When EDC’s Ruby Midkiff began working as a site coordinator at the Martin Luther King (MLK) Middle School in Monroe, Louisiana, it was a safe, orderly, and “healthy” school with an optimistic outlook. The school recognized its essential strengths—a strong principal and excellent teachers—but it also had identified serious weaknesses. “What was missing,” Midkiff recalls, “was a rigorous curriculum with assessment.” To jump start its school improvement effort, the school turned to Midkiff and EDC’s AIM at Middle-Grades Results project.
AIM, originally funded by the U.S. Department of Education, is a comprehensive school reform program that assists middle-grades schools in becoming high-performing learning and caring organizations. Building on its successes in 15 schools around the country, AIM is now offering its consultation and professional development services to others.
Midkiff began by working with MLK’s school leadership team to help the school examine its resources, look at past performance, and identify future goals using a process called “Creating Tomorrow.”
“By the time they have completed this process, AIM schools have developed a long-term plan for school improvement, and both faculty and community members own responsibility for both the plan and its results,” says Glenda Copeland, the EDC project director.
Over the past three years, the school’s 744 students, 90 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced price lunch, have steadily improved their performance on state standardized tests. “Working with teams, holding meetings, and keeping the focus, helped move the philosophy of the school to pay more attention to strong academics,” says Midkiff. “MLK was selected as a blue ribbon school in Louisiana. It’s not a top performing school academically, but it is on the road to getting there, because their increases in testing scores are consistent.”
Over three years the team and site developer focused on six key issues:
- Rigorous and developmentally responsive curriculum, instruction, and assessment
- A safe and healthy school climate for learning and development
- Ongoing professional development that results in an inclusive and powerful learning community
- Strong links between family, school, and community
- Collaborative leadership
- Innovative use and integration of technology to support curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional development
A paradoxical kind of technical assistance—intensive, yet hands-off—distinguishes the AIM approach. “Once real improvement began to take hold, our site developer was insightful enough to let us continue with our own momentum,” says Corie Williams, a teacher at Martin Luther King School. “She was careful not to upset the motion, but at the same time, she always monitored our progress so that if we hit a ‘pothole,’ so to speak. She was able and ready to help us figure out what we needed to do to go around that hole without losing any precious momentum.”
The AIM Approach
AIM pedagogy is built on the framework of Teaching for Understanding (TFU), a term first coined by Howard Gardner and David Perkins at Harvard Project Zero. AIM’s approach to Teaching for Understanding adapts the Understanding by Design process developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, and focuses on the use of “enduring understandings” and “essential questions” to guide student learning that meets local curriculum standards. To launch the process at MLK, AIM invited the entire faculty to two three-day institutes to introduce them to TFU and how to implement it in the classroom. During the institutes, teachers would begin to work in teams to develop an instructional unit that reflected the TFU approach. As they used the new units in class, the teachers, with AIM assistance, would continue to help each other refine the units, and ask other faculty members to help with problem-solving. Throughout the process of implementing TFU, the AIM team provided support for the leadership team, cultivated “faculty inquiry teams,” ran professional development institutes, and provided access to resources and ongoing assistance.
In its focus on academics, the MLK school implemented a “backward mapping” approach that focuses on identifying the important learnings that teachers want students to master, determining what would serve as evidence of mastery, and then planning instruction and assessment accordingly. For example, an English teacher might substitute the traditional act-by-act teaching of Romeo and Juliet with a lesson plan that focused on understanding the language of Shakespeare, the power of poetry as opposed to another narrative style, and key themes in the play such as the ways in which group affiliation (e.g., religion, race, family background) can affect interpersonal relationships. Working with colleagues on a TFU team, the teacher would refine the “understandings” that he wanted students to master and identify a broad array of instructional techniques designed to engage diverse learners and foster understanding.
To develop more fruitful and useful assessment, schools like MLK offer students “continual feedback” on their work, always tying performance to the stated criteria of understanding the material. Assessment is viewed as an integral part of the instructional process that fosters understanding rather than simply an end-of-unit evaluation. For example, in a math project on perimeter and area, students were involved in a project that required designing and measuring spaces for different activities in a community center. At each phase of the project, students received feedback that helped them refine their work and improve the end-product.
As MLK made changes, Midkiff visited twice a month, meeting with teachers and school leaders and helping to strengthen the connection between the school and district administration. “Having an outside site developer helped expedite our improvement progress by leaps and bounds,” says Williams. “Of course, the model she used, the protocols, the structures that support student learning, were her first-line weapons. But she also was able to help us navigate some pretty tricky waters without scaring everyone involved.”
The Martin Luther King School “has honestly changed the way they do business,” agrees Copeland. “They’ve changed the way they work together and work with children. This school has embraced caring and concern for students, and they do things to express that in the way they work together. It permeates the whole school.”
Originally published on March 1, 2005