Launched in January 2020, the Charter Students with Disabilities Pilot Community Initiative supports a networked improvement community (NIC) of 10 charter management organizations (CMOs) aiming to dramatically improve outcomes for their students with disabilities. This story is part of a three part series that reflects on the CMOs’ learnings from an unusual 2020-2021 school year. Improvement Teams faced school closures and remote learning, but they also made time to plan changes that can systematically improve the way we serve students with disabilities.
By Ginger Wu, Tim Burke, and Paula Espinoza
hicago, Il. - Alphonso Medina saw changes in student engagement in his 10th grade social studies classes at Noble Rowe-Clark Math & Science Academy. After noticing his students’ interest in the George Floyd protests, Medina decided to teach a unit on the history of social protest around the world. He assigned readings about activists like Nelson Mandela and Gandhi and found that his students were more engaged with their assignments and took the topic more seriously when asked to do extended research.
“When we started with something familiar to them and the idea of change, we built an interest,” said Medina.
Medina was one of three social studies teachers at the Noble Network of Charter Schools who tested out new ideas through the continuous improvement process known as Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycles. PDSA cycles are helpful for trying new ideas and seeing what works and doesn't. Noble is focused on improving literacy for students and wanted to use the cycle to develop and test ideas for increasing engagement in reading.
The three teachers who engaged in PDSA cycles were new to the process. However, they quickly discovered how useful PDSA cycles were for making changes and seeing improvement in the classroom.
Connecting to Culturally Relevant Texts at Rowe-Clark
At Rowe-Clark, Matt Mosley had an idea to increase student engagement in reading. He hypothesized that if he chose articles about local history, his 11th grade U.S. history students would be more likely to read them. Mosley used PDSA cycles to quickly plan out and test his idea.
To engage in PDSA cycles, Mosley met with Marshall Street’s improvement advisors for 45-minute biweekly sessions. Through each cycle, Mosley proposed changes, evaluated data, and refined his lesson plans. For one PDSA cycle, Mosley had students read articles about Chicago’s buildings as a class. In another cycle, he asked his students to conduct research on local architecture and create a presentation.
“Kids looked up images of buildings and connected it to field trips and memories. One kid filmed a music video of a building and shared it with us, so there was definitely more engagement,” Mosley recounted.
Collaboration was also a key factor in the PDSA cycles at Rowe Clark. Medina collaborated with Mosley and the Marshall Street team. He implemented a similar change to engage his students by incorporating culturally relevant articles into his unit on social protest.
Onel Abreu, who coached Mosley and Medina, saw how PDSA cycles supported their progress. “It felt really tangible, and it was a huge support for how we got to the outcomes for the year,” reflected Abreu.
Setting Goals at DRW College Prep
At Noble DRW College Prep, social studies teacher Drew Matzen also used PDSA cycles to test Change Ideas in his classroom. Matzen noticed his students were not completing their reading assignments. By engaging in PDSA cycles, Matzen was able to collaborate with the Marshall Street team and his coach, Dustin Tatroe, to develop a hypothesis and put it to the test.
“PDSA cycles really help with defining problems. It helps prioritize things,” reflected Matzen. “You don’t feel like you’re on an island by yourself.”
Matzen hypothesized that his students would read more articles if they could see how literacy is helpful for reaching goals. To test this hypothesis, he created a survey to better understand his students' career goals after high school and showed them how improving their reading levels can set them up for success.
Matzen explained, “I gave them the choice to learn more about the careers they might be interested in while increasing their reading by using the Achieve3000 platform. We had more engaged students and buy-in as the months went on.”
Matzen met with Tatroe and the Marshall team to study how the changes in Matzen's practice led to increased student engagement, as measured by how many activities were completed on Achieve3000 in 2-week cycles. Through each PDSA cycle, Matzen used data to inform the next change for his students. Matzen came up with the idea for the career goal survey and implemented it during one cycle. In the next cycle, he decided to meet with students and help them set goals for the following week.
“This PDSA space helped anchor the coaching meetings,” recounted Tatroe. “We were scrappy, willing to try things out, and learn our way in what we were planning to do next.”
Matzen measured engagement for his eight focal students and saw that they were reading more, especially after he set up student conferences. When he began measuring engagement on May 1, Matzen saw that they read for 20 hours and 12 minutes for a 2-week period. By June 8, his students were engaged for 57 hours and 46 minutes for a 2-week period.
The three Noble teachers who participated in PDSA cycles saw increases in student engagement. PDSA cycles allowed them to quickly test ideas in their classrooms and measure results. They could iterate to make adaptations to the test and repeat the cycle.
Noble is dedicated to developing reading skills for students because they believe that literacy will set them up for postsecondary success. Noble will take the early learnings from the PDSA cycles to inform Change Ideas at Rowe-Clark and DRW College Prep next year. What they learned from these cycles can lead to replicable strategies for improving student literacy in classrooms across the network.
Tatroe believes that collaboration across the network can benefit students. He theorized, “Being able to share best practices across campuses, what's working at each site, how people are using the program, and data around what students like or don't like can take things to a higher level.”
Ginger Wu writes from Marshall Street Initiatives, a K-12 solutions lab that tackles persistent challenges in American public education. She co-authored this story with Marshall Street’s Improvement Advisors Tim Burke and Paula Espinoza. Learn more about Marshall Street’s work in continuous improvement at marshall.org.