How A Decade-Long Literacy Obsession Transformed Brockton High

Contrary to the assumptions of many education reformers, it is possible to turnaround a failing school without firing teachers, getting rid of the union, offering pay incentives or hiring high-priced outside experts.

In a wide-ranging interview last week, Susan Szachowicz, the well-respected principal of Brockton High, in Brockton, MA, described how an obsessive focus on literacy and an inclusive teacher-driven approach to improvement, has sustained a decade-long transformation at Brockton, the largest school in the state where most kids are poor, African-American or Latino and many speak a language other than English at home. In 1998—75 percent of Brockton’s students failed the state tests in math and 44 percent failed English. On the most recent tests, in 2011, 87 percent of students passed math and 94 percent passed English.

Indeed, Brockton students do more than just pass. This year 78 percent scored in the top-two out of four categories on the state’s Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test—Advanced or Proficient—for English Language Arts, and 64 percent scored in the top two categories for math. (Students can pass with a “needs improvement” score.) Close to 90 percent of Brockton’s graduates are college bound, estimates Szachowicz. And, for seven years, Brockton High has been designated a “model school” by the International Center for Leadership in Education.

Brockton’s turnaround began with a crisis. Although the school had long cared more about football than academics, in the 1990s, a new education department policy threatened to withhold diplomas from any student who didn’t pass the state’s MCAS; Brockton faced the possibility that the majority of its students wouldn’t graduate.

In response, a team of high school teachers, led by Szachowicz who was then a history teacher, and, Paul Larino, who has since retired, launched a school-wide multi-disciplinary literacy initiative that focused initially on developing a standard writing curriculum for all classes and retraining all the teachers in the school to teach that curriculum.

A decade later, Brockton is still focused on the same process-obsessed approach to literacy. At a time when school systems are under growing pressure to institute an ever changing array of remedies to improve performance, Brockton has focused single-mindedly on improving its literacy strategy for over 10 years. “This was no fast pirouette,” says Szachowicz who was appointed associate principal for curriculum and instruction in 2000 and became principal three years later. Although the school’s scores began to improve within the first year of the literacy initiative, she adds: “We’ve been working at this for a decade. It’s about doing it systematically and doing it the same way.”

It is about getting everyone at Brockton High to “row in the same direction.”

Kaizen in the Classroom

Though Szachowicz doesn’t think of it in those terms, the strategy that she and Brockton High’s “restructuring committee” launched has many of the hallmarks of Toyota Motor Corp’s kaizen philosophy. Notwithstanding its recent problems with quality and safety, kaizen and the Toyota production system remain one of the most sustained systems-focused approaches to management.

First, Brockton analyzed why its students had trouble learning and decided that “writing was the key to unlocking kids’ thinking,” and thus held the greatest promise for improving learning across all disciplines.

Second, the school tapped the expertise of its teachers to develop a writing process, focusing initially on a 10-step process for writing an “open response”—an assignment that requires students to read a text and to write an essay responding to a question about the text. The benefit of the “open response” assignment was that it crossed “all disciplinary lines” and offered the opportunity for the biggest bump in improvement. No class or teacher would be exempt—not math, not science or gym.

Third, the school has continued to study student performance and introduce new literacy modules to continuously improve the school’s approach to literacy.

Fourth, to implement the system, Brockton developed training modules for its own teachers on how to teach the various literacy processes it has developed.

Fifth, Brockton instituted an evaluation system that was designed to ensure that teachers were teaching the literacy modules, but at the same time, made sure the evaluations were used to improve teaching, not to punish teachers.

“The key to our success was adult learning, not kid learning,” says Szachowicz.

Of course, persuading over 300 teachers in a school that had grown used to failure wasn’t easy. One key to getting the teachers on board was by including them in the decision-making process. The restructuring committee itself included members from almost every discipline. Meeting with small groups of teachers, it created an iterative process whereby it kept going back to the faculty with drafts of the literacy objectives and the skills it expected students to learn. “We kept asking the faculty three questions,” recalls Szachowicz. “One, did we include everything that you think is necessary, and is anything missing. Two, did we state it clearly. Three, what would you change/add.”

Brockton eventually developed a four-part definition of literacy, and a chart of specific literacy skills that had to be posted in every classroom. The school also made sure that the skills were applicable in all content areas. To implement the strategy, Brockton created a strict schedule of literacy assignments that every department was required to follow. The schedule was designed to ensure that over the course of the academic year, the same skills would be repeated over and over in a variety of different disciplines so that students would get the same consistent message about the Brockton writing process in every subject.

The Importance of Adult Learning

Another key to making the process work was teacher training. “I was a history teacher and I used primary source readings all the time, but I didn’t know how to teach reading,” recalls Szachowicz. “What we were onto is if we’re going to ask people to do things differently, we have to show them how.”

The Brockton teacher’s contract allowed for two teacher-meetings per month of one-hour each. The meetings had always been a chore, a time when teachers were reluctantly corralled to listen to announcements that could just as easily have been put into a memo. The restructuring committee got permission from the principal to use the meetings to hash out the literacy strategy and to conduct teacher training. This meant that the training sessions could last no more than an hour. The union was known to file a grievance when the meetings went over by a single minute. Even the one time that the restructuring committee tried to schedule some voluntary meetings, a grievance was filed.

So the restructuring committee developed a step-by-step training module that lasted just under an hour. Teachers would learn the module twice—once as part of an interdisciplinary group and, two weeks later, they would take the same training module, but this time within their respective departments where they could plan ways to integrate content.

