J.M. Wright Regional Vocational-Technical School
By the fall of 2000, the Connecticut Regional Vocational-Technical School System (RVTSS) had already set the wheels of change in motion with respect to technology at the 17 schools under their control. They had developed, in conjunction with the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium (CTDLC), a digital classroom model that would integrate the educational benefits of technology with the school's curriculum goals. The model showed promise in the pilot stage, and RVTSS administrators decided to expand the program in some of the lowest performing schools in the system.
The J.M. Wright Regional Vocational-Technical School in Stamford emerged as a prime candidate for across-the-board use of the new model with 10th graders during the 2001-2002 school year because approximately 71% of those students had scored at remedial level in reading on the state performance tests when they last took them in eighth grade. Teachers and administrators at the school agreed that they needed to focus on reading comprehension and problem-solving skills to help students boost their scores on the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT) when they tackled it in May of 2002.
"There was a need to raise the bar," says Diane Bauby, director of Wright Tech. "Connecticut is requiring that the class of 2006 meet graduation exit criteria. So our school improvement plan identified raising CAPT scores as an area for improvement."
Wright Tech had initially piloted one of the first digital classrooms in 2000-2001 and was lucky enough to have two master teachers fresh from that experience. Peg Sonntag and Trevor Jones volunteered to coach the cohort of teachers who would be using the model for this CAPT intervention. The six additional digital classrooms installed at Wright Tech each included 24 computers with Internet access arranged in a horseshoe shape around the perimeter of the classroom and a dialogue center in the middle of the room where students could share and clarify information, discuss their strategies for completing an assignment, and peer edit each other's products as part of the revising process. The instruction model revolved around the use of Web-based learning units, which were designed by Dr. George Cicchetti of the CTDLC and the teachers to allow students to research, build on their existing knowledge, and fashion innovative ways to look at real-world problems.
Administrators first discussed the rationale for the intervention with 10th grade academic teachers (math, science, social studies, and English), support staff, and bilingual teachers. The teachers then explained it to all sophomores on a class-by-class basis. All teachers agreed to participate in the intervention, which lasted about 12 weeks, from late February until the students took the CAPT in May. For the first two months, students would concentrate on four learning unitsmathematics, science, reading across the disciplines, and writing across the disciplinesspecifically designed by Dr. Cicchetti to target skills necessary for the CAPT test (www.ctdlc.org/votech). With the remaining time, students would tackle Web-based learning units that were designed by the teachers, reviewed by Dr. Cicchetti, Sonntag, and Jones, and aligned with the Connecticut Curriculum Frameworks. Students were also brought together in focus groups periodically to elicit comments about the progress of the initiative.
"I focused on the students as an important part of the process," Bauby says. "I listened to their opinions and suggestions. As a result, we became partners in the process."
Both the teachers and the administrators hoped for more than just improved test scores from the intervention. The staff strove, through the program, to change instruction at the school from a teacher-centered style to a student-centered style. Many felt this change would engage the students in their own learning and cut down on absenteeism and the number of discipline referrals. They also hoped the independence and confidence the students gained from this style of learning would increase their motivation and effort, and that the metacognitive coaching they received would improve their planning and self-checking skills. The rubrics used for assessment, which teachers and students referred to throughout the learning process, also were an integral part of the program and gave students a clear path to improvement.
School staff knew they would have to work as a team to bring about the desired changes. Bauby and Assistant Director Dr. Maria Romero both observed classes and conducted debriefing sessions with the teachers at the close of each day; RVTSS administrators Mike Suntag, John Tarnuzzer, and Ann Sandagata made visits to classrooms and debriefing sessions to support the teachers; and Sonntag, Jones, and Dr. Cicchetti coached the teachers and helped model strategies for implementing the program.
"Being that this is a totally new concept in education, our ability to guide and coach teachers helped reduce the stress level and set them at ease," says Jones.
Cicchetti, who had designed the prototype web-based learning units for the pilot digital classrooms and trained the first cohort of RVTSS teachers to develop and use their own units, trained all the 10th grade teachers at Wright Tech to work with the research-based unit structure through a series of face-to-face and online workshops. He gave each teacher a template of the structure so that teachers could use the same framework for multiple units.
The units were central to the digital classroom model's success. They included rubrics for assessment, dialogue center activities, scaffolding, and online resources, and were always designed to align with the Connecticut Framework, Curricular Goals, and Standards. They were also easily adaptable for all levels, and the use of technology allowed any student to work productively.
"I like the electronic translator," noted one student. "It allows me to read and understand the information independently rather than having to ask the bilingual teacher for help."
Because the units were available to everyone through the online database designed by the CTDLC, bilingual, mainstream, and special education teachers could converse without confusion about students' work and their progress in the classes. Teachers also made it clear that each student was to respect the comments of others in the dialogue center, creating an environment where all students felt comfortable talking through their thought processes.
