Sunday, August 28, 2011

Breaking the Barriers of Poor Performance - While Doing Things Right!

I Love the Mathematics Teachers of Phoenix Union HSD in Phoenix, AZ. They are a diverse bunch of highly committed and savvy adults - working for a very difficult and challenging educational cause in this very urban district. They are a blend of veterans and new leaders wanting to make a significant difference in their schools. And yet, to a great extent it appears they have reached a student mathematics performance plateau in their district of 12 high Schools.

In all regular level college prep mathematics courses offered, for the past five years, the data story will tell you that every year about 48% percent of the students will receive grades of D or F each Semester and 50% will not be able to pass the District designed and teacher leader developed rigorous Semester Final Exams.

In all honors level mathematics classes, the data for the past five years will reveal about 18% of students with a Semester grade of D or F and a 30% rate of not passing the District Final Exams.

On the surface you could wonder, is that it? Is that the best students in Phoenix Union can possibly ever perform in mathematics?

Are they subject to a glass ceiling barrier of performance they will never be able to break? 

That was the fundamental question the 50+ Department Chairs (in PUHSD they are called instructional leaders) and course based team leaders explored last week during PLC professional development time.

And yet, you need to know the context of this data story

They are doing everything the right way...

For the past Five years, the teachers and teacher leaders in PUHSD have done everything the right way. 

Here is part of their Story:

1) They have not lowered Standards of rigor just to get better results
         They give District wide final exams at the end of each Semester for all students of a given course. These exams have actually increased in rigor over the past 5 years, and are well on the way to preparing students for the CCSS 2014-2015 exams. At each high school, they work collaboratively to design Unit or Chapter exams to match and align with the District final exams. 

2) They have opened unprecedented access to the college prep and honors curriculum

          Greater numbers of students than ever before are receiving increased opportunity and access to college prep and honors curriculum at each school. Compared to just five years ago in the college prep curriculum:
From 4100 Algebra 1 students to 5200
From 2900 Geometry students to 4600
From 1200 Advanced Algebra Students to 2800

These same type of percent increases in student access and participation exist in the honors curriculum as well. It is interesting that despite these increased numbers of students in all mathematics courses, the data story has stayed the same. Grade distributions are about the same. Semester exam performance (A fixed standard for rigor and excellence) is about the same. This is a paradox, right? 

On one hand, all classes have expanded the number of students enrolled from five years ago, and held the performance levels the same. You could argue this is a victory for the faculty, staff and students, as greater numbers have access, yet performance has not decreased (it has stayed roughly the same)

On the other hand, the percent of students getting D's and F's doesn't seem to change - no matter how many students are in the course. In other words, there is this artificial ceiling on student performance. Almost a self-fulfilling prophecy invisible trap. 

Check it out at your school. No matter how many students you have enrolled in each mathematics class, year in year out, do you have about the same number of students getting D's and F's? Maybe for your school it is 28% or 22% or 35%. What type of numbers would it take before it bothers you enough to notice the steady pattern of invisible "Acceptable" performance?  

3) They have evidence in their PLC's of incredible pockets of Excellence

With permission, these two pictures shows some of the teacher leaders, talking about the way their mathematics learning Teams in their  PLC's  have taken off and broken through the barriers that seem to hold down PUHSD Students. They defy conventional wisdom as they have increased student access to the college prep curriculum and significantly lowered the Semester D and F rate (Recall the Tyranny of OR from an earlier blog entry).

For more details about these barrier breakers, you can contact the district leader for Mathematics in Phoenix Union, Mona Toncheff, at and visit the PUHSD mathematics blog at

Many of the PUHSD PLC teacher learning teams have been able to break that glass ceiling through a variety of student support programs, teaching and instructional design changes and of course creating an arena for increased student responsibility and preparation for assessment.

In my next blog entry I will focus on the two very specific formative assessment issues they are working on in 2011-2012 in PUHSD to break through the barriers to improved student performance so that the pockets of excellence become the norm for every team at every school!

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