Significantly, almost every facet of the literacy strategy was home grown. Just about the only thing for which the literacy committee turned for outside help was in developing an evaluation system. Szachowicz notes that Brockton High’s initiative was highly influenced by Jon Saphier’s Research for Better Teaching, which emphasizes “skillfully and relentlessly” quality monitoring and, in about 2004, hired Saphier’s organization to train administrators in how to evaluate whether the literacy initiative was being properly implemented. Szachowicz estimates that typically the school spent no more than about $35,000 per year on the literacy initiative.

The observations were key to ensuring that teachers were using the process and teaching it on schedule. Equally important, the evaluations were designed to monitor and improve the process, not to punish teachers. After all, for the first time ever, Brockton High was expecting science teachers, math teachers, even gym teachers to teach writing. “They were nervous about doing something they’ve never done before,” says Szachowicz. To make sure that the evaluations were not considered punitive, the school decoupled the literacy observations from teachers’ formal job evaluations.

Still, getting the teachers to buy in was not easy. In the beginning, the majority of teachers were skeptical, but not necessarily negative. But Szachowicz makes it clear that the restructuring committee “didn’t wait for buy in,” she says. If they had “we would still be waiting. We got buy in when we got results.”

Of course, some teachers couldn’t be persuaded. Szachowicz recalls one teacher who covered the mandatory literacy charts in his classroom with posters. When he taught his literacy module he did so with “sarcasm”.

“It was not a good situation, he eventually retired,” says Szachowicz who acknowledges that the restructuring committee cajoled and pressured teachers to follow the program.

The most negative teachers were deliberately grouped together during the literacy brain-storming sessions. Szachowicz estimates that about a dozen teachers left as a direct result of the literacy initiative. It was Brockton’s “good fortune,” says Szachowicz that, in 2004, the state offered an early retirement incentive, which allowed the fence-sitters to “walk out the door”. Some 40 teachers, a little over 10 percent of Brockton High’s workforce, left; though Szachowicz notes that not all the teachers who took early retirement were leaving because of the literacy initiative.

The Great Shakespeare Fiasco

While scores have improved, Szachowicz insists that the school’s literacy initiative is not aimed primarily at improving test-taking. In fact, early on, Brockton did try to gear its literacy program to the test; the effort, which began with an attempt to improve the students’ dismal performance on the portion of the test that during the previous three years had required them to interpret a Shakespeare sonnet, became known as the Great Shakespeare Fiasco. For an entire school year, Brockton teachers force-fed sonnets to their students, only to find that the next state test didn’t include any sonnets. “This cannot be about what’s on the test,” insists Szachowicz. “It has to be about what kids need to know, about their thinking routines.”

Brockton High also has benefited from consistent leadership. In 1998, shortly after the literacy initiative was first initiated, Eugene Marrow, a gym teacher and former football coach became principal of Brockton High. Although he was “not a curriculum guy, he believed in improvement,” says Szachowicz who credits Marrow, an African-American who grew up in Brockton and had “high expectations” of kids, for supporting the programming and helping to win over many teachers. “It was important that he was not an outsider,” says Szachowicz.

During the course of more than a decade since Szachowicz has guided Brockton High’s literacy strategy, she has worked for three superintendents. The first, Joe Bage, was “a rock,” says Szachowicz, who backed the literacy strategy “100 percent.” Bage’s successor let her continue with the program. Now Brockton has its third superintendent since the start of the literacy initiative.

Alluding to Isaiah Berlin’s essay, The Fox and the Hedgehog—“The fox knows many little things. The hedgehog knows one big thing.”–Szachowicz calls herself a hedgehog: Whatever anyone throws her way, she keeps her focus on just one thing: “literacy, literacy, literacy.” But the program is constantly being updated and improved. Most recently, the school worked on developing teaching modules to improve how kids read and analyze visuals, such as graphs and charts.

The other thing that hasn’t changed at Brockton is a commitment to teacher involvement. Periodically, Brockton High holds teacher meetings that follow a “world café” format. The sessions are designed to brainstorm ideas and to develop a dialogue among Brockton High’s teaching staff, many of whom don’t know each other. This semester, the school is using the process to develop new policies and ideas for one of the most hot-button issues in education: its use of digital technology and electronic devices.

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7 Responses to How A Decade-Long Literacy Obsession Transformed Brockton High

  1. Karl Androes says:

    Terrific case story! So much better than claims we all hear too often that basically say “poverty is ALL that matters and all teachers are the same, so stop expecting teachers to make a difference in poor students’ performance”. This case says “nonsense”! Thank you, Andrea! By the way, have you heard or read the story of the whole district of Kennewick, Washington doing this same kind of turnaround? That’s a very inspiring story, also. If you want, I can point you to helpings of that story, too.

  2. karlandroes says:

    Great case study, Andrea! Thank you for doing it and sharing here. So much better than the usual “Poverty is the only thing that matters. All teachers are the same, none good none less-good. Don’t expect anyone to be able to move these students because they’re poor.” I get so tired of that stuff, especially when I see just the opposite every day in my own work experience. Teachers matter! Systems matter. Deciding to make a difference as a whole school of adults matters! Thank you!
    P.S. Do you know the story of Kennewick, Washington and what they achieved there, in this same category of turnaround schools?

    • aagabor says:

      It’s worth noting, though, that the turnaround was achieved with the cooperation of the same teachers who taught at the school when it was “failing”. Undoubtedly there were some very good teachers and some not-so-great teachers. But what made the difference was a change in the system. This is not a story about “good” or “bad” teachers, but about the importance of culture, good management and leadership.

      • Karl Androes says:

        Absolutely! Systems matter. Teachers matter. Not because there are some “born great” teachers but because lots of teachers can get it done – given the right support and systems.

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