What is ‘essential’ for schools? Three simple things: reasonably coherent curriculum (what we teach); sound lessons (how we teach); and far more purposeful reading and writing in every discipline, or authentic literacy (integral to both what and how we teach). But as numerous studies demonstrate, these three essential elements are only rarely implemented; every credible study confirms that they are still pushed aside by various initiatives, every year, in the majority of schools.
Thus begins Mike Schmoker, author of Results and Results Now, in his new book, Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning. As I read those lines, my mind traveled back to a recent visit to Mobile where I helped facilitate the education retreat for Leadership Alabama – the organization that helped “birth” A+ and that for 20 years has engaged Alabama leaders in dialogue about our state’s challenges and opportunities. Our trip included visits to two impressive school programs that exemplify the importance of focusing on the essentials: a high-poverty, high-achieving elementary school and an innovative second-chance program for older teens who want to finish high school.
A mainstay of the education retreat is a visit to George Hall Elementary, a high poverty, high achieving school, where students are outperforming their peers across the state. (To view a short video on George Hall, click here). During the visit, Leadership Alabama class members heard from Principal Terri Tomlinson and her staff about their philosophy of teaching: high expectations for all – students and teachers – combined with rigorous curriculum rich with lots of reading and writing in every subject. They interacted with a panel of fifth graders who told them that their teachers helped them do their best and who spoke of their future: attending Yale, becoming a scientist, pursuing law.
Those students then escorted small groups of their visitors throughout the school, which is filled with samples of student work in the hallways and classrooms, enabling LA class members to ask more questions and see the high level of instruction in every classroom. George Hall teachers are focused on Schmoker’s essentials and the strategy is working: Last school year, 97% of Hall’s fifth grade students scored a “4” on the Alabama Reading and Math test (the highest level, labeled “Exceeds Academic Content.”)
If you have doubts about whether almost every child in America can learn at high levels, visit George Hall. Like Mike Schmoker predicts, you’ll see it is possible when the principal and teachers focus on the essentials.
Mobile’s impressive evening school
While in Mobile, the Leadership Alabama class also visited a school within a school: the Evening Educational Options Program (EEOP), housed at Pillans Middle School. This is a new program designed to tackle Mobile’s high dropout rate, which currently tops 40%. Sadly, across Alabama, we have students that are over-aged and under-credited and, if they have not already dropped out, they are in grave danger of doing so. Mobile’s numbers are likely no higher than some other urban districts – but they have been forthcoming about the problem, and now the solution.
EEOP is designed to address the needs of older students. The school opens at 4:00 p.m. and continues into the evening. The school is staffed with full-time counselors who, in their words, “do whatever it takes to help students succeed,” whether it be arranging transportation, babysitting a sick child, or finding internships or employment opportunities. Most teachers teach elsewhere during the day and come to Pillans to share their expertise and high expectations.
Students learn at their own pace using computer-based programs. Once again, Leadership Alabama class members had the chance to interact with students during that visit. They learned that these students are highly motivated to succeed. They are working in an environment that is supportive, where the teachers hold very high expectations for them. And, like George Hall, EEOP focuses on the essentials. One student told me that when he came to EEOP last September (2010), he had only 11 graduation credits. In late January 2011, he had added another 15 credits and was only 2 away from the 28 required to graduate. He was quick to add that he had also passed every section of the Alabama High School Graduation Exam.
Schmoker reminds us that while success is possible, this type of change is hard. “Most schools would have to stop doing almost everything they now do in the name of school improvement. Instead, they would have to focus only on implementing ‘what is essential.’” (p. 2). But, based on what we saw in Mobile, this type of focus works and can literally change the lives of those involved. Think of the possibilities. What might you do to help your school or a school in your community focus on the essentials?