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NCLB Outrages

Schools Rush to Change:

Ohanian Comment: This article's subhead is To raise middle school literacy, the city adopts with little preparation an unproved curriculum. Indeed. What’s interesting here is the total absence of curriculum history in Baltimore. The journalist is quick to damn Studio Course while never bringing up the issue of why the previous curriculum failed the children. I know nothing about the curriculum. I do know that Lauren Resnick is director of the Institute for Learning. I also know that it's a good idea to get kids reading--anyting. High-interest magazines and novels for middle graders is a good idea. That said, the way they went about bringing in a radical change, is worse than abominable.

Now to the history, why you should care, and why this story is filed under No Child Left Behind: Under the direction of Chris Doherty, program director in the Office of the Assistant Secretary within the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE), many Baltimore schools used scripted curricula. Doherty is now responsible for the administration of the Reading First Program.

Before coming to OESE, Mr. Doherty was the head of a private Baltimore \ organization that operates public schools, consults with and advises schools and school districts, authors, publishes and sells curriculum and offers on-line teacher education courses.
--U. S. Department of Education website

Translation: As head of the nonprofit Baltimore Curriculum Project, funded by the Abell Foundation, Doherty brought DISTAR/Direct Instruction to 18 Baltimore public schools. Its efforts have been described as “lackluster.” And worse.

And before Baltimore, Doherty taught Direct Instruction in Chicago.

After funding Direct Instruction for five years in Baltimore, the Abell Foundation called uncle:

Beginning with six pilot schools and eventually expanding to 18, implementation proved extremely difficult, for the same reasons that plague most school reform efforts: high teacher turnover, constant external demands that distract schools from focusing on instruction, weak commitment by school leadership, and the often intractable social and academic deficits typically found in children raised in poverty. Though there were some bright spots, all of these factors led to only incremental progress in student achievement in the project's first four years.
Source: http://www.abell.org/abellprograms/baltimore.html

NOTE: They blame teachers, administrators, the children, poverty. Not a word about the curriculum.

By Sara Neufeld

After a dismal performance on state standardized tests this spring, the Baltimore school system decided to overhaul the way it teaches reading and writing in middle schools.

Putting convention aside, officials spent at least $2 million on Studio Course, a curriculum that uses teen magazines, places grammar on the back burner and lets kids write about whatever they want.

But if better test results are what they're after, they have no evidence that Studio will deliver. The program has a track record in only one other city, Denver, where middle schools have seen reading and writing scores stagnate.

"I can't imagine Baltimore would be so ignorant to think it's research-based," said Kay Landon, a sixth-grade teacher in Denver. "They can look at our test scores. Our test scores have not gone up. The kids are getting shortchanged."

The implementation of the curriculum in Baltimore has been marked by some teachers starting the school year with no training, schools struggling to buy the necessary materials, and lesson plans being scrapped and rewritten, a review by The Sun has found.

School system officials, who say Studio is based on the latest reading theory, dismiss criticism that they implemented the curriculum too quickly.

"When the boat is sinking, you don't follow the manual," said Frank DeStefano, the system's deputy chief academic officer. "You fix it."

Studio is being used in all 21 of Baltimore's traditional middle schools, where more than 60 percent of pupils last school year failed the state reading test, plus two alternative schools and one kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school.

Among the magazines the schools are using to engage children: CosmoGIRL!, which has a feature this month called "Five Hot New Kisses," with explicit tips on making out, and Teen People, whose November issue includes the articles "Hot Boy Next Door" and "Flirt Better!" One lesson defines a noun as "stuff" and a verb as "what stuff does."

Maryland state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick is calling for an audit of the Studio curriculum in Baltimore to see if it is teaching children what they need to know for the state's standardized tests. She said Maryland's other 23 school systems are all teaching the requisite skills.

Until an audit proves Studio is teaching the state standards, she said, "I don't feel any level of comfort that [the city school system] is going to accelerate the performance of students."

Grasmick also questioned the timing of the school system's decision to use the curriculum: The school board signed off on a middle school reform plan, which included Studio, in July, six weeks before school began. It is standard practice in education, Grasmick said, to approve a new curriculum "a minimum of six months and usually a year" in advance, and to pilot it in a few schools to make sure it works before implementing it in an entire school system.

Peggy Jackson-Jobe, the administrator who oversees middle schools and spent a year planning middle school reforms, said school system officials decided to use Studio last winter but did not bring the matter before the school board until they needed start-up money.

But she and other system officials also said the school board required drastic changes in middle schools after the spring test scores.

