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November 14, 2005

Evaluation of the SLC Project at West High School

Here is the full text of SLC Evaluator Bruce King's recent report on the plan to implement a common English 10 course at West HS.

Evaluation of the SLC Project at West High School
The 10th Grade English Course

M.Bruce King, Project Evaluator

2 November 2005

The development and implementation of the common 10th grade English course is a significant initiative for two related reasons. First, the course is central to providing instruction in the core content areas within each of the four small learning communities in grade 10, as outlined in the SLC grant proposal. And second, the course represents a major change from the elective course system for 10th graders that has been in existence at West for many years. Given the importance of this effort, we want to understand what members of the English Department thought of the work to date.

Seven** English Department faculty members participated in individual interviews on October 17 and 24, 2005. Each of them was asked to discuss the following general issues:

1. The process for developing the 10th grade course and your involvement in that process.
2. Your perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of the course.
3. Extent of support for the course at any of these levels -- you, English Department, West faculty, administration, students, parents.
4. Other related issues or concerns.

The remainder of this report will address these teachers' views on the context and process for the course's development, the quality of the course, and suggestions for next steps. I will concentrate on dominant trends, that is, viewpoints and perspectives that were voiced by at least some of the teachers. Others may have disagreed or simply not commented on these dominant trends, but for the sake of (hopefully) being concise and maintaining confidentiality, my purpose does not include documenting each teacher's beliefs on all the issues discussed. I'll conclude with a few recommendations based on teachers' perspectives as well as my understanding of goals of the grant and related literature.

The Context for Course Development

Based on the interviews, it is clear that something needed to be done with the existing system for 10th grade English. The overarching concern for these teachers was that the elective course structure, while extremely positive in many respects, was a contributing factor to vastly unequal educational opportunities across different student groups. Certain elective courses were considered rigorous, challenging, and geared only for high achievers while others were thought to be remedial, uninspiring, and for low achievers. Student self-selection, as well as students being placed in or "encouraged" to take certain courses, has led to de facto ability-group tracking in English. The fact that high and low achieving student groups correspond to different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds was very significant for many of these teachers.

Why is this situation a problem? Most teachers echoed concerns arising from research (1) on tracking in diverse, comprehensive high schools. There is high variation across the different courses in expectations for learning, teaching quality, school climate, and course-taking patterns. Students of color and low SES students are more likely than their peers to be enrolled in courses with low levels of opportunity for academic success. Teachers were concerned that after 9th grade, some students could and did complete English credits without taking a literature course. Additional concerns with the existing system that were voiced by some of the teachers included the increased workload for preparation and grading that came along with teaching different courses, and the current writing courses that consisted of curriculum divorced from other important English content. It was noted that these concerns were sources of some ongoing discussion and conflict within the department.

The whole issue of a common 10th grade English course seems to have heightened the level of divisiveness within the department. Teachers reported that the department was split, with many wanting to revise the elective system and others pressing for the single common 10th grade course. The decision to go with the common course was an administrative one, which was seen as a positive move by a number of teachers interviewed. That is, they appreciated the principal taking a stand on a significant curriculum issue, especially one that had been contentious within the department itself and that would likely be among parent groups.

After the decision was made, many of those who were previously in favor of revising the elective system were willing to go with the common course and, to the extent possible, contributed to the development of the course over the summer. However, some of those initially in favor of the course opted out of its development due in part to the hostility they perceived from those in different camps. Thus, who was involved in the course development and who was not has now become another point of tension. At the process level, some have felt personally attacked and others frustrated that their views were not being considered or by the lack of support from departmental colleagues.

A working group formulated the curriculum for the course over a few days in August. Many of those involved reported that this was a valuable experience, with critical and respectful professional dialogue that constructively dealt with areas of disagreement. Teachers' perspectives on the quality of the course that was designed by the group in August is considered next.

Course Quality

While acknowledging that the new 10th grade English course will not be a cure-all, the vast majority of teachers believed that its design represents a relatively strong course that will likely benefit all students. Aspects of the course that teachers highlighted included:

---"Best of the best" of the elective courses. The course will provide a solid year of literature that will serve as a common foundation for further (elective) course work in English. The readings and themes should appeal to students of different ability levels and different backgrounds. Writing will be emphasized throughout the year and be tied directly to themes and literature.

--- Choice. Many teachers believed that one of the strongest components of the elective system was student choice. 10th grade English will maintain some choice with classes selecting the theme of "justice" or "identity" for study.

