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NCLB Outrages

Why are some schools successful?

Ohanian Comment: Short of violence, what does a teacher do when her principal posts this article on the schoolhouse door? School leaders in this article promote the message that "some of Alaska's lowest-performing schools are ones where staff or families haven't "embraced accountability."

There are so many code words in this article I can't even attempt to highlight them.

Here's the subhead:

ACCOUNTABILITY: Principals, study share strategies that leave few behind.

I decided to apply the Allington Fight-'em-with-Ethics Rule to the data driven mantra of this article.

That's when I discovered that a sick cookie must have written Alaska's teaching standards. All teacher behaviors are treated as negatives--what teacher may not do: may not engage in physical abuse of a student or sexual conduct with a student and shall report to the commission knowledge of such an act by an educator, and so on. The list ends up with 28 specified acts of moral turpitude in which a teacher must not engage. What a vision of teaching.

But then I found the Alaska Teacher Performance Review Handbook and Scoring Guide (pdf file). Here we find things like:

C. 1 Uses instructional strategies and resources appropriate to the individual
special needs of students.

C. 2 Uses knowledge of the content area including its tools of inquiry and central concepts.

C. 3 Applies strategies to assess students' learning.

C.4 Connects instruction to other content areas and to practical situations.

A. 1 Draws from a wide repertoire of strategies, including the use of technology- when appropriate.

A.2 Organizes instruction based on characteristics of students and the goals of the lesson.

and so on.

Doesn't this sound friendlier--and more professionally responsible--than the data-driven bombast borrowed from the Business Roundtable promoted below?

By Katie Pesznecker

People who run Alaska schools want to know why some do so well as others lag far behind.

On Wednesday, members of the State Board of Education invited four principals from some of Anchorage's most improved schools to explain what they're doing right.

"We have seen some sensational progress made at some of the schools in Alaska," said Roger Sampson, the commissioner of education. "The question from the board has always been, what happened at those schools and those programs to allow students to make such significant growth and achievement?"

The answers: Focus, a shared sense of purpose, and inspired leadership topped the list.

Les Morse, test and data guru for the Alaska Department of Education, reviewed get-ahead tactics that successful schools use. Among the more common strategies: Goals are clearly defined, and everyone understands how to reach them. And principals and teachers use test data constantly to prescribe new, more effective ways to teach children.

So, if everyone knows what works, why isn't every school doing it? And why aren't all schools improving?

Because it also takes time and money, said Karen Reeve, principal at Airport Heights Elementary. Airport Heights scored a reading grant that brought extra teachers, extra planning time and lots of specialized teaching materials, Reeve said.

"The achievement gap can be closed," Reeve said. "But it's expensive."

Also invited to share their success formula with the board were principals Roger LeBlanc of Mountain View Elementary in East Anchorage; Sven Gustafson of Gruening Middle School in Eagle River; and Joel Roylance of Wendler Middle School at the corner of Lake Otis Parkway and Northern Lights Boulevard.

Sampson said principals in schools that are not doing so well say they're doing what they're supposed to -- like using test scores for custom-made instruction and setting aside time for staff training.

"The difference is the incredible leadership, the high expectations, the focus," Sampson said to the four successful principals. "You all said you look at individual needs of students. Those interventions are very, very specific."

Morse said some of Alaska's lowest-performing schools are ones where staff or families haven't "embraced accountability."

Translation: They tend to dismiss No Child Left Behind, find the federal law an unfair distraction and are plodding along with a business-as-usual mentality.

That's not the case at Airport Heights, where Reeve is in her 13th year as principal.

"I loved the piece about embracing accountability," Reeve said. "There are no excuses for failing these kids and that's the premise we take. We know that if we don't teach a child to read, they're destined to fail in life and that's such an awesome responsibility for us. We feel very responsible for the children in our care and we always have."

LeBlanc's school -- for better or worse -- was publicly labeled a failed school in the infancy of the No Child Left Behind Act.

LeBlanc joined Mountain View in 2001 as the law went into effect. For several years before, the school had posted some of the district's lowest test scores. Many staff members had left for other jobs, LeBlanc said.

So he filled open positions with enthusiastic, open-minded teachers. They chose curriculum backed by research. They made a plan and stuck to it. "And it was just a matter of watching that plan unfold over five years," LeBlanc said. "Being consistent with it, staying truthful to it. ... We knew if we did all those things we would have the academic success we were looking for in the end."

The results have dazzled school administrators.

Only about 20 percent of Mountain View third-graders read at grade level six years ago. Last year, 85 percent did.

Patricia McRae, director of elementary education for Anchorage, said this puts Mountain View students above the district average, which is 80 percent of third-grade students reading at grade level.

Mountain View has now made progress under the federal law for two years. That means the school is off the bad list.

LeBlanc credits smart teaching and remedial programs before and after school and even during lunch for students who need help.

Shirley Holloway, a state board member and former Alaska education commissioner, told the four principals they're doing exactly the right thing by using individualized data to figure out what each student needs to excel.

"I think that's key to what we need to do in the future," she said.

Reeve told the board members that, as an Aleut, she's been keenly aware of the struggles of Alaska Native students in today's public schools.

"You know, I just feel a sense of urgency about what's happening to Alaska Native people in the education system and I just feel like No Child Left Behind ... has forced schools to close the achievement gap," Reeve said. "I think I was always there philosophically, but now we're given the tools to move forward."

Daily News reporter Katie Pesznecker can be reached at kpesznecker@adn.com.

Common traits of successful Alaska schools

Staff members understand and embrace goals and plan to reach them.

Teachers expect a lot of students.

Lessons cover material that students are tested on.

Tests are used often to measure progress and adjust lessons.

Staff can explain test data to parents, use data to teach better.

The principal is a smart, focused leader, able to guide the school.

The school embraces federal No Child Left Behind goals and tries to meet them.

Source: Testimony to Alaska Board of Education

— Katie Pesznecker
Anchorage Daily News


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