"What we were told, I heard very loudly, was that this was an urgent issue and we needed to make some changes, and we needed to make them immediately," the system's chief academic officer, Linda Chinnia, said at a recent school board meeting where board members grilled top administrators about the Studio program.

At that meeting, Jackson-Jobe said of Studio: "I will not sit here and tell you that Studio Course is a panacea. But I will sit here and tell you that Studio Course is the beginning and with some tweaking and some work to it, I believe that we will accomplish our goal and that our students will achieve."

After being tested in a handful of schools, including a few in Montgomery County, Studio was implemented in Denver in 2002, the brainchild of that city school system's new chief academic officer, Sally Mentor Hay. Mentor Hay came to Denver under an unusual arrangement: The school system had outsourced with a think tank, the University of Pittsburgh's Institute for Learning, to fill its No. 2 position.

Mentor Hay, an Institute for Learning fellow, worked in Denver four days a week. Her salary was first covered by private grants, but by 2003, the school system was paying her and covering the cost of her travel between Denver and her California home, according to local news reports.

It was an opportunity for Mentor Hay to roll out a curriculum she had developed with a business partner, John McMillan, who is also affiliated with the Institute for Learning. The institute works with urban school systems around the country to center instruction around nine "Principles of Learning," such as setting clear expectations for students and recognizing small successes.

Last year, the Annie E. Casey Foundation paid $220,000 for the Baltimore school system to have a partnership with the institute. This year, the school system is paying $333,380 to continue that partnership.

The basic idea behind Studio is to improve children's reading and writing by getting them to read and write more. It requires schools to spend 90 minutes a day, half on writing and half on reading, and each classroom to have at least 800 books. Children read material that interests them and write on topics of their choice.

"Many of these students don't think that reading has anything in it for them, and they don't think they have anything to say in writing," said Mentor Hay, who left the Denver schools this year and works as a consultant to implement Studio in Baltimore. A new superintendent and chief academic officer in Denver this fall are studying whether to make changes to the curriculum.

In Studio, Mentor Hay said, "you give the very best curriculum and the very best instruction, instruction geared toward grade-level standards, to students who usually only get a very remedial, low-quality curriculum. To do that requires using the Principles of Learning, and it requires very sophisticated teaching and a lot of training. What makes a lot of difference is the quality of the implementation."

But implementing Studio, in Denver and in Baltimore, has been fraught with challenges.

In theory, Studio allows teachers to give pupils individual attention in areas where they need help - grammar and spelling, for example - while the children work independently on their own and in groups. But teachers say such a setup demands relatively small classes and strong classroom management, an area where new teachers often struggle.

"This curriculum literally doesn't allow you to be a first-year teacher," said Chrisanne LaHue, a teacher at Bruce Randolph School in Denver.

Baltimore's middle schools are filled with new teachers. Rosters show some classes with 40 or more pupils, though Jackson-Jobe said fewer show up. She said some children who have moved away still show up on class lists.

Karen Kotchka, the language arts instructional support teacher at William H. Lemmel Middle in West Baltimore, said at a recent school board meeting, "It is a lot to expect from a new teacher, to pick up and run with." Of her school's 10 language arts teachers, she said, one is a long-term substitute, two are in their first year of teaching, and three are in their second year of teaching.

Mentor Hay said new teachers can thrive using Studio because it provides the daily lessons they would otherwise have to plan. (Some veteran teachers complained the curriculum is too scripted.) She said that ideally, Studio classrooms would have no more than 30 pupils.

Studio requires every school to have class sets of at least five magazines of interest to preadolescents, in addition to the classroom libraries. In Denver and in Baltimore, getting those materials has been a struggle.

Jackson-Jobe said every middle school principal was required this year to put aside $5,000 per language arts teacher to purchase the books for classroom libraries. In addition, schools are responsible for covering the cost of their magazines, which did not arrive on time for a magazine unit.

Kotchka said at the board meeting that Lemmel "has had to divert the majority of its budget to buying the materials that are needed."

Some teachers praised high-quality books by minority authors studied in Studio, but expressed concerns about certain magazines being inappropriate.

Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said the union has received complaints about Studio from at least half the city's middle schools. She said teachers had "no input in the selection of the curriculum" and that some teachers did not learn about it until the first day of school - both contentions that administrators dispute.

Mentor Hay said she conducted training on Studio for about 200 Baltimore teachers in June. (The school board did not approve the use of the curriculum until July.) Other teachers did not receive training until after school started.

Jackson-Jobe said all teachers had the opportunity to be trained during the summer and paid for their time.

