Goal Missed—In Plenty Of Time

Paul Bass PhotoTamara Raiford and her colleagues vowed to have 90 percent of their first-graders reading at grade level by the middle of the school year. It didn’t happen. Now they have a new plan.

Raiford and her two fellow first-grade teachers at Davis Street 21st Century Magnet School set the goal last October. They shared ideas about how to improve their students’ reading in order to get there.

Then the mid-year results came in. Only 53 percent of the grade’s students made the “proficient” or “goal” levels on the tests, known as “DRAs” (for “Development Reading Assessments”).

Time for a plan B.

They reconvened one recent morning to plot their next move. They didn’t complain. They didn’t make excuses. They spent a half hour studying detailed breakdowns of their students’ test performance. Then they figured out which students need which kind of help to do better on the tests by year’s end.

Sometimes missing high goals can help teachers and students succeed, said Mary Durwin, a Davis administrator who helped the teachers analyze the data and put together a plan.

“You always need to look deeper” at the data, Durwin said. “It’s all about monitoring and adjusting instruction ...

“When you don’t meet your goals, what is your plan? How are you going to meet your goals? The teachers are learning together.”

The deliberations of Davis’s first-grade teachers offered a view on some of the latest approaches to trying to close the racial achievement gap in public schools. Connecticut has the largest gap in the nation between the performance of black and white students on standardized tests.

Davis has closed the gap. Its black students perform as well as the statewide average for white students.

Davis’s successes led it to become a “Tier One” school in New Haven’s evolving, nationally watched school reform plan. (Click here for a series of Independent articles on how Davis has led the way in innovation.)

It got there in part by starting early with testing—and by being willing to fail and learn from mistakes.

Davis’s three first-grade teachers monitor how students perform on tests from week to week. Along with parents and administrators, they draw up individualized plans for each student.

Then as a group, the three teachers meet around a table in the “West Wing,” a sun-drenched section of the school’s temporary Legion Avenue home, to compare notes, analyze results, and discuss how to improve. (Click here for a story about last October’s strategy session.)

The other day the trio—Raiford, who began teaching this year as a second career after working as a paraprofessional; veteran teacher Chris Elmore (at right in photo); and Melissa Romero (at left), a mid-year permanent sub (the regular teacher got pregnant, took a leave, then decided to stay home for good with her child)—gathered with administrator Durwin and a couple of Davis instructional coaches.

Raiford brought in pages of printed charts with breakdowns of each student’s numbers on each part of the test. She came up with the idea of preparing these sheets earlier in the year. Elmore liked the idea and followed suit. “I came in with my friend Miss Raiford’s format,” she announced. “unfortunately, it’s not typed…”

The 53 percent result was a “reality check.”

“Our children were still having trouble with decoding” chunks of words, Raiford concluded.

It turned out different groups of kids had different decoding problems. Some were having trouble with beginnings of words, others the end.

Some fell short on “digraphs”—two-letter combinations like “gh” and “th” that make one sound. Others struggled with “blends”: two consonants, like “pl,” that merge into a combined sound.

Two classes fell below goal in a sub-category called “Affricates.” Those are two-letter combinations like “dr” in “drum.”

“Some kids think it’s a ‘j,’” Durwin observed.

Raiford said it presents a physical barrier for some first-graders who haven’t yet developed the muscle control to make that sound. “I tell them to put their finger on their throat to hear where the sound is coming from.”

The teachers then came up with clusters of students within their classes who had the lower scores in the same categories. They’ll break the classes into those groups for part of the day and have them work on those categories.  Raiford also arranged for a high school tutor to come in for extra reading with six of her students; she prepared tailored reading for parents to do at home with their children.

Elmore, meanwhile, has agreed to offer extra reading instruction in Davis’s after-school program. Thirty first-graders signed up. Durwin added that students who end the year below goal will also be encouraged to attend Davis’s summer school.

In one of the three first-grade classrooms, 76 percent of the students did score above the goal. They, and high scorers in the other classrooms, are ready to work on a new set of reading skills, complex sounds that show up on a third-grade test. The first-grade teachers prepared to break them apart for those lessons, and to monitor their progress on a more advanced test.

Meanwhile, the kids falling behind will need more attention. Part of the challenge this year has been that Davis took in first-graders who went to a different school for kindergarten—where they didn’t take a “phonemic awareness” curriculum that develops their oral language skills. The kindergarteners learn that if you say “cat,” then substitute a “b” sound at the beginning, you say, “bat.” That meant they started behind the rest of the group and dragged down the scores.

That’s not an excuse to lower expectations, the teachers said. Part of the point of doing intensive data analysis as early as first grade is to prevent kids from falling behind before it really does become harder to bring them up to grade level.

