As a morning math lesson wound down at Gildo Rey Elementary, a class of fifth-graders prepared to take a unit test.
“Say ‘I can do it,’ ” teacher Michael Fitzgerald called out.
“I can do it,” the students chanted back.
“Take two deep breaths,” he said.
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The students inhaled in chorus, then blew the air out.
A decade ago, few would have predicted that Gildo Rey, a collection of brick buildings tucked between apartment complexes and aging trailer parks in the South King County city of Auburn, would become one of the top-scoring public elementary schools in Washington state.
Back then, its test scores were middling at best, and the poverty level of its families was rising. In most cases, when a school’s poverty rate goes up, its test scores fall.
Yet at Gildo Rey, as the number of poor students rose, test scores climbed, too.
Last year, the school’s test performance in math placed it in the top 5 percent of the state’s roughly 1,100 elementary schools, even as its poverty rate approached 90 percent. Ninety percent of its third-graders, 95 percent of fourth-graders and 88 percent of fifth-graders passed the state math test, with the rates in reading not far behind.
Even more impressive, nearly three-quarters of Gildo Rey’s fourth-graders passed math with top scores (a four out of four), a rate comparable to schools in far wealthier neighborhoods.
The school’s ascent took time — about 10 years from the arrival of Robin Logan, a reading coach turned principal who was determined not to let the school founder.
Through trial and error, Logan worked with teachers to build a tightly run system that remains in place today, even though she’s now retired.
Teachers jointly plan lessons, pore over student work, test students frequently, and adjust the curriculum weekly and sometimes daily. They squeeze an hour and 45 minutes of math and reading into most school days, with an hourlong core lesson in students’ regular classrooms and more instruction in separate, small groups.
Just as important, teachers conduct class at a quick clip, starting sentences that students promptly finish, or telling them to raise their hands when they know an answer or whisper it to their neighbor.
“What’s wrong with those fractions, they don’t have a …” Fitzgerald said as his fifth-graders worked to solve h-31 4/9 = 25 5/6.
“A common denominator,”
they shouted together.
“And what do we know about adding and subtracting fractions?”
“You can’t add or subtract fractions without a common denominator.”
That style — and much of what Gildo Rey has done — draws heavily from the principles of a much-debated, 50-year-old teaching method called direct or explicit instruction, which is based on the idea that children learn best from a highly structured approach to teaching, with a lot of teacher-guided practice.
Such approaches generally fall on one end of the teaching spectrum, with so-called inquiry approaches on the other, in which teachers view themselves more as facilitators who guide rather than direct students, sometimes helping them discover knowledge on their own.
Supporters praise direct instruction as a research-proven method that is effective at raising student achievement. Critics say it focuses too much on rote drills and stifles creativity.
Gildo Rey teachers say they’ve sometimes been accused of just teaching to the test, a concern they reject.
They say their decision to embrace many direct instruction techniques was a practical matter. Most of their students, they say, need a lot of repetition to absorb concepts and skills they didn’t start learning until they arrived at school. The ones who don’t need that are excused from those lessons and given more challenging work.
If students leave elementary school without at least learning the minimum skills the state requires, they say, their futures look bleak.
So teachers structure each lesson — and every school day — to help every last student master them.
Teachers work closely
When Logan arrived at Gildo Rey in the fall of 1999, the school was hurting.
The percentage of students passing state tests had dipped into the 30s even though the poverty rate at the time was still in the mid-50s. Teachers mostly worked in isolation.
Logan, who has a charming but unrelenting will — “it’s just better to succumb,” one longtime teacher said — imposed one requirement from the start: Teachers had to work together.
“I just said all of us are better than any one of us,” she said.
Together, Logan and the teachers introduced a program for improving student behavior, then set to work improving reading instruction. Logan, with her reading background, added more phonics to the curriculum, saying she could see students needed it, especially the increasing numbers who arrived knowing little English.
In the lower grades, they chose a direct-instruction curriculum with a script outlining what and how teachers should teach. In the upper grades, Logan said, teachers used direct-instruction techniques, but designed their own lessons. Still, they worked together to ensure that they taught the same skills in the same way, classroom to classroom and grade to grade, keeping what worked and throwing out what didn’t.
“We built on our successes,” she said.
The staff also ended longtime practices such as pulling struggling students out of class to work one on one with instructional aides. While those students needed extra help to catch up, a number of teachers argued that the students missed important lessons that only put them further behind.
Instead, teachers added a second session of reading, placing every student in a small group based on skill level. Those who need extra help get much of it in these groups, which are readjusted every few months. The most experienced teachers work with the groups that need the most help.
When the small reading groups started, the school’s passage rates on state reading tests, which had dipped to a little over 50 percent, jumped up to the 80s.
In 2005, when reading seemed to be on a steady upward path, the teachers turned to math.
Because Logan didn’t have expertise in that subject, she relied on teachers who did, including Brendan Jeffreys, then a second-year teacher working on his master’s in math education.
Jeffreys had struggled with math when he was young and said those failures dissolved his self-esteem. As a teacher, he wanted to ensure his students never felt so lost.
Along with Logan and a few other teachers, Jeffreys volunteered to serve on state testing committees, where he gained a deep understanding of just what math skills the state wanted students to learn.
He and the other teachers quickly realized that the district’s math textbook didn’t cover a lot of what the state deems essential. They started supplementing it with other materials, Logan said, until they had so many supplements they just stopped using the book altogether.
Jeffreys, on his own, abandoned the book in the middle of his first year. Its lessons, he said, left his students perplexed.
“I do what I think is logical and deal with the consequences later,” he said. Logan “to her credit … accepted that.”
The reason: On the tests the school was giving, his students were making progress.
Making math add up
That same year, Jeffreys also started teaching math like he’d learned to teach literacy, peppering students with questions that they answered as a group.
