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February 1, 2012
Vol. 69
No. 5

Data, Our GPS

Determining what students need and working together to provide direction are the keys to this district's success.

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Sergio entered the Sanger Unified School District as a kindergartner not yet fluent in English. As a 9th grader in 2010, he still had not scored high enough on measures of English language ability and academic achievement to shed the English learner label. For years, students like Sergio flew under the radar in our district, gliding from one grade to the next. But since 2004, Sanger Unified has undergone a dramatic transformation. Now district educators know exactly how all their students are doing, and they work relentlessly and collaboratively to discover what each student needs to succeed.
Thus, when we, as school leaders, sat down with Sergio's parents in spring 2011 for a chat, we knew where Sergio stood; this knowledge gave us a starting point for conversation. Sergio's parents told us that Sergio's language abilities in Spanish had faltered since a farm accident several years back. No one had ever asked Sergio or his parents why they thought his academic progress had stalled. With data that alerted us to Sergio's lack of progress and a commitment to asking questions that would help us understand his needs, we gained the necessary information to design an appropriate learning environment for him. Conversations like these have enabled our district to experience a dramatic turnaround.

From Struggling to Exemplary

Located in California's Central Valley, Sanger Unified enrolls approximately 10,000 students, 82 percent of whom are students of color (primarily Latino, with sizeable black and Hmong populations and a growing Sikh population). Half of the district's students speak a language other than English at home. Unemployment in our area currently stands at approximately 30 percent, and three-fourths of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. In 2004, Sanger was named one of the lowest-performing school districts in the state.
Today, the Sanger district as a whole and 12 of its 13 elementary schools have exceeded the state's academic performance targets. Nine of Sanger's 18 schools attained the highest possible ranking in statewide comparisons with similar schools. Further, we have shown dramatic increases in the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced on state standardized tests in English language arts and math, far out pacing statewide gains. For example, from 2004 to 2009, the number of Sanger students scoring proficient or advanced in math increased 35 percentage points (from 31 percent to 66 percent), versus a 14-point increase for the state (from 40 percent to 54 percent).
English language learners (ELLs) in Sanger show particularly dramatic gains, not only outpacing gains in achievement for ELLs statewide but also closing the gap with English-only students. In 7th grade math, English learners in Sanger now outscore English-only students statewide. Moreover, English learners in Sanger are becoming fluent in English more quickly. We do not believe this progress is accidental. (See the graphs at www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/journals/ed_lead/el_201202_thompson_figures.pdffor more data on Sanger's success.)

Guiding Principles

  1. Hope is not a strategy.
  2. Don't blame the kids.
  3. It's about student learning.
We've spent the past seven years working hard to enact these principles in everyday situations. Early in our district's transition we heard teachers say things like, "I taught it; they just didn't learn it." Applying our guiding principles, we realized that we could not simply hope that our students would learn, and we could not blame students if learning did not occur. Instead, school leaders worked to cultivate the belief that teaching effectiveness is measured by whether students learn what we have taught. Through intensive district-wide professional development in explicit direct instruction, Response to Intervention, and checking for understanding, we have created a common framework for instruction so that all teachers and administrators in the district have a shared understanding of what constitutes an effective lesson.

Guided by Data

Early in our reform effort, we committed ourselves to monitoring student achievement. We realized that the standardized test scores we received back from the state each fall pointed out our failures during the previous year, but there were no opportunities for schools or teachers to rectify the learning gaps for those students.
We needed a "global positioning system" (GPS) to tell us where our students were and what they still needed if they were to reach their learning destination. To obtain this crucial information, we created a district progress assessment that tests all students three times a year on the most essential standards for each grade level. The assessment provides us with actionable student learning data and enables our teachers to address issues immediately.
For example, order of operations is an essential tool for success in algebra. So, as our 7th grade teachers receive feedback from the district assessment on their students' mastery of this topic, they identify students across the entire grade who need intensive intervention in the order of operations. They place these students in a targeted intervention group taught by the teacher whose students were most successful in the topic and then assess the students again to determine the success of the intervention.
In addition to data on all students' progress in the content areas, we collect data on English learners' language development. In California, ELLs take a state language test each October, but we had no other data to show us how ELLs were progressing on the English language development standards throughout the year. Through a grant from the Central Valley Foundation, we implemented a testing program that enables us to check student mastery of these standards three times during the year.
When the teachers at Del Rey Elementary School reviewed data from the first round of the district English language development assessment last year, they noticed that 2nd grade students were struggling the most in listening comprehension. The teachers worked together to implement specific strategies to increase these students' listening comprehension.
For example, as part of the state and district English proficiency assessments, students have to orally retell a story that they have heard. The 2nd grade teachers at Del Rey realized that remembering all pieces of the story was overwhelming for many English learners. Therefore, they began experimenting with tools such as the five-finger summary method, in which students learn a format for recalling and retelling key events. They noticed substantial improvement in English learners' performance in listening comprehension.
Not only do teachers have a clear idea of students' academic needs, but students themselves also know where they stand. As we began to examine our high school ELLs' results, we found that a large number of ELLs had made little or no English-language growth over five or more years. We began to meet with these students to ask what we could do to better meet their needs. We were shocked by what we learned. The students had never been told what they needed to accomplish to exit ELL status.
We organized a presentation in which we simply told students the criteria they needed to meet to become classified as fluent in English. We also shared with students their current test scores and grades so they could see where they stood. Many were already close to meeting the criteria and were able to be reclassified quickly because they knew which assessments and classes to focus on. Teachers were then able to provide extra intervention for the smaller group of students who needed more significant help.

