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Much Better Than Adequate Progress

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    Not surprisingly, the NCLB newsletter quotes selectively from this article. Karin Chenoweth spent her career at the Post bashing teachers. Here, the schools she describes do sound worthy. We will just have to take her word for it.

    By Jay Mathews

    Today I have a guest columnist, Karin Chenoweth, who used to write about schools for The Post but decided she would prefer actually to do something to help them, so she works for the non-profit Achievement Alliance.

    She told me that the recent package of school principal essays in the Post's Sunday Outlook section left a negative impression of the No Child Left Behind law, while she knew many principals who thought the new accountability system was good. She asked: Could they tell their stories too? I said sure. Here is the result:

    By Karin Chenoweth

    Outlook featured 11 principals explaining why their schools didn't make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) as defined by No Child Left Behind. Toward the end of the article, one of the principals said, "We're doing the best we can, but if someone can do it better, let them show us how."

    I have spent the last year-and-a-half searching out schools that are getting great results under very difficult conditions. These are schools where many of the children are poor but where just about all of them either meet or exceed state standards. These schools have little trouble making AYP. They may have a handle on doing it "better."

    I began this project without knowing what kinds of schools I would find. I was identifying the schools solely through state report-card data, and for all I knew they might have turned out to be the soul-deadening, test-prep factories that we are told characterize high-poverty schools that do well on state tests. But that is not what I have found. Instead, I have found vibrant intellectual communities where teachers and principals are constantly thinking about their profession and how to improve their instruction.

    These are people who are keenly aware that they may be the only thing standing between their students and lives of poverty and dependence. They are determined to make sure that their students have the kinds of opportunities that most middle-class children take for granted.

    The work they are doing is difficult, but they have approached it so thoughtfully and comprehensively that they make it look easy.

    Their schools aren't terribly well-known, in part because the folks in them are too busy to toot their own horns. But they have important lessons to teach. I asked a few of the principals I have met during this project to give a small taste of the kinds of things they do to be as successful as they are:

    Rock Hall Elementary School, Rock Hall, Md.

    Rock Hall, on the Eastern Shore in Kent County, has about 200 students, 60 percent of whom meet the federal standards for free and reduced-price meals. Seventy-five percent of the students are white, 25 percent African American, and 21 percent of the students are identified as having disabilities.

    Last year, 100 percent of the fourth-graders met state reading standards (28 percent exceeded them) and 100 percent of the third-graders met state math standards (40 percent exceeded them).

    Bess Engle, principal:

    "The first year Maryland administered state tests, in 1992, we were not prepared. It was the Maryland State Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP), which required a lot of reading, writing, and even some group work. We had kids throwing up in buckets, we had teachers crying.

    "When the scores came back, we were at the bottom of the state.

    "That experience taught us to raise expectations. I still think that MSPAP was too arduous for young children, but it tuned us in to the fact that young children can read and write much more than we ever thought possible. One purpose for state assessments is to raise expectations.

    "Today, our students perform at the same level as students in the wealthiest schools in Maryland.

    "To get the results we have gotten, you have to begin with a caring staff, and they need to know a great deal. My teachers are highly trained in reading instruction. They go to conferences and learn the most effective teaching methods to teach reading using motor skills, sight, sound and touch. My teachers reach out and use all the senses, all the talents.

    "We don't prepare specially for the new Maryland state tests, the MSAs, which replaced the old MSPAPs. We decided to focus on reading and writing, and we teach science and social studies as part of that. I'm a big believer in theme teaching, so if a teacher is teaching the fiction novel Stone Fox, she will teach math, geography, history and writing related to the book.

    "Three years ago we became a full-inclusion school, meaning that our students with disabilities are fully included in regular classrooms. If you walked through our classrooms, I don't believe that you could determine which students have Aspergers, autism, chromosome defect, major behavioral concerns, incarcerated parents, or loss of a parent recently due to suicide, unless I indicated which children they are. The expectation is that there are no excuses. They're all children capable of learning. Our job is to teach them.

    "Equally important for every child are love, respect, and dignity. I feel that from the moment I greet children as they get off the bus in the morning, until they leave, that each child receives an abundance of these."