Done with energy and enthusiasm, he said, the approach holds their attention, giving them little chance to tune out. When students gain confidence in their skills, he said, “their postures straighten, their shoulders square, and they shout the answers at you.”
He knew — and research shows — that students from wealthier neighborhoods start off with academic advantages. In math, that includes a better grip on early skills such as counting and measurement.
To help many of his students catch up, he figured he didn’t have a minute to waste — especially on inquiry approaches that assume students have background knowledge many of his students lacked.
He eventually developed a system he calls balanced math, which has many features of direct instruction — the fast pace, the constant review, the teacher modeling how to solve problems and the monitored practice. But it also includes teaching math concepts and problem solving, with the latter taught mainly in small groups now used in math as well as reading.
Jeffreys left Gildo Rey last fall for a job in the district’s central office that includes instructing other teachers in his math program. The approach is already widely used at Gildo Rey, including by Jeffreys’ protégé, third-year teacher Michael Fitzgerald.
Each day’s math lesson follows the same pattern.
First, students spend 10 or 15 minutes practicing math facts, to build fluency. One morning last month, Fitzgerald, 27, cued up a song and the students rolled a special die that lands with two numbers showing.
Students used those two numbers to write a series of equations — 7 x 4 = 28, 28/4 = 7, a whole “fact family.”
When the first song ended, the students counted up how many fact families they completed, then rolled the die again, with a second song and a goal of ending up with even more
families than they had the last time.
They then spent 15 or 20 minutes on review, a strategy to keep all the year’s math skills fresh in their minds and — perhaps most important — give more practice to students who need it, without requiring the teacher to stop and reteach the whole class, or just leave those students behind.
Fitzgerald displayed a problem on the classroom whiteboard, and students spent a few minutes solving it, thrusting their small, personal whiteboards in the air when they were done.
Fitzgerald nodded at those whose answers were right, and gave hints to the ones who weren’t there yet. Then he reinforced the skill by demonstrating the solution, having students chant each step along with him.
For the last 30 minutes, Fitzgerald launched into the new material — on this day, a word problem involving fractions — briskly following the same procedures.
The next day, in his small, skilled-based group, Fitzgerald insisted students do more than find the right answer — a key part of how the school teaches problem-solving.
Fifth-grader Jamira Lewis had to go back to her seat three times before she had everything Fitzgerald wanted — the answer, the equation she used to get it, and an explanation of why the equation worked.
“Do we let you just get it done here?” Fitzgerald asked rhetorically. “No,” he said, “You have to prove it. You have to show your thinking.”
Trade-offs and doubts
Gildo Rey doesn’t excel in every subject.
On state writing and science tests, the school performs above, but not way above, the state average.
Its focus on reading and math also has required trade-offs, such as cutting back on recess time and art instruction, and combining lessons in social studies and science with instruction in reading.
Critics of direct instruction, even the largely unscripted hybrids like what’s practiced at Gildo Rey, raise deeper questions.
With so much teacher guidance, they wonder whether students learn to think for themselves, think creatively, and understand math concepts well enough to tackle algebra and calculus. They wonder, in other words, whether students are learning what they need for life, not just for the next test.
About 20 miles north of Gildo Rey, Jessica Calabrese, a principal at Renton’s Lakeridge Elementary, said she feels strongly that schools should teach far more than the state’s learning standards.
She’s never visited Gildo Rey and said its scores show it’s clearly doing something right. But Lakeridge, she said, decided direct instruction wasn’t the best way to give its students the kind of deep conceptual understanding and reasoning skills that her staff believes will serve them best in the long run.
Across the country, at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, Jack Schneider, an assistant professor who has studied the history of direct instruction, says supporters and critics of the approach both have good points. Students need skills, he said, and research shows direct instruction techniques can be an effective way to teach them.
But they also need to think and be creative, and do as many projects as drills. Ideally, he said, all students would get both. Now, he said, students who get a full diet of direct instruction tend to be in high-poverty schools, and he questions the equity of that.
The now-retired Logan says Gildo Rey has used direct-instruction techniques judiciously. To her, students and their needs were the guide.
“You just look at each individual child in front of you and think, ‘This child can make it,’ and then figure out how,” she said.
Jeffreys dismisses criticism that Gildo Rey simply teaches to the test, pointing to the large percentage of students who earn high scores on state tests, which undercuts arguments that the school, by focusing so closely on state standards, aims too low.
“Because our kids have the practice and repetition,” he said, “they are able to take the concepts and skills and apply them to complex problem-solving activities because they really understand them.”
He also points to the fact that Gildo Rey students, when they move to sixth grade, still score well above district and state averages in math.
The school’s high scores also raise questions about whether the achievement gap between the rich and the poor is as intractable as many say, and whether schools can at least ensure all students reach the state’s basic expectations.
If schools like Gildo Rey can close the test-score gap — and there are others, even within the Auburn School District, with scores nearly as high — why can’t more schools do the same?
“There is no excuse,” said Jeffreys. “These kids can learn. We can move them forward.”
The key, the school’s supporters say, is not just what Gildo Rey’s teachers do, but how well they do it, with consistency, efficiency, a very close watch on student progress, and a commitment to give every student what they need, even if that means explaining division three hundred times.
One of Gildo Rey’s mantras is: “Without data, you are just another person with an opinion.”
Another might be: “Never give up.”
In Fitzgerald’s class recently, as Jeffreys taught a model lesson for a new teacher, some students didn’t get one of the problems the first time.
“If you didn’t get it right, nobody cares, including myself,” he told them.
“Your job is to …” he said.
“Learn,” they shout.
“If you got it wrong you are a …”
“If you got it right, you are a …”
Then Jeffreys worked through the problem one more time.
Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @LShawST