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Research & Rationale

Closing the School Achievement Gap

An Interview with Dr. Jean Maddox

To cite this article: Maddox, J. Closing the School Achievement Gap. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. Kagan Online Magazine, Summer 2007. www.KaganOnline.com


In Winter 2004, Dr. Jean Maddox, Principal of Foster Road Elementary shared with Kagan the good news that her school had the highest academic growth points in their district. Jean identified Kagan Cooperative Learning as a “leading method for academic gain, social development, and improving ethnic relationships.”

Just recently, Jean followed up with more good news: Foster Road continues to post impressive gains and has maintained its position as the #1 growth elementary school in their district.

A Little Background

Foster Road Elementary (PreK-5) is part of the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District, just 20 minutes from metropolitan Los Angeles, California. The school is 82% Hispanic and Spanish is the primary language spoken in many students’ homes. Sixty-nine percent of Foster Road students qualify for free and reduced meals.

In 1999, Foster Road’s Academic Performance Index (API) was reported at 446, tied for the lowest elementary school in the district. This was the impetus for Jean and staff to make a dramatic turnaround for Foster Road. The school embraced Kagan cooperative learning structures, multiple intelligences strategies, and brain-based learning. API Growth ChartAnd ever since, Foster Road has been sailing past the state’s target growth, exceeding it by 485% in 2004. Foster Road retains the honor for the highest growth points in the district for all 25 elementary and middle schools.

The Growth Continues

In a recent report, Multiple Year Growth in API, Elementary Schools in Norwalk-La Mirada USD, Foster Road is identified as the #1 API elementary growth school. Including Foster Road, there are 18 elementary schools in the district. When we compare Foster Road’s 299 point growth to the rest of the district’s 180 point average, we see Foster Road’s growth is an impressive 65% higher. The chart to the right compares the API growth point difference.

Unparalleled Growth

Skeptics may argue that schools with the lowest initial scores have the most to gain, so the impressive gains aren’t as impressive as they appear. They may claim that there may not be something special going on at Foster Road, but rather since Foster Road was tied for the lowest performing school when API was first reported, their gains are expected. This criticism does not hold true when we look at comparison schools. When we average the three other original lowest scoring schools, their average gains were 198 points. At 299 points, Foster Road’s growth is still over 50% higher! Indeed, something special is going on at Foster Road.

Closing the School Achievement Gap

One of the most interesting and exciting things to note about these giant leaps forward is that Foster Road successfully closed the Achievement Gap between traditionally high and low achieving students and schools.

If we compare Foster Road in 1999 and 2006 to the three highest-scoring elementary schools, we see a wonderful trend. By transforming its approach to instruction, Foster Road is closing the chasm that separates the highest and lowest achieving schools within the district.

Year Foster Road Highest Schools Point Gap % Difference
1999 446 681 235 52.69%
2006 745 823 78 10.47%


On the following chart, the blue line represents Foster Road’s API score in 1999 and 2006. The red line represents the average of the three highest schools in the district. In 1999, the highest schools scored 235 points higher (53%). In 2006, the gap is down to 78 points, a mere 10% difference!

Closing the API Gap

Demographics haven't changed. The school serves the same student population, has the same administration, and most of the same staff — but it’s not the same school at all. These remarkable gains mirror the gains identified in cooperative learning research. There is a veritable catch-up effect. The gap narrows as a result of the bottom rapidly advancing to meet the top. What’s so encouraging with Foster Roads, is that this progress is evident on a school-wide level.

Foster Road serves as a shining example of how a dedicated group of educators can make a dramatic difference for students with diverse learning needs. A low-achieving school can start to look a whole lot more like a high-achieving school by using instruction that engages all learners.

An Interview with the Principal

Kagan Online Magazine (KM)

Jean Maddox (JM)

KM: Jean, I know you personally and know you are a humble, dedicated educator. You do it for the children, not for the recognition. You’d never toot your own horn. So I’ll do it for you. Wow! You are truly making a difference in many students’ lives. Congratulations!

JM: When we stop and take a deep breath yes, we have come a long way, but there is still so much to do. I am proud of my staff, and their persistence in transforming their skills to one of cooperation, so we can make a difference in students’ lives.


KM: Is it true that there are some pretty big differences in the elementary schools in your district? For example, how do demographics differ between your school and some high-achieving schools in the district?

