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In search of the ‘secret sauce’: Educators dissect how ‘beat the odds’ schools successfully raise test scores

There’s no one answer, of course, but individualized learning plans based on data-driven decisions are showing good results, officials say. So, too, do such extra touches as extra school time and family support services.

In search of the 'secret sauce': Educators dissect how 'beat the odds' schools successfully raise test scores

These days whenever someone in K-12 education manages to vault the yawning achievement gap, a quiet stampede ensues among policymakers hoping to pinpoint what went right and graft it onto every failing school in the country.

Most recently, Minnesota’s education reformers have been parsing a list of 15 schools that posted impressive results despite serving impoverished student bodies. They’re wondering what went right.

Or, as one quipped, “What’s the secret sauce?”

Earlier this month, alongside the grim news that the latest round of statewide standardized tests show Minnesota has made precious little progress on closing the gap, the Star Tribune published four column inches of good news.

Eye-popping results at ‘beat the odds’ schools
Under the headline “Beating the Odds,” the paper printed two charts, naming the top 10 high-poverty metro-area performers in math and reading. The lists included some eye-popping numbers and endless food for thought.

Seven of the schools on each list were charters and the remaining three on each were St. Paul public schools. Five schools made both lists. At seven of the schools, most students are learning English.

So, how’d they do it?

From longer school days to providing social services to families, each of the odds-beaters listed combines several approaches to drive student achievement. All tout the quality of their teachers and leaders, noting that they are all aligned with the particular school’s mission.

And all offer something extra, too.

Cedar Riverside Community School, for instance, is located inside the Minneapolis public housing complex of the same name and has strong relationships with the East African immigrant families who live there. St. Paul’s Dayton’s Bluff Elementary provides medical and other services to families in its East Side neighborhood, while north Minneapolis’ Harvest Prep has an extended school day.

“High-performing schools tend to look different from other American schools,” said Jon Bacal, head of Minneapolis Public Schools’ Office of New Schools. “There’s usually a sense of urgency.”

Beyond that, if there’s anything resembling secret sauce to be gleaned from the list, it’s that many of the schools engage in near-continual assessment of student performance using so-called growth-model tests, which track the progress of individual students as opposed to schools.

Test info helps tailor individual lesson plans
Instead of using the resulting information to grade teachers or schools, the high-performing schools hand the data to teams of teachers who use it to tailor lessons to individual kids.

This, in a roundabout way, explains why charters are disproportionately represented on the lists, several policymakers familiar with the schools in question said.

It’s not so much because they represent a superior model but because as independent schools, they can pick and choose approaches depending on the needs of a given student body — or even a single student.

Case in point: the Hiawatha Leadership Academy, which Bacal helped found in 2007 and which earned spots on both beat-the-odds lists. Not to be confused with Minneapolis’ nearby Hiawatha Elementary, the academy serves 310 impoverished, mostly minority children in the city’s Nokomis neighborhood.

Hiawatha started out serving kindergarteners and first-graders and added a grade each year. This was the first year it had third-graders, the youngest students required to take the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments.

More than 70 percent were rated proficient in math, 4 percent more than the statewide average for all grades. Some 68 percent read proficiently, compared with 72 percent statewide.


Hiawatha’s leaders weren’t surprised. In years past, the number of students performing at or above grade-level on their own internal tests has more than doubled — even including special-education students.

One reason: Hiawatha’s pupils spend 40 percent more hours in school than other kids. “It’s a key part of the formula,” said Bacal. “It’s adding the equivalent of a number of additional years.”

No one ‘magic bullet’
But more time isn’t a magic bullet, he cautioned.

More instructive in his view, Hiawatha shares a number of traits researchers have identified in other high-performing schools. At the top of that list are teachers and leaders who are effective, cohesive and in alignment with the school’s mission, he said.

Hiawatha’s teachers start work at 7:15, leave at 5 p.m. and remain accessible by phone until 8:30 in case there are homework struggles. Their pay is partially based on student performance, and teachers work together to mine test data to determine what is and isn’t working for each child.

According to Director Randal Eckart, testing data also are crucial to the success of Twin Cities International Elementary School. Its 600 East African students this year outpaced state averages in math. Almost all are English-language learners.

“They all have to pass their tests in English, even though they speak another language at home,” said Eckart. “They have to work doubly, triply hard.”

Each Twin Cities International pupil has an individual learning plan, and progress is measured frequently throughout the year. When goals aren’t being met, the school’s teaching team is quick to intervene.

“We group and regroup kids based on their reading scores,” said Eckart. “We measure the effectiveness of what we teach and try new strategies until we find what works. We’re constantly in motion, changing the way we teach.”

(An interesting aside: Because family income usually is an indicator of parental education levels, it might seem paradoxical to find so many schools catering to East African immigrants on a beat-the-odds list. But Somali and Oromo parents are often highly educated and poor.)

Al Fan is executive director of Charter School Partners, a local nonprofit working to create high-quality charter schools. Data-driven decision-making is one of the three pillars of the organization’s “Good to Great” campaign, he said.


“There’s a widely held saying in the education community that schools are data-rich and information-poor,” he said. “We want more than one year’s growth. The only way for every kid to grow more than one year is to know where those kids are at.”

Using data to fine-tune instruction in this way has been under discussion in Minnesota for about three years, according to Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. Educators have long known that conventional instruction may reach only 70 percent of students but have had little to guide them when it comes to reaching the rest.

Even in the last couple of years, tests have grown much more sophisticated, Kyte explained. Working in small groups known as professional learning communities, teachers can figure out what is and isn’t working for particular students.

“The fourth-grade teachers at XYZ Academy are combing the data from the third-graders to see where they are, what they’re missing,” he said. “It’s part of a national effort to be more scientific about how kids are learning.”

Charters aren’t unique in using data this way, he added. Both the state and federal departments of education have been pushing all schools to gather more information and make better use of it. “The smaller the school, the smaller the number of students in a class, the higher the flexibility,” Kyte said.

Do the numbers vindicate charters?

Not necessarily, in Fan’s opinion. “The beating-the-odds list shows the potential of the charter model to deliver better results,” he said. “But we’re not satisfied with these results. We know better is possible. Sixty-five percent is good, but the best of the best are reaching 80-plus.”

Beating the odds isn’t enough, he added. “It’s not enough anymore to provide an option,” Fan said. “My new definition of choice is when the child truly has the skills to decide what they want to do in life. … We want to raise the bar on what success looks like.”

Beth Hawkins writes about schools, criminal justice and other topics.