Personalized Learning in Detracked Classrooms

Rockville Centre makes strides in transforming high school instruction for heterogeneous student groupings by Delia T. Garrity and Carol Corbett Burris

Does personalized schooling require individualized curricula? Is it possible to provide a personalized learning environment even while holding high learning expectations for all students?

In August 2004, The School Administrator published “Detracking with Vigilance,” written by one of us (Delia Garrity). It detailed the early detracking efforts of the Rockville Centre School District on Long Island and the increases in student achievement that resulted from that reform.

As we moved from teacher-centered to student-centered instruction, we learned that personalized learning experiences, for both students and teachers, are essential when teaching heterogeneously grouped classes.

Expanded Effort
Rockville Centre is a diverse, suburban school district serving approximately 3,500 students. Nearly 77 percent are white and live in upper-middle-class households. About 3 percent of the students are Asian-American students and 20 percent of the students are African American or Latino. Most of the district’s African American and Latino students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch and live in Department of Housing and Urban Development apartments or in subsidized apartments.

Since 1981, our high school has offered the International Baccalaureate diploma. The IB diploma, which began in Rockville Centre as a gifted and talented program, is a comprehensive and challenging course of study in all subject areas. Universities around the world acknowledge the rigor of IB, and thus students earn college credit for IB coursework in a manner similar to the earning of Advanced Placement credit.

During the 1980s, the IB program in Rockville Centre was exclusive and small, even though more than 90 percent of the high school’s graduates went on to college. In the 1990s, the school district opened the gates to allow any student to take IB courses. Nearly 30 percent of all students took IB courses. In 2000, we began to explore whether even more students could participate, especially our minority students who were underrepresented in IB classes.

The district’s superintendent, William H. Johnson, concluded that the small size of the IB program resulted from school requirements that prevented or discouraged students from participating. In particular, he identified the teacher recommendations and prerequisite courses that were part of a larger tracking system.

And so we began to ask whether it would be possible to create a learning environment in which all students were prepared to take IB courses in grades 11 and 12. What organizational changes would need to occur? How would teaching and learning need to change? For us, the answer was obvious. The detracking that had already occurred through 9th grade would need to be expanded so that all 10th-grade courses would study a pre-IB curriculum.

Detracking, combined with pre-IB curricula for all, resulted in a dramatic increase in the proportion of students enrolling in IB courses and in the proportion of students pursuing the full IB diploma. For example, the Class of 1988 (276 graduates) had nine IB diploma candidates and 14 students who took IB English. In contrast, the Class of 2007 (305 graduates) had 137 IB diploma candidates and 212 students took IB English. Most importantly, our student scores have remained high and competitive with scores of students around the world.

Why did 10th-grade detracking result in more students opting to take rigorous IB courses in Grades 11 and 12? For students to gain the most from detracking, it must be more than a change in the way they are grouped for instruction. We transformed curriculum and instruction to provide a more personalized approach that gave more students success and confidence.

Curriculum for All
Building on successful 9th-grade detracking, we decided to move forward and detrack 10th-grade English and social studies courses. English and social studies teachers had some concerns but were generally supportive based on their experience with detracking in 9th grade. The greatest resistance came from a small but vocal group of parents. Parents of high-track students feared that learning would be “watered down” for their children, while parents of students who would be in the lower track worried their children would fail. After listening to and noting parent concerns, the district began to create a curriculum that would serve the needs of all students and address the concerns they heard.

Teachers carefully created innovative curricula designed to meet the needs of all learners. Under the direction of Garrity and a literacy expert, Dale Worsley of Columbia University, the high school’s English and social studies teachers created rigorous, pre-IB English and social studies curricula designed to be taught in heterogeneously grouped classes.

In English classes, students were taught how to write an IB commentary (a detailed, coherent literary interpretation of a brief passage or poem). This was introduced using scaffolding techniques that gave students writing support. In social studies classes, teachers integrated the IB historical investigation (an annotated bibliography based on a student-generated research question). Teachers also developed process and product rubrics to assess individual student growth.

Learning became personalized with the establishment of writing portfolios and individual conferences, which became part of practice in both English and social studies classes. Struggling students have access to 10th-grade English language arts support classes, which were transformed from remedial classes into classes that pre- and post-teach the enriched content of the 10th-grade English and social studies classes.

