March 11, 2014
Dr. Till was a panelist and resource expert on improving educator effectiveness through evaluation and compensation reform at The Hunt Institute’s 2014 Holshouser Legislators Retreat. (To learn more about this issue, see The Institute’s special re:VISION series on educator effectiveness here.) Under Dr. Till’s tenure, test scores have risen significantly. In the 2011-2012 school year, over 90 percent of schools achieved growth, and all of the high schools were above the state average for graduation. Last year, his school district was one of four finalists for the prestigious Broad Prize for Urban Education, which recognizes large urban districts for significant progress in increasing student performance and closing the achievement gap. Below he shares how his district transformed teaching and learning.
In 2013, Cumberland County Schools were recognized as a Broad Foundation Prize finalist for exceptional student outcomes and growth. Despite 60 percent of our students living in poverty, and the frequent moves of our military children, our increased graduation rate was about twice that of the 75 largest school districts in the country. For educators in our district, the Broad Foundation’s recognition was the culmination of many years of hard work and dedication to system-wide improvement.
Cumberland County Schools’ transformation began with a commitment to resetting our leadership compass to “True North,” the goal that all students would achieve growth. What differentiates True North from other reform approaches is that we challenged every member of our educational community – from teachers and principals to service staff – to focus their work on achieving our student growth goals.
We wanted the True North message to be consistent, and we used non-traditional approaches to communicate its meaning to our school communities. We decided the best approach would be to take every employee to our local sports arena and share our vision to everyone at the same time. Collateral material was developed, including a video that showed students disappearing from the screen the further we moved from True North on the compass. We also brought in Michael Fullan, international education reform expert on student achievement and leadership, to talk about system reform. Fullan’s research and strategies were used to form our professional learning communities.
From the beginning, our administration felt that it was important to change the school culture by having everyone feel some success during the first year of implementation of True North philosophy. Along with individually recognizing schools that made growth or high growth during the previous year, we acknowledged stellar attendance statistics – allowing all schools with a student attendance of 95 percent or better to stand and be recognized for their achievements. The second year, however, we shifted our focus to achievement and recognized schools that met set goals; we recognized 81 of our 87 schools for student growth.
Cumberland County Schools’ focus on growth contributed to the district narrowing the achievement gap with low-income students and recognition for having, as the Broad Foundation noted, “one of the most impressive student trajectories among urban school districts nationwide.” Our journey doesn’t end here. We are committed to continued improvement.