    Centennial Place Elementary School, Atlanta, Ga.

    Located next door to a federal housing project, Centennial Place has about 520 students, 65 percent of whom qualify for free and reduced-price meals. Two nearby homeless shelters provide a steady stream of children. Ninety-five percent of the students are African American. About 8 percent of the students are identified as having disabilities.

    For the past few years, all but a very small handful of children have met state standards, and in 2005, half exceeded standards in reading and 20 percent exceeded them in math.

    Cynthia Kuhlman, principal:

    "When we first opened, in 1998, we were haunted by a story that no student from Fowler, the school Centennial Place replaced, had ever attended the Georgia Institute of Technology. The children grew up literally across the street from one of the most prestigious science institutions in the South, but none had ever been admitted. We agreed that a science theme school would best prepare students for Georgia Tech --- or at least for college. We worked with Georgia Tech faculty to develop the thematic units, and the students study biology, geology, physics and botany through hands-on projects. We have also worked hard to bring the arts to the school. Chuck Davis, the founder of the African-American Dance Ensemble, taught a week-long program here on African dance and on one memorable afternoon, the members of our orchestra met with Yo-Yo Ma, who put the children to work testing the acoustics of the Georgia Tech auditorium.

    "We don't teach to the test here at all. We have a curriculum that is mapped to the state's standards, and we teach almost entirely through theme-based projects. You would be hard pressed to find a worksheet at Centennial Place.

    "Teachers here collaborate all the time on lesson plans, on developing thematic units, on organizing field trips and other activities.

    "Twice a year I send an engraved invitation to each of my teachers and we meet individually to go over all their students' data and what their plans are to make sure each student gains ground. Students who are behind need to be caught up, and students who have mastered the curriculum need additional enrichment.

    "With that kind of careful analysis of the data and thoughtful curriculum, we do not have as our goal making Adequate Yearly Progress. We would never be happy meeting that. AYP is not good enough for us.

    "That said, in 2004, our school's data identified an issue with our students with disabilities. Only 50 percent had met state reading standards. We took it to heart. We went through a period where we didn't acknowledge that our special education students weren't doing well, but No Child Left Behind helped us focus.

    "We made sure that students with disabilities had access to all the programs and enrichment that other students have and we made sure that classroom teachers and special education teachers had enough time to plan and consult together. We focused the curriculum a little more tightly so that we taught fewer topics in more depth. The result of that effort is that 87 percent of our students with disabilities met or exceeded state math standards in 2005 and 85 percent met state reading standards.

    "Georgia's standards are about to be made more rigorous, which means making AYP may be a little more difficult. I am all for that. I think our children are up to the challenge, and our teachers are too."
    Frankford Elementary School, Frankford, Del.

    Frankford, which is not far from the road Washingtonians take when they drive to the Delaware beaches, has 450 students, 75 percent of whom meet the federal requirements for free and reduced-price meals. The school is roughly evenly divided among white, African American and Latino students. About 12 percent of the students in kindergarten through fifth grade are identified as having disabilities.

    In the fifth grade last year, 100 percent of the students met state reading standards (25 percent exceeded them) and 95 percent of all students met state math standards, including 81 percent of students with disabilities (34 percent exceeded them).

    Sharon Brittingham, who retired this year as principal after eight years at Frankford and 35 years in education:

    "When I first arrived at Frankford, the school was very low achieving. The attitude and the most commonly heard phrase among teachers was, 'You can't make chicken salad out of chicken [waste].' This had a special significance because many of our parents work in the chicken industry.

    "I told teachers to either believe all students could learn to high levels of achievement, act like they believed it, or find employment elsewhere. If teachers made negative comments about not believing their students were going to be successful, then I bluntly told them to look elsewhere for a job.

    "I used data. I compared and had teachers compare their students' entering test scores with their exiting test scores. This data was included in their end-of-the-year evaluations. I also met with every teacher at the end of the year and discussed their results. They were not allowed to make excuses, but needed to have a plan to improve any of their weak areas --- yes, their weak areas, not the students'.