Teachers in both cities complained that the curriculum is being revised as it's implemented. During Studio's first year in Denver, some teachers said, they received one unit of lessons at a time while later units were being written.

Margaret Bobb, a teacher at Denver's Horace Mann Middle School, recalled an early teacher training session: "They talked about the magazine unit, 'Here's how you do it.' We went, 'OK, what's next?' They said, 'We're not going to tell you that. He's still writing it.' At which point, our jaws just dropped. ... We were the guinea pigs. We continue to be the guinea pigs."

Mentor Hay said she and McMillan revise the curriculum for each school system. In Baltimore, for example, she said they developed a poetry unit because the Maryland School Assessment tests children on poetry.

Because the curriculum is so complex, Mentor Hay said, "every school system struggles in the beginning."

Besides Baltimore and Denver, Mentor Hay said, Studio is being used in some schools in and around Los Angeles. Denver is the only system that has used the program long enough to judge its results.

Asked about Studio in Denver, Mentor Hay pointed to rises in test scores at four middle schools that she said implemented the program exactly as it was designed. But Bobb and Landon, who work at one of those schools, said the scores went up after the principal allowed teachers to deviate from Studio.

Citywide, the Denver children who were sixth-graders in the 2002-2003 school year saw their test scores decline slightly during their middle school years, while they were enrolled in Studio classes. As sixth-graders in 2003, 39 percent passed the Colorado reading test and 31 percent passed a separate state test in writing. As eighth-graders in 2005, 36 percent passed the reading test and 27 percent passed in writing.

DeStefano, Baltimore's deputy chief academic officer, said that if the city can keep its test scores from plummeting as children move through middle school, as Denver has, it will be a good first step. He said the initial goal is to "stop the bleeding."

In Baltimore, Studio has been implemented despite concerns of some school board members.

Board member Diane Bell-McKoy voted against contracts for Studio and other middle school reforms because they came before the board too close to the start of school.

On July 12, the school board approved a $525,000 contract for Studio Learning Inc. to provide materials and teacher training, and a $950,300 contract for the local Fund for Educational Excellence to send "professional developers" to work with teachers on Studio at 13 middle schools.

Jackson-Jobe said the professional developers were hired during the summer, which was too late for them to receive training until after school started.

By October, the school board was hearing complaints. Michael Carter, president of the Parent and Community Advisory Board, said several teachers had told him that Studio would not adequately prepare children for the state tests.

For the next two board meetings, school system administrators asked teachers and a principal to give testimony during public comment about their experience with Studio. Apart from the challenges noted by Kotchka, whose feedback was still largely positive, the comments were glowing.

Lora Phillips-Reed, another Lemmel teacher, said her pupils "feel that the class period is not long enough. They love my class. Because of this curriculum, I've become one of their favorite teachers."

Then on Nov. 8, Charlie Dugger, a teacher at Benjamin Franklin Junior High, came before the board and criticized the curriculum for its failure to grade children on grammar, punctuation and capitalization.

"We're cheating our children," he said. "Why is this being done? It's insulting to ... say, well, you know these children can't capitalize in the city and they don't know how to spell. You know why they don't know? Because we don't teach them."

Mentor Hay said in an interview that the curriculum addresses basic skills, but not right away: "The first thing is to build some fluency in writing, not to shut it down with overemphasis on spelling and grammar. That's not to say we don't teach it. We do. Easily the first six weeks in the program, that is not the focus. The focus is to get these kids to realize they have something to say."

At the school board meeting, Dugger distributed the handout from Studio defining nouns as "stuff" and verbs as "what stuff does." School board Chairman Brian D. Morris, usually one of the school system's most vocal supporters, found that hard to take.

"I can't say as a parent that I want you to tell my son that a noun is 'stuff,'" Morris said. "Maybe it's an approach to get to the same place, but in elementary school, you are taught that a noun is a person, place or thing."

Later that night, school system administrators gave a presentation to the board about their progress in Studio.

Board member Kalman R. "Buzzy" Hettleman asked how they were evaluating the program and how they researched their decision to use it.

Jackson-Jobe said the school system was working with the Studio consultants to develop an evaluation method. Chinnia, the chief academic officer, said the major evaluation will come on the state's standardized tests.

Hettleman repeated his other question: "What is the research base?"

"We went to Denver," Jackson-Jobe replied. "Denver implemented Studio Course, and I think they're in their fourth year of implementation. They have a population similar to ours."

Chinnia added that "another major factor" was that Studio is in line with the school system's theory about how children learn. What she failed to mention was that the theory comes from the Institute for Learning, whose employees wrote the Studio curriculum.


— Sara Neufeld
Baltimore Sun


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