While students in the division are, on average, outperforming their peers in Virginia on the state’s Standards of Learning (SOL) tests, results vary greatly, with students of color and economically disadvantaged students demonstrating far less achievement than their white peers. Earlier this spring, Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit education consulting and analytical firm specializing in improving the academic performance of marginalized students, was hired by Albemarle County Public Schools (ACPS) to research and advise how the school division could close achievement gaps in reading and math in grades K-5 and in the division’s Algebra I program.
The directive to Bellwether from Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Matthew Haas, was to identify root causes for why SOL pass rates are lower for ACPS students of color than they are for their peers in the division as well as for other students of color across the state.
“This instructional audit is a way for us to better understand and to take more focused actions to address our school division’s historical pattern of persistent achievement gaps between our students of color and their peers in reading and math,” the superintendent said. “Every child has the capability to learn at a high level, and it is our responsibility to unleash that potential by focusing on high-quality teaching and learning that is relevant, competency-based, research-supported, culturally responsive, and results-oriented,” Haas said.
Bellwether’s team of education professionals visited 11 schools, nearly 90 classrooms, and conducted focus groups of teachers, students, parents and families. They produced reports on the experiences of students of color overall, and in the classroom, and on the impact that systems and structures now in place are having on their achievements. In a presentation to the Albemarle County School Board last week, the Bellwether team identified five root causes for the historical lack of progress in closing these achievement gaps. They found that:
- Instructional tasks do not consistently match the level of rigor required by SOL tests.
- Adults do not have all the knowledge and skills necessary to meet the instructional needs of all students.
- Gaps in the curriculum around K-5 interventions and Algebra I are serving as barriers for teachers and students.
- The alignment of the division’s structural approaches to the goals in its strategic plan (thriving students, affirming and empowering communities, and equitable and transformative resources) is unclear.
- Both internal and external stakeholders are not experiencing the level of engagement with the division that allows them to be valuable contributors to the closing of achievement gaps.
For each root cause, the Bellwether team offered recommendations, from organizing instruction around rigorous tasks to shaping professional development programs to focus on skills that will improve the delivery of instruction. Also suggested was expanding the division’s current instructional coaching model to increase the number of participating teachers. Other recommendations include:
- Investments in high-quality instructional materials, such as Algebra I and literacy curricula;
- Setting accountability measures for central office administrators and school-based teachers and staff in meeting student learning goals;
- Developing clearly understood connections between school division beliefs, individual actions, and decisions; and
- Enhancing the opportunities for students, families, teachers, school leaders, and community members and partners to participate in curricula decisions and course selections.
In an online survey following public release of the report, more than 800 teachers expressed support of the audit’s findings. A majority said the report matched their classroom experiences and that the root causes reflect their own concerns about challenges for students of color. A plurality of teachers supported the Bellwether recommendations and expressed strong interest in hearing more about their implementation.
In a video message to teachers that summarized the audit, Haas said, “Your opinions as highly skilled, experienced, and compassionate educators are invaluable in guiding and executing this work. I am asking and will continue to ask for your input as we unpack, tailor and adopt strategies to take action on the Bellwether report. The implementation of our actions to support student learning and achievement will be consistent across all of our classrooms and schools.”
Teachers will be collaborating with administrators, students and families to review the audit’s recommendations and develop action plans for school board review, and the board will be holding a work session in the fall on these plans, including timelines.
A copy of the Bellwether presentation to the school board and the audit’s four reports are available on the division’s Instructional Practices Audit web page.
CONTACT: Phil Giaramita, Public Affairs and Strategic Communications Officer