New Site Highlights State and Local Innovative Ideas from Educators’ Perspectives

Maryland Teacher Mandy Tang

Mandy Tang teaches first graders a math lesson in Chinese. Photo credit: Nancy Zuckerbrod

The U.S. Department of Education has launched a new online resource, PROGRESS, to highlight state and local innovative ideas, promising practices, lessons learned, and resources informed by the implementation of K-12 education reforms.

These stories will showcase the exciting transformations taking place in classrooms, schools, and systems across the country through the leadership of teachers, school, district and state leaders and their partners.

The Department launched PROGRESS to emphasize the voices and perspectives of educators, students, and administrators to better understand how policy changes are spurring education improvement and to draw out what can be learned from areas of progress occurring at the state and local levels.

Read about:

  • Delaware and Hawaii teachers and coaches using data to identify student needs and inform instructional improvement strategies;
  • Maryland elementary school students learning science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) through new foreign language courses;
  • Hundreds of students from rural communities in Florida gaining access to incredible STEM learning opportunities through a state Race to the Top initiative to expand STEM education in rural schools;
  • Tennessee’s 700 teacher-coaches providing 30,000 of their colleagues with intensive summer training on new college- and career-ready standards through an ambitious and comprehensive statewide program;
  • Kentucky’s 100-percent increase in total Advanced Placement (AP) qualifying scores over the last five years, largely driven by the success of the AdvanceKentucky program in expanding access to AP classes for low-income students.

The PROGRESS blog will spotlight partnerships among the U.S. Department of Education, states, districts, educators, and families that are helping to build a better education for children.  Of particular focus is:

  • How students are being prepared to succeed in college and careers;
  • How educators are receiving higher quality support and opportunities; and
  • How innovative leaders and educators are transforming school systems to meet new, higher expectations.

PROGRESS does not recommend or endorse any particular approach. It is intended to share information that can be of use to educators, parents, learners, leaders, and other stakeholders in their efforts to ensure that every student is provided with the highest quality education and expanded opportunities to succeed.

We’re always looking to learn from the field. Have an idea for content? Please let us know via email at progress@ed.gov.

Behind Progress, Common Sense and Courage

This op-ed appeared in the January 23, 2014 edition of the Washington Post.

In education, it sometimes takes courage to do what ought to be common sense.

That’s a key lesson from several recent national and international assessments of U.S. education. These include the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the nation’s report card; a new version of the NAEP focused on large, urban districts; and the international rankings in the tri-annual PISA test.

Collectively, these assessments demonstrate extraordinary progress in the places where leaders have worked hardest and most consistently to bring change — but also a national failure to make nearly enough progress to keep up with our competitors.

Duncan at PISA

Secretary Duncan received feedback from students during last month’s PISA release.

Nationwide, students made modest progress in reading and math in 2013, with achievement edging up to record highs for fourth- and eighth-graders, the NAEP found.

Nearly every state has adopted higher academic standards, and most states have instituted new systems of teacher support and evaluation. It’s a testament to hardworking educators that they are implementing these changes and raising student performance at the same time.

But as the international PISA results demonstrate, our progress isn’t enough. Other countries are leapfrogging us at a time when education is vital to economic health in a global competition for jobs and innovation. Among the 65 countries and education systems that participate in PISA, the United States was surpassed by 27 in math and 14 in reading . That’s unacceptable.

We can learn, however, from some of the standouts. In contrast to a national picture of gradual progress, Tennessee and the District of Columbia reported striking jumps — in both math and reading achievement and in both grades examined, fourth and eighth.

We don’t know all the reasons why students did better in Tennessee and the District in 2013 than in 2011. But it is clear that they shared a similar approach to bettering education — taking common-sense, but politically hard, steps to help students. Both are places where vulnerable students predominate; 73 percent of District students and 55 percent of Tennessee students are sufficiently needy to qualify for reduced-price meals.

There are important lessons here. What these two places also had in common was a succession of leaders who told educators, parents and the public the truth about educational underperformance and who worked closely with educators to bring about real changes. They pushed hard to raise expectations for students, even though a lower bar would have made everyone look better. And they remained committed to doing the right thing for children, even when it meant crossing partisan lines or challenging ideological orthodoxy.

