four core areas of instruction-reading, math, science and social studies. Black males are suspended at rates disproportionately higher than other student racial groups.

Our federally defined gap group data points to underachievement for students with disabilities and those eligible for free or reduced lunch. Clearly we can and need to do better. In response, we have begun exploring and skillfully applying the following characteristics of high performing schools (based on Washington State’s Nine Characteristics High Performing Schools 2007, second edition) including the requisite strategic actions needed to integrate them into the fabric of our school division, school house and classrooms.

Clear Focus: everyone knows what we are doing, how to do it, and why.

Expectations for All Students: belief that every student can learn.

Strong Instruction Program: rising achievement of all students.

Effective School Leadership: nurture an instructional program and school culture.

Collaboration and Communication: strong teamwork among teachers, staff and parents.

Alignment with State: staff understands the role of state SOL assessments.

Frequent Monitoring: different assessments identifying students who need help and assigning intervention, and students who require increased challenge.

Ongoing System of Staff Training: training staff in areas of most need and ongoing differentiated support.

Supportive Learning Environment: school is a safe, clean, welcoming and intellectually stimulating learning environment.

High Levels of Family and Community Involvement: sense that all have a responsibility to educate students and support the success of students academically and socially.

While on the surface, these 10 characteristics look fairly straightforward, their alignment can be quite complicated. Any and all in isolation have merit. However, in the absence of alignment and accountability systems, an approach to each area in isolation results in a fragmented system of delivery that rarely moves school divisions like ours forward. Approaches in isolation are often referred to as random acts of improvement versus aligned acts of improvement.

Our central office departments and schools have been working to produce education plans that have a unified rather than a fragmented approach. We are moving to respond to our biggest challenges around these essential characteristics with realistic targets set for improvement. In a series of School Board work sessions this year, all principals will have the opportunity to engage the School Board in thoughtful discussions about their school level results and specific goals and actions that have been set to address student academic challenges. They have also incorporated their staff workplace survey results administered last school year in their schoolwide plans. In a recent article on the Pygmalion Effect, researchers discuss the finding that students will essentially rise to our expectations.

If we are to increase student achievement, those expectations must include strengthening relationships with students and their parents; supporting teacher growth; and student development of skills associated with rigor-critical thinking, writing, analysis, solving and application. We continue to forge forward by celebrating our successes while confronting and addressing the fact that all of our students are not achieving at high levels. As superintendent, I believe that we can and will do better. Together, we will work to make Alexandria City Public Schools a high performing school division.