Over the last 40 years, family income has overtaken race as the best predictor of student achievement. Among Pittsburgh Public Schools, the general trend holds true. Schools serving more low-income students have lower test scores. But in part two of our three-part Life of Learning series, we report on one public school that has found a strategy for improving student achievement across the board.
Sunnyside Elementary School special education teacher Jennifer Barger said she never realized how powerful data could be, until her students started tracking their own.
“They’re like ‘Oh wow, I went up!’” Barger said. “I personally have seen huge growth since students have started taking over their accountability of learning and understanding why an A is an A, why is a B a B, and what do they need to do to improve.”
Students at Sunnyside Elementary in Stanton Heights have been tracking their own achievement data for the past several years. Barger and other teachers said it’s a good motivator for kids, and that it helps the adults understand each individual student’s academic journey.
For example, one of Barger’s students is Angelo LaFortune, an eighth grader who is legally blind. He first came to the United States from his native Haiti when he was 6 years old, to receive treatment for a brain tumor. He said he couldn’t read or speak English when he started at Sunnyside 2011.
Angelo is bright and well-spoken, and said he wants to go to college and become an attorney.
“But right now I’m learning a lot, reading and learning how to speak better, clearly,” he said. “I’m learning a lot of vocabulary words, how to spell. I’m learning how to travel around the neighborhood by myself using a cane. I’m learning how to read braille too. It’s not hard. It’s pretty easy.”
Angelo said he likes charting his own data and having information about himself, so he knows where he’s doing well and where he needs to work harder.
His story illustrates how important it is to put each student’s data in context.
“There’s so much more to them, there’s so much more to their story,” said STEM teacher Chris Warden. “Let’s talk about those grades, let’s talk about those changes, let’s talk about the fact that you’ve learned a new language in four years and are now participating daily in a regular education classroom, as opposed to a special education classroom.”
Even children as young as 6 years old, still two years away from their first standardized tests, are tracking their data at Sunnyside.
In Pam Reddick’s first grade class, students chart the results of their latest spelling test inside manila folders.
Crayoned-in bar graphs represent their weekly progress. On the back of each folder is a line graph measuring with even more specificity the first graders’ mastery of the language. It’s based on how well students can sound out nonsense words – like pim, or dat – to show they understand letter sounds. They get points for each sound and for each word as a whole.
“All of this is done individually,” Reddick said. “It’s one-on-one. We chart it immediately, they get to see whether they went up or down. There’s high fives, congratulations. If not, we talk about what they need to do to get better.”
Reddick and other Sunnyside teachers said their focus is on meeting each student at their level. There are no cookie cutter lessons here, said one 20-year veteran teacher. Every student is an individual, with their own challenges, their own strengths, and their own story.