So the teachers set a new goal. One took out a calculator. If each three more students in each class reach goal on the tests at the end of the school year, they can raise the average to 63 percent. If four do, they’ll reach 67 percent. Five, 73 percent.

They took a collective breath and decided on a new target: 75 percent.

In the higher-performing classroom, the goal remained at 90.

Stay tuned. We’ll return to see what happens.

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posted by: FIX THE SCHOOLS on April 6, 2010  2:43pm

Keep the lofty goals as they are.  And if you fall short on an interim basis, do whatever it takes to make up for it.

I continued to be inspired by the commitment and desire at Davis st. as related in these NHI stories.  In particular, the after school reading program and the extra summer school days are what ALL New Haven schools should be offering.

But I am curious as to what extent the NHFT work rules are being ignored by Davis St. teachers.  How has Lola Nathan been able to build a team that evidently works better than other schools?  Has she hired differently?  Has she turned over her staff?  Does she get consensus from her staff to “do whatever it takes”?  What makes the atmosphere at Davis st. different than other schools in New Haven?

At high performing urban charters, success starts with a shared professional culture among the adults.  This culture results in a relentless focus on high expectations for all teachers and their students.  Has Lola Nathan been able to do the same thing at her school?  If so, how?

C’mon NHI, lets get some in depth reporting on what the “Davis St. difference” is all about.

posted by: rocket on April 6, 2010  4:55pm

I can’t speak to the previous comment about what makes Davis Street different, but I am a firm believer that success in school cannot happen without involved, committed parents. Reading must be a priority at home. It is time to look at the habits of successful readers and their families and emulate them. Reading can occur at the grocery store, with the evening newspapers, on signs and billboards as you run errands, in short, everywhere. Until parents are as deeply committed as these teachers, we will not see the stunning success we are looking for.

posted by: NHPS Teacher on April 6, 2010  6:04pm

Lola supports her staff, backs them up when needed. and doesn’t take excuses from students, staff OR parents.  She also has the respect of most people in all three of those groups. 

That creates a climate of professionalism and trust.  As a teacher in New Haven, I also am in a place where I get support from competent administrators when students or parents try to escape consequences for their actions or second-guess the professional educators.  I have been in places where that is not the case.  That makes all the difference in the world.  If you’re not backed when you need it (and in a well-run place, those instances are rare) it is almost impossible to be effective. 

It doesn’t sound like Davis St. teachers are ignoring the contract work rules AT ALL.   

I remain excited by reform, as long as we can continue to candidly discuss the REAL problems in buildings.

posted by: Somewhere in CT (maybe New Haven, maybe not) on April 6, 2010  6:41pm

>But I am curious as to what extent the NHFT work rules are being ignored by Davis St. teachers.

They are probably just ahead of the curve. The new contract (starts next year, I think) allows schools to creatively structure things.

Good administration inspires teachers to bend the rules. Bad administration inspires teachers to rigorously adhere to them.

I always feel guilty walking into my building now because people are/were being written up for being late. I resent being on time. I feel rushed in the morning.  Does this inspire me to “bend the rules” ... HELL NO!


posted by: all about ego on April 6, 2010  10:45pm

I agree with Somewhere:  Siome administrators haven’t a clue what they’re doing - they merely follow a script from downtown, and rule by intimidation and lies.  People will only do what’s needed to keep their job under such circumstances - they certainly aren’t gonna go the extra mile for a dictator-like administrator that rules by the motto: “Do as I say - not as I do.”

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on April 6, 2010  11:52pm

Most people agree that the largest determinant of a child’s success in school is the presence of encouragement and involvement from that child’s home and neighborhood environment.
If this is true, then it implies that negative home and neighborhood environments are the leading cause of children not succeeding in school.
It makes sense for schools to provide some kind of after-school programs for children to do homework and get the extra help that they may not be able to get at home or in their neighborhood. However, this is not a solution to or a substitute for the problem of inadequate home and neighborhood environments.
I think that most people would also agree that the level to which a child is able to succeed is determined by the amount and quality of resources made available to them in school and at home. That is to say, the quality of the teaching staff, the quality of textbooks, materials, facilities, etc.
If this is true, then we can imply that schools with few resources, or with resources of low quality are a major cause of children not preforming as well as they potentially can.
What this means is that children generally come to school predetermined to either succeed of fail depending on their home and neighborhood life. It is then the teaching staff and type of resources made available in a specific school that determines how well or how poorly a child will do. However, this also means that a child who has access to great resources at school, but comes from a bad home environment may still be able to succeed. This also implies that even children who come from stable home lives may not succeed without proper schooling. Obviously there are exceptions, but what I laid out above is generally true.

