In our last issue, we discussed the foundation of excellence and equity – a positive, transformational school culture. We shared that in the very successful schools we have studied, educators provided a healthy learning environment in which all stakeholders – students, teachers, staff, administrators, parents, and community members – felt valued, respected, and cared for. Embedded within this positive learning environment was a collective sense of urgency to improve outcomes for all students.
Yet, a healthy school culture alone does not lead to excellence and equity. Upon this foundation, the urban schools we have awarded provided all students access to rigorous curricula. In these schools, access meant more than simply exposing students to curricula. Rather, it meant that all students, including those learning English and those with mild or moderate disabilities, and all demographic groups of students were taught key academic concepts at the level of rigor indicated by the standard. For instance, teachers would not conclude instruction when students could add fractions if the standard required that students be able to model the addition of fractions. Rather, teachers would persist to ensure that students could model the operation appropriately. In these schools, the primary goal of instruction was ensuring that students grasped and could demonstrate a deep understanding of the curricular content and how it might be applied in various contexts. Rigor for all: What happens in classrooms?
In the high-performing urban schools NCUST has studied, instruction was planned in a manner that was sensitive to the diverse strengths and needs of students. Lessons were designed to maximize the likelihood that every student, and all groups of students, would master the content. Teachers might have used different strategies, more examples, more personalized assistance, additional uses of technology, etc., but the typical aim was to get all students to master the same challenging academic goals. Also, teachers sought and utilized feedback from students to modify and adapt lessons (sometimes in midstream) and to identify. which students needed extra help and which students needed extended learning opportunities. And, when students required additional support, it was provided in-class (versus pull-out) so that teachers had more opportunity to ensure that all students would be able to learn the challenging academic content associated with the grade level and/or subject area.