Our Kids, Not My Kids

Sanger's use of data is the touchstone for our professional learning communities (PLCs). Although the PLCs at Sanger's 18 schools vary in the depth of their collaboration, all use data to determine what supports students need. In looking at data together, teachers identify groups of students with particular needs and group them for instruction on the basis of those needs. PLCs that collaborate effectively shift students all the time, rather than having stagnant groups. As PLCs have matured and grown at every school in the district, teachers tend to refer to students as "our kids," not "my kids."
Last year at Washington Academic Middle School, after assessing students' ability to use various sentence types in their writing, the 6th grade PLC realized that many students were still struggling. For three days, the teachers regrouped students during students' language arts period. Those who struggled the most with this skill were placed in a group with the teacher whose students had scored highest. Those who already understood the differences between the sentence types, on the other hand, completed an extension activity under the direction of another teacher. On the third and final day of this regrouping, teachers administered a follow-up assessment to check students' understanding.
In other cases, after examining data, members of this PLC shared teaching methods that had been particularly successful. For example, when the team noticed that many students in one class were scoring at the proficient and advanced level on the compare-and-contrast strategy in reading comprehension, that class's teacher shared a graphic organizer she had developed to help her students.
PLCs across the district meet at least once a week, but this team chose to meet during most of their preps as well, for an average of at least three meetings a week. Thanks to this intensive collaboration, the team truly felt responsible for the learning of all students, not just the students on their own rosters.

A Job Never Completed

To properly maintain the Golden Gate Bridge, painters must constantly repaint it. When the painters reach one end, they start back over on the other end. Sanger's initiatives and efforts work the same way. District leaders continue to train and support principals and teachers over and over in the key elements of district initiatives. With each subsequent training, teachers' and principals' knowledge deepens.
A recent independent report explains what's behind Sanger's success:There is nothing esoteric about Sanger's focus on professional learning communities or direct instruction or English language development. What is unusual is the professional commitment with which they have taken on the challenge to teach all students to their potential and a corresponding set of strategic actions that both push and prepare educators to continually improve so that their students can do the same … the whole is much larger than its parts, and the lessons lie in how Sanger's leaders have inspired, educated, and trusted principals, teachers, and students.
Although we are proud of our accomplishments thus far, there is much still to do. We are especially concerned about students like Sergio who have become long-term English learners. We continue to seek the best ways of addressing their needs.
Sergio is now receiving special education services to address his comprehension deficits. His daily program includes English language development that specifically targets vocabulary building. His schedule was also modified to provide scaffolded support for his academic courses, again focusing on developing the necessary academic language to ensure his success. He is currently passing all of his classes and is on track for graduation.
We're also pursuing relationships with school districts that face many of the same issues that we do. This past year, we obtained a grant from the Central Valley Foundation to develop a partnership with the Firebaugh–Las Deltas Unified School District, a smaller district with a similar student population. We are sharing our leadership and PLC models as well as practices and tools associated with the development of English language proficiency. We believe that learning never stops, and working with other districts is another great way to learn.
End Notes

1 David, J., & Talbert, J. (2010). Turning around a high-poverty school district: Learning from Sanger Unified's success. San Francisco: S. H. Cowell Foundation, pp. 47–48.

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