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Palm Beach County Schools Test Notion of How You Get "Smart"

Efficacy is not as simple as its slogans. Imagine that.

Palm Beach County schools have a new definition of "smart."

It's a philosophy that says children are not born bright; they become intelligent. With hard work at school, each student can perform as well as the next, even if the child sitting beside him has an IQ in the gifted range.

Teachers cannot make excuses for low test scores, such as the child's welfare status or single-parent home, because every child who makes the effort can perform at grade level or higher, the theory says.

This concept of teaching and learning is making its way through Palm Beach County's 162 public schools. The school district is telling teachers and parents that there are no good reasons why every child cannot succeed, contrary to what many adults have been taught and have experienced.

One of the first schools to instill the philosophy, known as "efficacy," was Village Academy in Delray Beach, where almost all the students are considered poor. Not every teacher has been supportive, Principal Tammy Ferguson said, but most now think the impoverished neighborhood around the school has nothing to do with the quality of education in the building.

"I have had teachers who constantly blame the students and their backgrounds," Ferguson said. "But we are learning it's not the child's socioeconomic status. It's the quality of the teacher. We have to work within our realm of control."

Teachers meet weekly to scrutinize student progress and hash out improvement strategies. Village Academy uses several other techniques to upgrade student skills, such as a longer school day. And test scores are rising.

The mind-set also is being taught to parents, who are learning that their children can become more confident and better students with high expectations and specific techniques, such as analyzing tests to find learning trends. The district completed its first series of parent workshops in the fall at Calusa Elementary School in Boca Raton.

The district's staff of three efficacy trainers urged parents to discard the "brains theory" they learned as children. While many adults grew up to think certain children were smart and others were destined for failure, the trainers pointed to inventor Thomas Edison, whose teachers called him stupid, and actor Sidney Poitier, who was encouraged to choose a career washing dishes.

Parents shared their own experiences, times they were embarrassed at school because their teachers showed a lack of confidence in their abilities. They also learned how to instill confidence in their children and to get them to do homework without a fight.

"This reinforces what I was already doing," one parent, Dolores Campbell, said. "Now I know I was on the right track."

Efficacy has been criticized for re-marketing a concept educators have promoted for years: that all children can learn if adults have high expectations for them. In an opinion piece in The New York Times, former Assistant Secretary of Education Chester E. Finn Jr. wrote, "More like a cult in which belief transcends all, or a pop-psychology movement like EST, efficacy beckons adherents into its tent for soul-baring, esteem-enhancement and attitude adjustment but does not equip them with many tools."

Gail Burnaford, an education professor at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, said no studies prove efficacy's mantra that no one is born smart. Still, its techniques are valuable, she said, because it shows teachers specific ways to improve student performance.

"The teachers can look at their own practices and figure out which techniques have an impact," she said. Efficacy needs to be implemented with other programs, such as positive discipline techniques, to be successful, she said

Jeffrey Howard is president of The Efficacy Institute in Waltham, Mass., which is working closely with the school district. He points to several studies that have linked the movement with dramatic improvements in reading and math skills at schools in Washington, D.C., Milwaukee, Boston and St. Louis.

Howard, a social psychologist trained at Harvard, said he developed his theories from his experiences at a Chicago high school, where students were grouped based on their IQ scores. Although the students never were told which level they were on, he said, everyone knew, and it destroyed the confidence of many students.

"All IQ tests should be abolished," Howard said. "You should not compare children to one another. You should test against a standard and work under the assumption they should all get there."

At Village Academy, teacher Helen Newbold said she likes efficacy, but says it's not as simple as its slogans. Some students need testing for disabilities because they cannot read at grade level despite multiple ways of attacking the problem.

"Efficacy puts more pressure on the teacher to excel, but when a child is having a behavior problem and I get frustrated, it makes me stop and remember, `I am here to educate this child,'" Newbold said. "It makes you put aside your preconceived notions about a child's ability."

Lois Solomon can be reached at lsolomon@sun-sentinel.com or 561-243-6536.

— Lois Solomon
Palm Beach Post


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