Shocked by horrible test scores on Massachusetts’ state exam, teachers at Brockton High began meeting on Saturdays to discuss how to improve the school. Brockton High, with 4,100 mostly low-income, mostly black and Hispanic students, is a success story, reports the New York Times. For the last two years, the school outperformed 90 percent of Massachusetts high schools in improving English Language Arts scores. (In overall performance, Brockton is below average, but much higher than it used to be.)
Shamed by low scores in 1999, the teachers’ committee asked every educator in the building to teach reading, writing, speaking and reasoning skills. The administration stood aside and let the committee take the lead. In 2004, Susan Szachowicz, one of the teachers who led the committee, took over as principal.
Writing exercises took many forms, but encouraged students to think methodically. A science teacher, for example, had her students write out, step by step, how to make a sandwich, starting with opening the cupboard to fetch the peanut butter, through washing the knife once the sandwich was made. Other writing exercises, of course, were much more sophisticated.
The schools elaborate tracking system, which had five levels, was eliminated because low-track students weren’t learning.
As scores rose, teachers bought in to the schoolwide focus on literacy. There were no mass firings of teachers and no union opposition. Szachowicz works within the union contract.
Athletics had traditionally been valued above academic success, and coaches had routinely pressured teachers to raise the grades of star players to maintain their eligibility. Dr. Szachowicz said she put an end to any exceptions.
But the school retained all varsity sports, as well as its several bands and choruses, extensive drama program and scores of student clubs.
Teachers continue to meet on Saturday to discuss improving the school. The priority now is improving math instruction.
Brockton High is one of the schools profiled in How High Schools Become Exemplary, by Ronald F. Ferguson, a Harvard economist who studies the minority achievement gap. Exemplary schools share a key characteristic, the report concludes: “Achievement rose when leadership teams focused thoughtfully and relentlessly on improving the quality of instruction.”