Detracking, coupled with rigorous curriculum, continued. In September 2005, an accelerated course in advanced algebra, trigonometry and pre-calculus called Mathematics B Year 2 was detracked and taught to 10th graders in heterogeneously grouped classes. To meet the needs of struggling learners, we offer every-other-day support classes. In addition, an alternate-day elective, Advanced Math Topics, is available to any sophomore who wants to study mathematical theory. The following school year, 10th-grade chemistry classes were detracked. Support classes were instituted, and a period of instruction once in a six-day cycle was included for students who wanted additional challenge.

Finally, teachers created extension activities for detracked classes, which allowed students to further explore topics and enhance their learning. Each extension activity was carefully constructed to provide choice and to appeal to the multiple intelligences and talents of students. By the time students are asked to choose whether they wanted to enroll in IB classes in the 11th grade, they are comfortable with challenging curricula, and each year more students opt to take IB.

Effects of Rigor
The goal of detracking is to give each student access to the high school’s best curriculum. With each successive wave of detracking, more students gained the skills and the confidence to succeed. Next year 84 percent of all South Side High School seniors (Class of 2008) will have taken an International Baccalaureate Math course, and 50 percent of the class have declared themselves to be full IB diploma candidates. Course selections for the Class of 2009 are even more remarkable — 85 percent elected to take IB English and IB Math and 68 percent have registered to pursue the full IB diploma. This is the first cohort of students who were detracked in all subjects through the end of the 10th grade.

Although a gap remains between majority and minority students in IB enrollment, it is rapidly closing. After detracking grades 6-9, the gap in the earning of the New York State Regents diploma by Rockville Centre students nearly disappeared, with the percentage of our African American and Latino students far outpacing white students in New York state in earning Regents diplomas. As we moved forward into the 10th grade with a pre-IB curriculum for all students, more students of all racial and ethnic groups took on the challenge of the International Baccalaureate and its rigorous examinations.

Although only a handful of minority students selected IB courses when grades 9 and 10 were tracked, more than half of all African-American and Latino students are taking IB English, IB History and IB Mathematics courses, and nearly a third of all minority students in the Class of 2009 are IB diploma candidates. In addition, 50 percent of all African American and 42 percent of all Latino students have decided to take physics next year.

Even as the number of students taking IB courses has increased, students continue to excel on IB examinations. IB exams are graded on a scale of 1 (lowest) to 7 (highest) with a 4 considered the passing score, comparable to a 3 on an AP exam. In 2002, 24 percent of the entire senior class scored a 4 or above on the IB English exam. By 2006, 68 percent of the graduating class had achieved a score of 4 or above on the exam. The same trend was found in IB math courses — 32 percent of the class of 2002 achieved a score of 4 or better on an IB Math exam; 70 percent scored at the same level in 2006. The mean scores of South Side High School are competitive with the mean scores of IB scores of schools around the world. And most of those schools are elite private high schools.

We strongly believe even if a student does not earn the diploma or scores below a 4 on the exam, the benefit of rigorous curriculum, combined with the excellent assessments of the IB, prepare our students well for college. And a detracked curriculum that seeks to meet the needs of all learners is the best preparation for the rigors of IB.

As wonderful as the achievement data are, the stories behind the data give us the greatest satisfaction. The true benefits of detracking are observed when you see the pride of struggling students when they achieve. At this year’s high school prom, a Latino student stopped one of us (Burris) at the door. He excitedly reported that he had passed the Mathematics B Regents exam and the Regents Chemistry exam, thus meeting the requirements for a Regents diploma with advanced designation.

He was a student who had struggled, but he persisted in both courses, even after failing the Mathematics B Regents examination on two prior occasions. The next day the principal related the anecdote to her faculty. She concluded by saying, “When academic achievement becomes the conversation at the prom, we know we have made a difference. Five years from now he may not remember the difference between acids and bases or how to determine the size of an inscribed angle, but he will know how to persist so that he can achieve his goals. He will see himself as a successful learner who will, eventually, get it.”

The high school administration and faculty know that prior to detracking, after the first failure this student probably would have been moved to a lower track, along with a pat on the head for making a good try. Or perhaps he never would have been allowed to take such a rigorous math course at all.

Personalized Training
As our classes became more heterogeneous, our teachers became more ingenious. The standard teacher-centered lesson plan was replaced with engaging, varied and flexible instructional practices. This shift required a multiyear, districtwide professional development plan with this overarching goal: “Each teacher will acquire the knowledge and skills needed to teach for deep understanding and independent learning.”

