Faced with grim statistics on student progress, Schenectady school officials are writing a turnaround plan to make swift improvements.
“We need to deliver,” Superintendent Laurence Spring said. “We have to get results.”
He’s focusing on several “building blocks” that he hopes to implement this year. He has also reached out to three outside groups to give the district advice and recommendations.
First of all, he’s focusing on elementary school reading. About half of the students are not reading at grade level.
That means they are in danger of falling behind in every subject because they may not be able to understand their textbooks well enough to learn.
The district’s current reading system includes tests at the beginning and end of each school year, but the tests aren’t detailed enough to show incremental progress. So teachers diagnose reading problems, come up with techniques to teach, and have to wait until the end of the school year to find out whether those efforts worked.
Spring wants teachers to have quick tests that can immediately show them whether a new reading method is working.
“An entire school year is a really long time to wait to see if this prescription is working for this kid,” he said. “We should know within four weeks, and if that’s not working, we need to go back and think: did we have the wrong diagnosis? Or the wrong prescription?”
With tests showing progress — or the lack thereof — every four weeks, teachers have 10 chances to tweak their methods to get the most improvement out of the student during one school year, he said.
Some teachers have objected to tests in the past, saying they know best whether their students are improving. But Spring said teachers are only able to tell that the student is learning. They can’t judge the learning speed so accurately that they can be sure the child will catch up with the class and end up reading at grade level, he said.
“You can’t eyeball that,” Spring said.
Instead, he said, students tend to improve while their classmates improve at a faster rate, leaving them forever behind.
Spring hopes to have the new tests implemented by February.
At the same time, the district is partnering with New York University to change the way teachers and principals respond to students’ cries for help. Many behavioral problems are being wrongly treated by discipline, Spring said, when the child actually needs counseling, intervention at home, or other help.
NYU will train school officials to “interpret” students’ behavior so they can judge how to react more effectively.
Spring has also begun a new effort to reach out to parents. He has asked all school officials to stop saying they want “involved” parents, and instead say they want “engaged” parents.
Involvement, Spring said, means that parents should take time off from work to attend school plays, carnivals and other functions. Engagement, he said, gets to the heart of what teachers want: parents who will help them figure out how to reach their children.
“We may have the master’s degree in Social Studies or whatever, but you have the master’s degree — the doctorate — in your child. We need to learn from you,” Spring said.
He also envisions getting parents together in small groups to talk about how they could help educate their struggling students.
“I do think parental engagement is critical to the solution,” Spring said. “I don’t think we’re going to solve this without parents.”
He plans to start work on that this year using ideas developed by a researcher, Karen Mapp.
“She’s got some great strategies, some great tools,” he said.
He also plans to start measuring engagement so that the district can judge whether Mapp’s ideas work.
The state has given the district $1 million to improve student progress. More money is on its way to be spent on the elementary schools that are considered “focus” schools because of poor student progress.