JM:
Yes, we have two communities in one district with different needs. Norwalk has 10 Title 1 schools, and La Mirada has none except for our school’s population is very much like the Norwalk schools without the Title 1 funds. In La Mirada, we have only two elementary schools that have a high population of English Learners, Foster Road with Hispanic English Learners and Eastwood with Korean English Learners. Foster Road has 69% free and reduced, Dulles at 21%, Eastwood at 19%, Escalona at 21%, Gardernhill at 22%, and La Pulma at 24%.


KM: In your last article, you cite Kagan Cooperative Learning and Multiple Intelligences as a major contributing factor to your success. In your honest assessment, is Kagan still a major cause of the success with Foster Road students?

JM:
Kagan is a very important factor in our success. We know students are smart in different ways, and the more we learn about our students and how they learn we can plan strategies to best meet their needs. With my staff, I have modeled and shared Kagan Cooperative Learning structures, Multiple Intelligences, and Brain Research to help my teachers engage their students in their lessons. As a school and as a district we are reexamining our teaching. Within the last two years, we have focused on extensive literacy training and within our training we use Think-Pair-Share on a regular basis. We can teach more effectively with instructional strategies that encourage students to interact with one another in a more positive cooperative manner. Kagan provides a wide range of cooperative learning strategies which gives teachers a powerful set of tools that build student interactions and more meaning making on the content.


KM: At Kagan, we’ve adopted a new slogan: “It’s All About Engagement!” We believe that if you can successfully engage students who traditionally slip through the cracks, you will increase test scores; you will bridge the gap. How are your teachers using the Kagan Structures to boost engagement?

JM:
It is all about student engagement and making meaning. With Kagan Structures, students are engaged. My teachers are using the structures in a variety of ways. When in pairs for discussing and sharing they will structure the students as “A & B” giving the students equal time in sharing their ideas instead of one students doing all the talking and not giving the other a chance to share. They will number their groups and have the students put their heads together making sure everyone knows the answer and call a number to share out. They use a lot of RallyRobin and RallyTable in pairs and RoundRobin and RoundTable in groups to give students opportunities to share, discuss and review the material. Through the structures, my teachers are holding their students more accountable for the work. With students working in teams, they are able to pull students for small group instruction when they need a little more help or clarification. They use the structures for classbuilding and teambuilding.


KM: English, language arts, reading, and spelling are all heavily weighted in API. Now with nearly 90% Hispanic students, many with Spanish as a first language, how helpful is cooperative learning in developing English and communication skills?

JM: Cooperative Learning is very helpful for our English learners. 1) the student has more opportunities for language production in English promoting second language learning 2) the student feels safer to participate and share their responses with a partner providing a more cooperative learning environment to practice speaking the language 3) the students share and ask questions for a deeper understanding of the concepts through student interactions, encouragement, and support 4) students are engaged and learn both content and develop their language skills as they interact with their partner.

KM: Achievement test scores are important indicators, but they do not capture the whole story. For years, we’ve been telling educators you can have the best of both worlds. You can skyrocket achievement, but you can simultaneously do something more important — You can develop the whole child, especially socially and emotionally. Would you agree?

JM: Yes, our goal is the total child for if you focus on the total child you will develop a more helpful caring individual. We must foster emotional intelligence as well. Many of our students have some tough challenges that they face in their every day life. Our school is a positive safe place for our students to learn in. Developing a cooperative learning environment, gives the students a fun place to learn and build their self-confidence. We know fear is detrimental to optimal learning and brain development. Cooperative learning lowers the affective filter. It offers a relationship based community. Our students are learning to be responsible for their own actions. Their choices have an impact on others. We have less discipline problems as students learn to express themselves through safety, cooperation and respect for others and themselves.


KM:
If you were asked for a word of advice by a principal or superintendent struggling with raising test scores, what would you say?

JM: It is a learning process as you develop new skills. It requires a dedicated team willing to learn instructional strategies that engage students and build relationships among staff, students, parents, and community. We want to learn fast to help our students, but it does take time.


KM: Jean, congratulations again and keep up the terrific work you and your team are doing!

JM: Thank you for taking the time to compile this information about our school. It is great to have someone toot our horn for we are busy over here caring about our students. I do appreciate all the training that I have had throughout the years with Kagan Cooperative Learning for it has helped me develop my skills as an instructional leader. Keep sharing the learning that your terrific team is doing as well.