The school district’s model for professional development includes a variety of learning experiences that creatively maximize professional time within the parameters of the teachers’ contract. We replaced three superintendent’s conference days with three personalized, customized conference days in which schools remain in session. Such sessions provide teachers, teaching assistants and administrators with a foundation for redesigning our instructional model.

During our first phase of staff development for detracked classes, we adopted and adapted the balanced literacy model for both literacy instruction and personalized instruction. Balanced literacy moves students along a continuum from teacher dependence to independence as they apply reading and writing strategies across curricula. Within a unit of study, students start at different points and move to independent achievement of the unit objectives. The teacher identifies the readiness of the student, plans lessons to address the range in the classroom and continuously monitors student progress.

Our teachers’ contract also requires that each year teachers participate in 20 hours of professional development after school. The second phase of our professional development plan effectively uses these hours for building-based activities. As teachers began to differentiate and personalize instruction for students, we differentiated and personalized staff development by building. Research by Anne C. Lewis in her August 2002 article in Phi Delta Kappan on the academic growth of students as a result of strong building-based professional communities provided an impetus for our use of this model.

A professional development team comprised of the principal (Burris) and two high school faculty members, English teacher Christine Brown and art teacher Keith Gamache, researched the literature on differentiating secondary school instruction and designed five two-hour professional development sessions for the high school. Three interactive sessions provided teachers with experiences in participating in and assessing differentiated lessons. Teachers learned to differentiate by achievement, multiple intelligences and interest.

During the remaining two sessions, teachers worked in small groups to design and teach a differentiated lesson on a curricular topic. Based on feedback from their peers, teachers modified the lesson and then submitted the finished product for publication in a building catalog of differentiated lessons.

The following year this professional development team provided turnkey training to the principal and teacher teams from our middle school and our five elementary schools. Each building team then customized the training based on the instructional needs of its teachers. Elementary teachers contributed their lessons to a districtwide anthology of differentiated lessons while middle school teachers created their own collection.

The next year, in response to teacher input, the high school professional development team researched the lesson study model and used it to further embed differentiated practice. Teachers wanted to work in collaborative groups to create differentiated lessons to be taught to their heterogeneously grouped classes.

Initially, each high school teacher received a collection of articles to build background knowledge on the lesson study model. The design team then led an after-school informational session with the high school staff. Teachers formed collaborative groups of two to four members, based on common preparations, to plan a differentiated lesson. One teacher volunteered to teach the lesson to one of her or his classes while the other team members observed. The team then unpacked the lesson using a rubric to evaluate differentiated lessons that focus on the achievement of the learning objective. Another member of the group then taught the revised lesson while members watched.

The planning and revision of the lesson took place after school during contractual professional development time. Each team completed two cycles of the lesson study. Our other six buildings will replicate this practice through turnkey training during the next school year.

There is no quick fix for changing teachers’ practices. An incremental, long-term view of professional development results in teachers developing a deeper understanding of the design and implementation of student-centered lessons that actively engage each learner. As the gap narrows between research and practice, supervisors must monitor, support and participate as teachers move from an established comfort level through a temporary disconcerting period, to the point where collaborative planning of a well-designed differentiated lesson becomes the norm.

Sharing best practices, both on paper via lessons plans and in action via class observations, is becoming a natural part of the planning process as teachers open their minds and the doors to their classrooms.

What We’ve Learned
As we reflect on our progress in offering all students a rigorous academic curriculum in detracked classes, we identified six areas as critical for success: curriculum, classes, data, goals, professional development and persistence.

• Curriculum must be designed by a team of teachers and administrators, carefully implemented with scheduled review meetings and closely monitored through lesson plan review and classroom observations.
• Classes must be carefully balanced among high-achieving, struggling and special education students to avoid de facto tracking.
• Data must be collected, analyzed and disseminated. Disaggregate the data to demonstrate the impact of the program on all students.
• Establish goals to measure progress. Never lose sight of the purpose of detracking — all students deserve the best curriculum.
• Sustain professional development and add to it incrementally. Provide time for collaboration and reflection.
• Persist with vigilance because the tracking wars never end.

Delia Garrity is assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction in the Rockville Centre Union Free School District, 128 Shepherd St., Rockville Centre, NY 11570. E-mail: dgarrity@rvcschools.org. Carol Burris is the principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, N.Y.