    "I spent a lot of time trying to fix poor teachers. I told them my expectations, provided lots of training, and monitored them constantly. I would walk through their classrooms every day until I saw what I wanted to see. I also modeled lessons and provided time for them to observe exemplar teachers. I was always up front and honest with them, focused on the data and best practices in pedagogy. They improved or transferred.

    "I know I sound like a preacher, but it boils down to who is in that classroom --- and until someone in authority says, 'It is about the kids, put kids first and stop being afraid of hurting some teacher's feelings,' then things will not change.

    "If you asked them now, the teachers at Frankford would tell you that they can make chicken salad out of chicken [waste]. It is that belief in their ability to make the students successful that is the key.
    M. Hall Stanton Elementary School, Philadelphia

    Located in an economically devastated neighborhood in North Philadelphia, Stanton has about 500 students, all of whom are African American and almost all of whom meet the qualifications for free and reduced-price meals. About 6 percent of the students are identified as having disabilities.

    In 2003, only 13 percent of the students met state reading standards and 20 percent met state math standards. The school was part of the state's restructuring process. In 2004 and 2005, not only did Stanton make AYP, but in 2005, 73 percent of the students met state reading standards and 84 percent met state math standards, higher rates of passage than the state of Pennsylvania.

    Barbara Adderley, principal:

    "It used to be that we were not held accountable. Now, everybody's accountable. I have to do my job. Teachers have to do their job. We have to ensure that these children are successful.

    "We have children who sit in front of us every day who want to be successful in life. If we don't help them, they're going to be lost.

    "It would be easy to feel sorry for our kids. Many of them don't speak fluently, much less read fluently. They experience every ill that urban American poverty offers.

    "But they don't need us to feel sorry for them. They need us to make sure they understand what they are expected to do. They are capable, but they can't be expected to learn to read and write and understand mathematics unless we teach them.

    "Each student at Stanton has an individual plan in place to make sure he or she learns. Each teacher knows what books the child should read, what math games the child should play, and what skills the child needs to learn next. In this way, we make sure no child is lost.

    "Looking at our data, we know that our focus must be on literacy. Too many of our children still aren't meeting state reading standards. So our training and our work this year has focused on reading and writing.

    "Every week I meet with teachers from each grade level to look at student work. In the past, teachers looked at student work to grade it, put it on the bulletin board, and to discuss it with parents. But we never looked at it together to see how we could improve our instruction. Now we do, and if we see that none of the children in the class capitalize or punctuate correctly, we know we need to improve our instruction in the conventions of writing.

    "We don't teach to the test, but we teach to the state standards, and we make sure our students know how to take tests.

    "Teaching is one of the most difficult jobs in the world. But if we do it well, our students will have opportunities that would otherwise be denied them."

    Lincoln Elementary School, Mount Vernon, N.Y.

    Lincoln Elementary, in hardscrabble Mount Vernon, just north of New York City, has about 800 students, 55 percent of whom meet the requirements for the federal free and reduced-price meal program. Half the students are African American, 20 percent are Latino -- many of them recent immigrants -- and about 30 percent white. About 10 percent are identified as having a disability.

    In 2005, 96 percent of fourth-graders met state reading standards and 100 percent of them met state math, science and social studies standards.

    George Albano, principal:

    "Everyone who walks into my building is mesmerized. It's the high expectations, it's the integration of the arts, it's the way the science curriculum is taught with a language arts approach, it's the fact that just about all our children learn to play chess.

    "Our teachers don't teach to the test, but that doesn't mean we don't prepare students for tests. What is learning to play music, if not learning listening skills? What is learning to play chess, if not learning to think critically? Of course, you have to make sure students know what to expect on a test, but any teacher who just drills students on test questions is not truly teaching.

    "One thing I see about No Child Left Behind is that at least we are no longer sweeping our achievement gaps under the rug. It has exposed the fact that in this country, non-poor children outperform poor children and white and Asian children outperform African American and Latino children -- and superintendents and principals have been embarrassed by those gaps.

    "At Lincoln there is virtually no achievement gap. No child is left behind.