--- Mixed groups of students. All students will get a common challenging curriculum that some students, under the elective system, would otherwise miss. Differences in opportunity to learn will thereby be reduced. Teachers understood that equality in education does not require that all students have the same learning experiences and endorsed the next two points.

--- Honors component. Any student can opt for additional readings and assignments to achieve honors designation. These students will meet twice per week during lunch. Some teachers felt that high-end students will feel extremely challenged.

--- Help for struggling students. Opportunities for skill enrichment and for accommodations or adaptations in materials or assignments will be available twice per week during lunch. Teachers were optimistic that two years of a solid foundation in English at the 9th and 10th grade levels will encourage these students to take more challenging electives as 11th and 12th graders.

--- Year-long course. Continuity between students and teachers will help both social relationships and academic achievement.

A number of concerns with the course were also expressed. The main ones included the following:

--- Differentiation. Common courses with heterogeneously grouped students require considerable knowledge and skill on the teachers' part to provide appropriate learning experience to students. Teachers will need support to do this.

--- Regrouping. Some were concerned that the lunch hour components for honors and struggling students would group students by ability, something the course was supposed to end. A related concern was whether these opportunities would shift the responsibility away from teachers to appropriately differentiate within the classroom, leading to actual implementation of a one-size-fits-all course.

--- Choice of themes. As with the elective system, choice can lead to unequal opportunities to learn. The different themes must be taught in a rigorous manner so they are not associated with different levels of challenge or considered appropriate for certain groups of students.

--- Coherence and goals of the course. Most teachers endorsed the themes and works of literature that will be included in the course. However, questions were raised about the overall purposes and learning goals of the course.

Next Steps

As teachers reflected on the process for course development, the quality of the course, and level of support for it, they either stated directly or strongly implied a desire for particular efforts in the near term. I'll summarize here their shared points of view for next steps.

Collegiality within the English Department needs to improve. The divisiveness over the course itself and the personal nature of some confrontations should be addressed. Some teachers were hopeful and some were doubtful that relations can be rebuilt or improved.

Ongoing critical reflection and analysis of both the 9th and 10th grade English courses are needed. This analysis should address different but interrelated concerns:

1) The failure rate for 9th grade English, and which students are failing. It is not clear if a common 9th grade course has helped close the achievement gap.

2) Continuous improvement and revision of course curriculum. This activity not only addresses topics and readings (e.g., how much Shakespeare? are non-white authors sufficiently represented?), but also should consider what the "enduring" understandings, skills, and themes are that are targeted for student learning and how to get there. It was noted that the typical conversations around curriculum rarely get to these issues; they are abstract and philosophical or at the level of content coverage.

3) Monitoring the lunch hour components. Is the increased class time for students realistic? Are resources sufficient? Do the resource teachers have the skills to accommodate different students? How can we make sure the honors component does not become a mechanism to re-segregate students by ability?

Teachers of the 9th grade course and teachers of the 10th grade course need more time for collaboration to address issues of instructional quality. Specific concerns that were expressed included approaches to differentiation, increasing the challenges for critical thinking and writing, and how to best teach writing and what expectations for writing should be.


Based on the teachers perspectives, the goals of the grant, and the related literature, I offer a few reflections and suggestions for both near-term and longer term efforts. I'll first address the issue of relations within the department.

One of the major fault lines within the department seems to be between those who are most concerned with academic rigor and those who are most concerned with the students who are struggling. There is common ground here that might be pursued further. The literature on SLC's and school reform draws attention to the connection between excellence through rigorous learning experiences for all students and equity. Successful small learning communities have students actively investigate topics and produce authentic demonstrations of their knowledge through exhibitions or performances. Learning experiences require students to acquire and critically analyze information; develop, test, and defend conclusions; and demonstrate in-depth understanding. Research shows that when students are involved in this kind of intellectually challenging work, student effort and engagement is increased, and classroom practice is linked to improved and more equitable student achievement (2).

These considerations push the substantive focus of discussions beyond curriculum and into approaches to instruction and learning expectations. At the process level, in order to rebuild collegiality and cultivate common ground, some definitive norms for meetings, such as setting and sticking to agendas and no personal attacks, need to be established.

In high schools where the vast majority of students achieve academically, there are organizational patterns that promote community and sustained, collaborative activities that promote learning across student groups (3). Rather than a department-wide focus, perhaps a more modest but accessible goal in the near-term would be to concentrate on smaller groups of grade-level teams and interdisciplinary Core teams for the development of professional communities. To further collective responsibility, all department teachers should probably be on one of these teams (4).

