How COVID-19 Disruptions Helped Catalyze a School Improvement Effort

When Page told me that received an inquiry from someone in our network asking to learn about schools that have successfully moved away from tracking in their math classes, I told him I knew just the place to go to learn more: Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School in South Burlington, VT, where one of our Principal Internship Candidates, Kathy De Natale (PIP ‘24), is in her fourth year as the District Math Coordinator


Working closely with teachers and administrators over the past few years, math classes in the middle school have shifted from a leveled model to a heterogeneous grouping model.  There used to be two levels, with one called “Math 8+.”  We wanted to know: How did the school move away from this model and what do the results look like so far?  


A Generous Host!


Kathy was happy to arrange our visit and was generous with her time!  Our visit included observations of six different classrooms across three middle school grades, a debrief with two teachers, and rich conversations with Kathy and the middle school principal and assistant principal. 


Prior to visiting classrooms, we met Kathy in the school lobby and peppered her with questions about the past, present and future of math education in the district.  It turns out that the interruption to traditional schooling that came with the COVID pandemic provided an important catalyst for change.  


The pandemic prompted the school, like many others, to reorganize students into separate grade level pods, limiting the potential for illness to spread across groups.  This also limited the number of teachers working with any one group of students, which meant that two levels of math couldn’t be offered to each pod – and no one at the school wanted to create pods that were grouped by ability level.  This was the end of Math 8+.  But, of course, there’s a lot more to the story.


How Schools Improve


Using the UVEI How Schools Improve Framework to reflect on all that we learned from our visit has brought us some new understanding, confirmed some things we thought we knew, and left us considering problems of practice and unresolved tensions that many other schools must also be facing. 


The “How Schools Improve Framework” (adapted from the work of Anthony Bryk and his colleagues, 2010) is a research based conceptual model that suggests schools that improve are those that strengthen what happens between teachers and students in the classroom. Schools can accomplish this by providing five essential supports:

1) Effective and distributed leadership

2) High quality teacher collaboration and capacity building

3) Coherent instructional guidance that supports teachers, in the form of curriculum, materials, and instructional frameworks

4) A positive school climate

5) Family and community engagement. 

Three of these “essential supports” were particularly relevant to what we experienced during our visit. 


Supportive and Distributive Leadership


Kathy, in her role as District Math Coordinator, described for us several years of close collaboration with school-based administrators.  


After our visit, I asked Page what stood out most to him about this collaboration among school and district leaders.  “I heard a lot about shared vision and focusing direction,” said Page, “The effort was not focused on detracking as the end goal – the focus was – and is – on a vision for high quality math instruction that mixed ability groupings support.”


We also heard about middle level grade teams that were not entirely satisfied with the impact that tracking in math was having in student groups in other subject areas.  So, when the pandemic prompted a rethinking of how students were organized, there was support from many teachers for the shift to mixed-ability groupings in math, as in other courses.  


In the period of the pandemic and in the years that followed, Kathy and the school leaders collaborated on scheduling, staffing, and other logistical issues that can often undermine improvement efforts.  There was also collaboration on the professional development teachers would receive, and on the use of a “math audit” conducted by an external consultant to shine light on areas for investigation and improvement.


Capacity Building & Collaboration


We visited a bunch of classrooms: two classrooms at each grade level, 6 – 8.  Two of the three grade level classrooms were closely aligned, reflecting co-planning and collaboration among teachers.  


“Having a common set of curriculum materials helps with alignment,” Page noted in my debrief with him, “but the more important alignment comes with the shared purpose and collaborative approach to designing lessons and teachers learning from each other along the way.”  

Not every school is going to have two math teachers per grade level, but this arrangement is one that Kathy and administrators have purposely arranged to foster collaboration.  Though such structures will look different at schools of different sizes, collaboration is possible in any setting, and it’s a key driver of school improvement. 


Instructional Guidance


“It’s also important,” noted Page in our debrief, “that they adopted a new high quality program with substantial input and support from the teachers.”  Indeed, in our visits to classrooms, we saw not just similar topics of study, but also similar approaches that reflected an emphasis on creativity, play, formative assessment, manipulatives and visual representations of learning. 

What we saw reflects the work of individual teachers, teams of teachers, and school leaders.  As we note in our UVEI Leadership Framework: “effective leaders recognize that education is a loosely coupled system in which they may influence classroom practice are unlikely to control it, therefore the efficacy of individual teacher efforts depends on the quality of the supports, the local community of practice that forms around their use, and collective commitment and engagement with use and continuous refinement of the components.”


Other drivers of school improvement


In our conversations with Kathy and the middle school principal and associate principal, one essential support for school improvement that does not appear to have been a significant factor was family engagement or involvement. This was likely the result of pandemic disruptions creating a sudden need for change, one among many others occurring at the time. 


As part of her involvement in the UVEI Principal Internship Program, one of Kathy’s goals is to increase communication with families about the rationale for the changes to the math program – and she’s looking forward to sharing the successes that have resulted as well.  


South Burlington has worked diligently over the past 4 years to make significant changes in mathematics,” Kathy told us.  “We have done curriculum work, updated programs, invested in professional development, established layer three interventions, moved to heterogeneous groupings through grade 10 and created a district position to coordinate the work vertically.  All of these elements working together are showing increased student outcomes which we are very proud of.  This work will continue to be honed and hopefully will continue to increase our student outcomes.


In addition to academic outcomes, Kathy and her colleagues can be proud of the culture of learning in the classrooms.  In our visit, we saw broad engagement and a culture that seemed characterized by mutual respect and enjoyment of learning.  A positive school climate is another driver of school improvement and while it was beyond the scope of our visit to fully experience the culture of the school, we saw signs of a healthy climate in the classrooms we visited.  


Context matters


As the How Schools Improve Framework points out, drivers of improvement have to play out within a climate of relational trust in a specific community and cultural context. In this example, the change played out in a unique and not easily replicated context of the pandemic, which required students to be podded in mixed ability groupings. This external disruption to the status quo created an opening for change that made future discussions of math groupings less about what new structure to adopt and more about whether the school should return to what had been.


That said, educators in any setting can be confident that with the right drivers of school improvement in place, thoughtful change that moves the school toward equity-centered deeper learning is possible.   


If you are interested in learning more about the work happening in this school or any other school in our network, please reach out to us!  We’d be glad to discuss the school improvement priorities at your site and to see how our network or programs can support you in your work!


Elijah Hawkes is UVEI’s Director for School Leadership, and this year he is Kathy De Natale’s faculty coach for the Principal Intern Program.


Bryk, A. S., Sebring, P. B., Allensworth, E., Luppescu, S., & Easton, J. Q. (2010). Organizing schools for improvement: Lessons from Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

UVEI (2021). Effective leadership framework: Standards of competency v2024. Lebanon, NH: Author