    "This is because I have been able to find and hire excellent teachers who are supported through their first few years by a strong mentoring program and throughout their careers by strong collaborative relationships.

    "We have created such an exciting environment that young people want to teach here. Unfortunately, too many good teachers are lost to the profession because of bad administrators. I have a young teacher who was about to give up on her dream of teaching because in her last school the principal gave her little support. Her former principal wouldn't even buy a reading program for her students with disabilities, essentially saying, "It's not important -- they're just special education students, no one expects them to read." After she came to Lincoln and experienced what true teaching is all about, she said she would retire in the profession.

    "I believe that we have the teaching force in this country to get the job done -- many young teachers are better prepared than I was at their age. But we are losing them because of bad management.

    "Our success at Lincoln has to do with many, many factors -- how we schedule our classes, how we involve parents, how we integrate the arts into all aspects of the curriculum, how we use data to drive instruction, how we create a school-wide learning environment, how we hire teachers and support them once they are here. It is no one thing. But it is good management.

    "Anyone who wants to learn more about Lincoln can go to my Web site, www.georgealbano.com."
    Elmont Memorial Junior-Senior High School, N.Y.

    Just over the line from Queens and blocks from Belmont Racetrack sits Elmont Memorial Junior-Senior High School, with more than 2,000 students in 7th through 12th grades. In this working-class neighborhood, 25 percent of the students meet the requirements for free and reduced-price meals. Just about 72 percent of the students are African American, 13 percent Asian, 11 percent Latino, and 3 percent white. About 10 percent are identified as having disabilities.

    In 2004, Elmont graduated 100 percent of its senior class, 69 percent of whom had earned the prestigious Regents diplomas, and 97 percent of whom went on to college, most to four-year colleges. After working there first as a social studies teacher, a dean and a coach, and then as an assistant principal, John Capozzi became principal of Elmont this year. He is the third principal since Elmont began its improvement process more than 13 years ago.

    John Capozzi, principal:

    "I think in simple terms, but I believe that the simple formulas often work. You have to set high expectations and attainable goals. For example, a goal could be raising the passing rate by 5 percent on a specific state assessment, and then establishing the strategies you are going to use to achieve that goal. You have to set short-term and long-term goals, always keeping your eyes on the end result. Little by little you get there.

    "Thirteen years ago, Elmont was an under-achieving school. Today, instruction drives our building. We talk about it all day. We're always looking to improve instruction and increase student achievement.

    "We use the observation process as the tool for instructional growth. When a new teacher comes to teach at Elmont, he or she is observed six to seven times a year for three years by their chairperson, district coordinator and administrators, who write detailed reports on what they see as effective instructional practices. They also include recommendations so that the next time that teacher is observed, they will see improvement in the areas identified. It might be improvement in questioning techniques, classroom management or creating more student-centered lessons. After the observation, a post-observation conference is held with the teacher, where the teacher becomes an active participant in the process, reflecting on the lesson. At the end of the conference, a plan of action is developed in order to address the specific needs of the teacher. A common plan of action is to have a teacher conduct a peer observation of a colleague and focus on the specific instructional strategies in need of improvement. We do this to aid our teachers in their instructional and professional growth. After three years, once the teachers have tenure, they observe each other.

    "One of our teachers says that she had thought she had been a good teacher before she came here, but through the observation process she realized she had never before taught a lesson. Today, she's one of our most effective teachers. Her test scores are through the roof.

    "In addition to this close emphasis on classroom instruction, we have what we call our 'hidden curriculum,' which develops personal relationships between faculty and students and deliberately works at developing character. This is mostly done through our extensive sports programs, clubs, and other after-school activities. The child who is involved in art, music, sports, and other activities is more successful -- these are all part of a full education.

    "None of this is to say that Elmont is perfect. We have the typical problems other high schools experience. But we are always looking for new ways to improve. This work has to be about the relentless pursuit of raising expectations and improving student achievement.

    "After all, parents trust us to make sure their children get a good education. We need to make sure we give it to them."

    — Jay Mathews & Karin Chenoweth
    Washington Post


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