To better understand math achievement at Fitz Intermediate School* in the Garden Grove Unified School District, educators went right to the source: students. Through empathy interviews with more than 70 students, educators now know more about math experiences, and that a majority of Fitz students believe that if they work hard, they can succeed in math.
While math achievement is on an upward trend in Garden Grove USD overall, it is not the same at Fitz. This concerns educators, and, as part of “Garden Grove’s Way” of serving all students as if they were our own children, it is prompting action. At Fitz and within a multi-school district improvement network, educators now are applying data from multiple sources, including empathy interviews, to improve math outcomes for students.
Two Fitz math teachers first approached Principal Mischelle Repsher about working over the summer to find ways to better meet the needs of their students. But where to start? When Principal Repsher connected with Superintendent Gabriela Mafi, she learned about a new improvement science framework underway in the CORE Districts, of which Garden Grove USD is a leader, that aligned with her teachers’ interests.
Garden Grove Unified is one of 8 CORE Districts seizing the opportunity to build upon their years of cross-district collaboration by working as a Networked Improvement Community (NIC). The NIC is using a disciplined improvement science approach to solve a pervasive problem shared across urban districts: the middle school math performance gap that persists for Latino and African American youth.
Through this effort, all four math teachers at Fitz formed an improvement team along with Principal Repsher, Teachers on Special Assignment (TOSAs) from the district, and with support from the district office, and data and curriculum experts from the CORE Districts. The group compared Fitz’s data to another, very similar, school, asking questions so they could learn more. The process led them to adopting a specific change idea: using formative assessments and encouraging more coordinated collaboration among Fitz teachers, starting with the math department.
This meant opening up new lines of communication and providing new avenues of support to teachers. Math teachers began meeting every other week for two hours, which produced vibrant, new collaborations.
The teachers participated in lesson planning, consulted with the group about challenges and provided pointers and feedback during the process. They identified how to assess a student’s understanding of an issue area and brainstormed teaching adjustments and interventions to take in the moment to help get a struggling student back on track. TOSAs brought formative assessment expertise and supported Fitz’s math teachers as they began cycles of inquiry to test change ideas, come together to reflect on results and agreed upon next steps.
By using “in-the-moment” assessments to confirm that students grasped the concepts after each small unit, the teachers could identify issues and take action before a student began to fail. A new, more conceptual teaching style emerged– rather than solely teaching from the textbook, teachers encouraged students to be more exploratory and to work in groups to problem solve and understand math concepts.
The changes were initially subtle, but the difference emerged through conversations during collaboration. Previously a teacher might have been unable to pinpoint what a student wasn’t understanding or how to turn things around. The conversation would be a frustrating dead end: “I taught them the material, I don’t know what they’re missing.” But with the increased collaboration and formative assessment, the conversation became: “I know my student understood this concept until this point. What can I do to help get them to the next level?”
In previous years the teachers had been working just as hard. But, as Principal Repsher explained, “they weren’t always working with a common purpose and goals.” With the improvement science framework, “CORE has helped us clarify what we’re looking for, and how we’re working toward it.”
The math teachers are seeing the benefits and have been sharing with staff. As a result, all departments at Fitz are looking to bring formative assessment into collaboration and into their classrooms. But the most powerful force has come directly from students. In fact, 91 percent of Fitz students surveyed say they can get better at math, even if it is a subject in which they struggle.
As one student put it, “It’s never impossible to get better, as long as you keep trying.”
*Fitz serves 650 students in 7th and 8th grade. The vast majority (83%) of students, are socio-economically disadvantaged, and more than half (51%) are English learners. Eighty-one percent of the students are Latino(a), 14% Asian, and 3% Caucasian.