The department's work on the 10th grade English course is to be commended. Teachers recognized that the unequal learning opportunities that the existing elective system created across different student groups had to be addressed. As was noted, the 10th grade course will not be a cure-all or a magic bullet, and teachers were spot-on in terms of the ongoing analysis that needs to take place. Could the elective system have been revised to address the problem of unequal learning opportunities? Perhaps. Increasing options for juniors and seniors seems reasonable, and as interviews suggested, the common English courses will hopefully encourage all students to take more challenging electives as 11th and 12th graders. But excellence and equity is enhanced by high levels of academic press (or expectations) through a narrow (as opposed to broad, comprehensive) curriculum (5). A common, heterogeneously grouped course is consistent with the implementation of Small Learning Communities.

The course developers have rightly emphasized differentiated assignments, but the extent to which this will consistently be put into practice remains to be seen. A red flag was, I think, appropriately raised about re-grouping of students by ability (consider how special education students might be encouraged, and assignments adapted, to achieve honors designation; will they?). I'll also point out that students will be regrouped across SLC's, rather than structuring these efforts by SLC where students are supposed to be better connected and their learning needs better understood. Hopefully, implementation will be consistent with the relevant literature for SLC's, "The necessity of school level detracking does not rule out the practice of grouping within SLC on an ad hoc and fluid basis (6)."

How can high quality implementation be promoted? Teachers' workloads should also be balanced. In addition, an action research group might be formed to evaluate the 9th grade course, including levels of expectations and differentiation, failure rates by student groups, and the extent to which it has helped or hindered students to take challenging English courses in subsequent years. Apparently it hasn't helped some groups of students that much. Why? What needs to be changed so it does and so the 10th grade course does as well?

Common time to meet, as separate 9th and 10th grade English teams, seems to be critical for generating collaboration on and collective responsibility on their respective courses. Professional development and other forms of support for differentiation should be available to address identified needs. Facilitation for constructive professional dialogue focused on the issues teachers raised above (learning goals and expectations, enduring understandings, teaching writing, etc.) is crucial. Integrating these discussions with the work of grade-level Core teams may help to foster and support SLC's interdisciplinary efforts, including perhaps a thematic or problem-based approach that is integrated across different subject areas (7). And if this looks somewhat different across SLC's, that can be positive as long as high academic expectations for all students are maintained (8).

Clearly, the work around the 10th grade English course has been extremely difficult, with both personal and collective trade-offs, in addition to utterly hurtful confrontations. And there is more to do. But, to the extent the interviewed teachers are representative of the department as a whole, there is a spirit and desire to collaboratively confront issues of curriculum, teaching, and learning -- as well as equity and excellence -- in a professional, respectful way. To move toward building professional community among teachers can only be beneficial for further implementation of the small learning communities.

** the West English Department currently has 17 faculty members

1 -- Murphy, J., et al. (2001). The productive high school: Creating personalized academic communities. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

2 - Oxley, D. (2004). Small learning communities: Implementing and deepening practice. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. Also Resnick, L.B., et al. (2003). The principles of learning: Study tools for educators. Pittsburgh, PA: Institute for Learning. The Principles of Learning emphasize an effort-based system instead of intelligence or ability-based system. "An effort-based school replaces the assumption that aptitude determines what and how much students learn with the assumption that sustained and directed effort can yield high achievement for all students. Everything is organized to evoke and support this effort, to send the message that effort is expected and that tough problems yield to sustained work. High minimum standards are set and assessments are geared to the standards. All students are taught a rigorous curriculum, matched to the standards, along with as much time and expert instruction as they need to meet or exceed expectations."

3 -- Murphy et al.

4 -- To the extent that any individual teachers teach only elective classes, they are not part of collaborative efforts focused on specific courses for diverse students.

5 -- Lee, V. E. (with Smith, J. B.) (2001). Restructuring high school for equity and excellence: What works. New York: Teachers College Press.

6 - Oxley, p. 72

7 - Research related to SLC's suggests that teacher collaboration can "expand teachers' knowledge of student learning needs and the means to increase the consistency of students' educational experiences," and that "academic department goals must support SLC's interdisciplinary teamwork." Oxley, p. 61, 69

8 - Small learning community research and practice indicate that SLC's with a unique focus or mission can be productive, Success then depends on choice and a shared commitment to the mission. See Oxley

Posted by Jeff Henriques at November 14, 2005 10:41 PM
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