The strength of the digital classroom model is the embedding of multiple learning strategies in all the units and a connection to real-world problems in the framing of the questions. Elements of reciprocal teaching and a cognitive apprenticeship model eased students into taking more active responsibility for their own learning. Teachers would begin by modeling a task for the students and conversing with the students about different ways of framing the questions or exploring the topic. Students then independently researched their ideas and returned to the dialogue center to demonstrate their thinking. Teachers provided feedback and scaffolding as necessary, but urged students to compare their problem-solving strategies and help other students through a peer-editing process. This allowed students to reflect on their thinking and revise or clarify their products.
Originally armed with a print version of the unit, web links, and transparencies to review the processes expected for each project, the students soon became the "teachers," demonstrating, explaining, and carrying out the strategies for their fellow students. The gradual release of responsibility to the students depended on the teacher's assessment of the group's performance. But the students quickly became engaged in their own learning and, as a result, learning in the classrooms became active, cooperative, constructive, and reflective. The students shared their thinking and feedback with others but completed their projects independently.
"They were being challenged with real-life situations in their academic classes," Bauby says. "The information was now current and relevant to their lives. Students began to value their teachers, and teachers realized that students were eager to learn."
Although teachers initially struggled with adopting a student-centered approach in the dialogue center and with making smooth transitions from discussion to computer work, they worked with their coaches to improve these areas and modeled problem-solving processes effectively. Once the teachers became comfortable with the digital classroom model, they saw an increase in the amount of substantive feedback offered by students about one another's products. Teachers also noted that students were staying on task for the full 80 minutes and felt more confidence in their abilities to create products that exceeded expectations.
In 2003, when a second cohort of Wright Tech 10th graders received full instruction in digital classrooms every other day, the CTDLC added an electronic portfolio to its site where students could post their best work. Again teachers saw evidence that this validated the students' academic efforts and encouraged more discussion and revision of projects.
"My students have a real purpose for publishing work samples," says Wright Tech culinary arts instructor James Rizzo. "An electronic resume and portfolio will assist them with getting a job. They are revising and editing products before publishing and are proud of what they published it's a great motivator."
Numerical, as well as anecdotal, data shows that students' increased control over the pace of their learningand the collaborative nature of the digital classroom modeldid indeed boost motivation to learn at Wright Tech. The school saw an 82% decrease in suspensions and a 7% increase in attendance. Detentions also decreased by 35% during the second cohort's intervention.
The rubrics included in the units gave students a clear path to improvement and allowed teachers to introduce high expectations for the quality of student work. This led to an approximately 70% decrease in the number of failing grades from the start of the 12-week intervention in 2002 to the end of the third marking period. During the second cohort's intervention, administrators looked at overall failure rates for 10th graders between 1999-2000 and 2002-2003 and found a 51% decrease in total.
"The school goal is that all students will exceed or meet expectations," says Jones. "Instructors see students who previously couldn't function [in an academic setting] now being able to function productively."
Perhaps one of the greatest testaments to the success of the program came out of the student focus group meetings after they had taken the CAPT tests: "We feel confident about how we did on the CAPT. Skills we learned in the digital classroom carried over to the CAPT."
The scores put an exclamation point on that statement, with only 49.4% of the 10th graders scoring at intervention level in reading on the May 2002 test as opposed to 71% on the eighth-grade test. That represents a 21.6% movement out of intervention.
"That indicated to us that a focused use of the digital classroom instructional model for as little as two intensive months was able to achieve significant growth in the target area," says Mike Suntag.
For the second cohort, administrators witnessed a 19.6% drop in students at intervention level on the CAPT reading test and a 5% drop in intervention numbers on CAPT math. The subgroups of this cohort also made major gains, including a 16.6% increase in the number of free and reduced-price lunch students attaining the proficient level in reading and a movement of 20.5% of these students out of intervention level in math. For bilingual students, 28% moved from non-literate to limited literate status on the Language Assessment Scales in just one year. (There is no breakout of CAPT performance for subgroups less than 20. Both the bilingual and special education groups at Wright Tech for 2003 contained less than 20 students.)
Administrators have now put a plan in motion to make Wright Tech a completely digital school by instituting the model with grades 9-12 and bringing trade/technical teachers in line with the program through the use of generic reading and writing units in their areas. The school is also working on bringing the math problem-solving processes in the units to science and trade classes. In addition, experienced digital classroom teachers from Wright Tech now collaborate with, coach, and run professional development sessions for teachers from other urban technical schools in the state.
"Much of what is built into the learning units is structured so students can use their strengths," says Jones. "This is an ongoing process."