We’ve established that a big part of school reform should be to get parent’s involved-great.
There was a time when the consensus was that urban schools are not performing well because the kid’s are choosing not to do well. This thinking has really begun to change recently, to where the consensus is that children are being effected by outside influences that contribute to poor school performance. So naturally, we began looking for parents to step up. However, this cannot be the end of the discussion; we must go one step further and acknowledge that there are outside influences that contribute to poor parenting as well.
We must understand that in northeastern post-industrial towns and cities, black migrants and Puerto Rican immigrants came at mid 20th century in search of manufacturing jobs so that they could stabilize their families just like generations of European immigrants had done for nearly a century. Unfortunately, these jobs were being moved to the suburbs where land and new facilities were cheaper, but where minorities were barred from. Jobs were also being sent to other countries where work was cheaper. These new groups of people who were in search of quickly evaporating jobs became confined in aging neighborhoods that were quickly loosing middle class residents, businesses, shops and a sense of community to the nearby suburbs.
One possible solution to this is to supply existing populations with free or price-reduced education, so they can become more competitive in the existing domestic US job market. To go along with this we could “ban the box”, which may help (I don’t know).
Another solution is to demand that this country bring manufacturing jobs back into our towns and cities. Many of the jobs will be low-skill and low-wage, but manufacturing quality goods in one’s own neighborhood is one of most uplifting, gratifying and civically activating things a person can do.
I would suggest we do both because right now the focus should be on uplifting the underemployed and unemployed adults so that they have something positive in their lives that they can be passed on to their children and to the kids in the community.
To me, this is the fundamental reform that is needed. This would help to ensure that as many kids as possible are able to succeed in our city’s schools.
Once this is addressed, then we can try to improve the facilities, teaching staff and resources that are made available in schools, so that we can better insure that kids are living up to their potential and doing as well as they can.

posted by: JB on April 7, 2010  12:18am

Sounds like a great group of teachers doing their best in a challenging situation.

I do want to ask, why is school with 53% proficiency in reading classified a top tier school?

[Editor’s Note: That’s a first-grade test, where the kids are starting out. Davis third- and eighth-graders exceed the state averages. See previous stories.]

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on April 7, 2010  8:53am

The real deal on Race to the top.


posted by: THREEFIFTHS on April 7, 2010  10:19am

Sorry wrong site.  The real deal to race to the top.


posted by: FIX THE SCHOOLS on April 7, 2010  1:30pm

Jonathan Hopkins,

The way that we will close the achievement gap is to focus on BOTH encouraging parents to be as involved with their child as humanly possible AND putting children in great schools.

But personally I think that as hard as it is to create better schools, it is exponentially harder to create better parents.  In fact we really don’t know how to change parenting, which is to say we really don’t know how to eradicate poverty and its consequences. 

But we do know what great schooling looks like.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on April 7, 2010  3:49pm

Jonathan Hopkins
I agree with most of what you have said. But you have to understand. This school reform is nothing more than reform school.This is nothing
more than corporate pinstripe pimps who are making big profits off of this so call school reform.In fact as I stated the governors across the country are now Skeptical About ‘Race to Top’ School Aid. Last you are right we need to bring these jobs back to this country.But we must also stop the rise of the HB-1 visa program,Because if we don’t you can have all of the most educated americans you want ,But there still will be out of a job.


posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on April 7, 2010  4:01pm

Fix the schools,
Ideally we would fix everything at once. I just personally feel that when there is a limited budget, money should be spent where it will be most effective, and based on my experiences, funneling money into education does not produce a good return on investment.
It’s true that we don’t know for sure how to “fix” parenting, but I think a good place to start is by supplying the types of jobs that today’s resident’s ancestors came to northeastern towns and cities for. It did wonders for Irish, Italians, Russian Jews and many other immigrant groups that came to New Haven for decades. The existence of manufacturing jobs in neighborhoods produced not only goods, but communities with civically involved residents, dense networks of local commerce and great public emenities.