To meet those higher standards, these leaders invested in strengthening the quality of classroom instruction and revamping systems for teacher support and evaluation. They ensured that teachers could use good data from multiple sources to identify learning gaps and improve instruction. They also sought ongoing feedback from educators and others.

These concepts — developing and supporting the people who do the most important work, using data to inform improvement — are what strong organizations do.

Yet these common-sense steps took uncommon courage. Tennessee had previously set one of the lowest bars in the country for proficiency in reading and math. The resulting proficiency rates — 91 percent in math and 92 percent in reading — were a lie. By raising standards, Tennessee’s leaders forced the public, parents and politicians to confront brutal facts.

When Tennessee raised its standards in 2010, the proportion of students rated proficient dropped to 34 percent in math and 45 percent in reading. But in a bipartisan act of courage, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman stayed true to the reforms begun under Democrat Phil Bredesen. They refused to dumb down standards to try to make Tennessee students look better.

Were students actually doing worse? No. For the first time, the state was telling the truth.

Just as important, leaders in the District and Tennessee worked with educators to transform industrial-era systems of support and evaluation for teachers and principals that had little or no link to teachers’ impact on student learning. That meant continuing the work of political predecessors, as Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson did in the District.

Building better systems that take account of educators’ impact on learning is complex and controversial work. Yet in Tennessee and the District, leaders solicited input from their critics, stayed committed but flexible and delivered systems that help both successful and struggling teachers.

I’m cautious about drawing big conclusions from a two-year trend, and it’s important to track a variety of educational outcomes, such as high school graduation and college enrollment rates.

Even so, the experiences of Tennessee and the District suggest that children win when leaders work closely with educators to do several vital things right, at the same time, and don’t give up when the going gets tough.

As Henderson said: “When you concentrate on teacher quality, you get results. When you radically increase the level of academic rigor, you get results.”

To be clear, no one in Tennessee or the District is declaring victory. Students in both places have a lot further to go to close achievement gaps and even to reach the level of top-performing states. But their progress shouldn’t be treated as mysterious or miraculous.

The changes America’s children need to get a better education require political courage and hard work. But in many cases the steps are surprisingly straightforward — and can be taken anywhere.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education

Baltimore High School Beats Odds with Help of SIG Program

The odds were stacked against Baltimore’s Frederick Douglass High School.

Partners in Progress LogoThe nation’s second oldest historically integrated public high school faced a steep dropout rate, scores of students repeating multiple grades and dismal test scores. But with the help of a $4.2 million federal School Improvement Grant (SIG), the 900-student school has cut that dropout rate in half and seen test scores rise dramatically since 2011.

Dr. Antonio Hurt, who took the helm at Douglass during the first year of the school’s SIG program, opened a night school where students can get tutoring or take credit recovery classes so they can graduate on time. He expanded a recording and media production studio and began a law program where career and technical students can train. He created a dual enrollment program where his high school students earn college credit at nearby Baltimore City Community College. Hurt removed more than half the school’s staff in the first year and hired staff focused on creating a college-going culture for every student.

Students at DouglassHurt split the school into two academies: the Academy of Innovation where students develop the courage and intellectual habits to be creative, and the Academy for Global Leadership and Public Policy, designed to graduate future leaders of government, industry and communities.

“We dug into the data. We wanted to make certain we had programs to meet the entire population of kids,” Hurt said.

After the first year of turnaround efforts, the school increased proficiency rates in English language arts from 41 percent in 2011 to 53 percent in 2012. Math proficiency rates rose from 32 percent to 44 percent. While there’s still plenty of work to be done, Hurt says the school’s 2013 numbers are promising, too.

The SIG program is a key component of the Department’s strategy for helping states and districts turn around the nation’s lowest-performing schools. Under the Obama Administration, more than 1,500 schools like Douglass have implemented comprehensive turnaround interventions aimed at drastically improving achievement. Despite difficult learning environments, SIG schools have increased proficiency rates in math and reading since 2009, demonstrating the importance of targeted investments over time.

Dorie Turner Nolt is press secretary at the U.S. Department of Education