When Top Students Drop: Why Even Good Schools Need to Grow

By Amy Sparks, First Published by Real Clear Education, December 15, 2015

When I was asked to be on my school’s design team for a new initiative, I had no idea what I was getting into. I heard it would help build relationships with students and the community, and improve learning, so I thought, “Cool. I’m in. That is right up my alley.” But this wasn’t any new initiative: Our school was about to be part of something huge that would affect not only the community and the students, but also the teachers.

Many schools experimenting with this “Opportunity Culture” concept of extending the reach of great teachers using new teaching models had exhausted multiple strategies to increase student achievement with their high-need populations. But our school, Francis Bradley Middle School in Huntersville, N.C., is not a high-need, Title I school. We have only about a 35 percent free and reduced-price lunch population. Our state data ranks us as meeting or exceeding growth expectations. So why did we need to change? Simple: We can always be better.

And after several rounds of data analysis, Bradley’s design team realized that while our school was perceived as doing fine—OK, at least—it was losing ground with the students in the top 20 percent. Our 2012–13 state test data showed negative growth in reading for our highest-level eighth-graders, compared with pretty good growth for our middle-level students. Clearly something was amiss.

We adapted the Multi-Classroom Leadership model to target this. What an innovative concept—put your best teachers where they can share their great teaching skills and tools with other teachers and more students. All too often teachers get stuck in our own classrooms and never get to see colleagues do their job. Teachers share the value of learning—so doesn’t it make sense that we should get many chances to learn, too?

I was offered the chance to become the multi-classroom leader for eighth-grade reading in fall 2014, leading a three-teacher team. That was ideal: I was ready to move professionally, but school administration was not for me. I did not want to let go of being with my students.

My team knew we needed to push our high kids without losing ground with the others. Sometimes the mindset becomes that since high-performing students are smart, they should automatically do well. We needed to put as much effort into teaching them as we did struggling learners.

That meant we needed to plan. Previous meetings had been more sharing and venting than planning. Through weekly meetings and follow-up conversations, we realized we needed a separate planning time just for our honors classes. Every time we pulled an activity, we asked, “Why are we using this?” and “How is it growing our high kids?” If those questions couldn’t be answered, we changed the focus to “Do we do it just because someone else has done it, and we don’t have to create anything new?” and “If we keep it, is it rigorous enough?”

This opened conversations about instruction, leading to new practices. One of our team’s teachers said that the impact of such true common planning for individualized instruction became clear only through working on an MCL-led team. This teacher pinpointed how we talked through the structure of a lesson and how to create easily differentiated activities. And the bonus? This led to better instruction overall, not just in honors classes. Giving students different activities designed to engage different learning styles offered them all a much richer experience.

Our official state reading data for eighth grade supports the value of an MCL-led, collaborative team: Both our middle-leveled students and our highest group of students showed improved growth compared with prior years. These were classrooms that were directly impacted by an MCL either through co-teaching, modeling, and student relationships or through targeted planning. We’re keeping that high growth as our target this year for our highest students, and we want to bring it to our middle-leveled students, too.

Our students felt this energy and growth, even in the classroom of the teacher most reluctant to embrace the MCL model. We gradually developed a very rewarding relationship, and her students’ growth was amazing, such as one—“Sally”—who moved into the highest achievement level, or another who moved up 10 points within a level.

Sally was by far the smartest student in the class. She did not love me when I challenged her with slightly different questions from her peers, but she did the work. And when she got her results, she could not hide her smile. Another student commented about having an “extra” teacher—me. No one was letting him fall through the cracks; he couldn’t “settle” for just sitting there and putting something on paper. He came to like and request the one-on-one attention.

After 20 years in education, how refreshing it is to have a model like Multi-Classroom Leadership. I think these results can come only through a great team-teaching, supportive relationship. We built a firm foundation in the first Opportunity Culture year that holds great promise for long, fulfilling teaching careers for all of us.

Amy Sparks is in her second year as an MCL in the Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools district in North Carolina. She has been in education for almost 20 years. What she values in the MCL role is the opportunity it provides to the teaching profession in the way of growth without leaving the classroom and the deeper attention to instructional practices that benefit all students.

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