Addressing the problems created by NAFTA, and democratic political figures will be key in returning jobs to places like New Haven. Back around the mid-20th century, factories began moving to the suburbs where land was cheaper, and constructing new facilities was easy thanks to ample federal subsidies. Not all companies moved at this time however, Sargeant Co., for example, was incentivized by the city of New Haven to establish a new facility on Long Wharf, which required abandonment of their Wooster Square site.
Providing incentives and tax breaks to companies just like we do for crap like 360 State would be a great place to begin. Beginning in the 60s, it also became popular for democratic political figures to impose new taxes on companies, which drove them elsewhere. So fair taxing will also be a major component. Another major contributor to manufacturing’s exodus was increased wages which caused hiring freezes (made worse by corporate greed), downsizing and eventual relocation. Wages will have to be relatively low, but reasonable. To address the problems of livable wages, instead of requiring companies to pay more, municipalities should help to decrease the cost of living, which is essentially the same thing as raising a wage. This can be achieved by providing the infrastructure for dense networks of commerce where daily needs are within walking distance of most homes. This gets rid of the need for cars which saves between $5,000-$10,000 per year per car. Local stores like groceries usually provide much healthier food, which over a lifetime greatly reduces health care costs, especially for employers.
Many of the problems we often hear about companies in the mid-west US not paying fair wages to workers is derived from the issues of workers being imported from far distances and overcharged for rooms, massive expendictures on transportation coupled with low wages. This can be avoided if what I mention above were implemented.
In my experience, the kids that failed in school didn’t do so because they didn’t have good schooling (they were in my class and had the same schooling I did) it was because of home and neighborhood influences. Jobs in our neighborhoods reduce crime, make streets safer, uplift the spirits of the employed and help the children to perform better in school as a result, which shows up in the test scores that people judge schools by.
I am not against improving schools directly, I just think the money could be better spent elsewhere, that would result in a greater return on investment as well as improved schools as a side effect.
Our neighborhoods weren’t developed around schools, they were developed around jobs. Newhallville, for example, is almost entirely made up of workforce housing built for the Winchester factory. Lincoln Basset was built for the neighborhood. When the jobs left, the neighborhood deteriorated and then the schools began showing poor performance as a result of decreased moral, few opportunities, and loss of community.

posted by: FIX THE SCHOOLS on April 7, 2010  5:04pm

JH - Agree with your logic and the inputs and resulting outcomes.  But how realistic is it to say for instance, that we would revamp our tax structure to lure businesses that have long since vanished to come back to cities with people who don’t have the skills to do the job?  I have been accused of being unrealistic regarding some of my prescriptions on these pages, but your solutions sure beat mine in terms of their creativity.

posted by: Westvillelocal on April 7, 2010  5:45pm

Why cant we focus on 100% rather than 75%? I do understand that every child is different and every household may not hold the same regard for education but why not go for the gusto!

Another question i have is where do these 53% of students come from? New haven K programs? private K programs? Out of town? The teachers can only work with the canvas they have so if its the new haven K programs that are not coming through, well, we need to get tough on them as well to help with better building blocks.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on April 7, 2010  5:48pm

I don’t know to what extent people are profiting off of school reform, but I do agree that these measures seem misguided and ultimately misplaced.

I think manufacturing jobs, of some kind, will be making their way back to our older towns and cities and not because of the need to reform schools. Our country doesn’t create anything except debt. We are still a industrial economy based on manufacturing, its just that we exported the dirty stuff to Mexico and the assembly lines to India and China. These places will likely gain more and more control of these industries causing prices to rise and coupled with the increase in transportation costs that are estimated for the near future, it will be just as cost efficient to hire Americans in America. Our imaginary domestic economy based on bank gambling that became less and less regulated finally blew up. Unfortunately, our solution to this seemed to be to make the problem bigger and worse-go figure. Foreign investors are getting smarter and are less likely to fall for the ole ‘bundled up crap that looks pretty’ trick.
It seems like our government is pretty set on taxing the citizenry more so that it can subsidize the unsustainable networks we’ve become dependent upon. Hopefully we get our act together and start producing goods that the world actually wants.
So I think I agree with you that manufacturing jobs aren’t going to come back because it may help schools and parents. However, I do think it will come back for other reasons with the same positive outcome for our neighborhoods and future generations.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on April 7, 2010  6:36pm

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on April 7, 2010 5:48pm

I don’t know to what extent people are profiting off of school reform, but I do agree that these measures seem misguided and ultimately misplaced

Big time.A friend of mine wrote this report.



Our imaginary domestic economy based on bank gambling that became less and less regulated finally blew up. Unfortunately, our solution to this seemed to be to make the problem bigger and worse-go figure. Foreign investors are getting smarter and are less likely to fall for the ole ‘bundled up crap that looks pretty’ trick.

In fact this story talks about this.


posted by: Josiah Brown on April 8, 2010  5:29pm

Because Christine Elmore is among the Davis teachers highlighted here, and because April is Poetry Month, below is an example of a related curriculum unit that she developed for students:

“Presenting Poetry to Children: Poems That Delight and Excite to Write”  http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/guides/2003/3/03.03.04.x.html

This is one of many units she has written in her more than a dozen different years as a Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute Fellow.

It happens that her Davis colleague Waltrina Kirkland-Mullins in 2010 is participating as a Fellow for the 11th time, this year in a literacy-related seminar: “The Art of Reading People: Character, Expression, Interpretation,” led by Jill Campbell, Professor of English.