A Times Valley Edition Special Report : Pulling Teachers Up the Down Staircase

Times Staff Writer

One spring day, Beryl Ward sat down with a group of visiting teachers who were learning the new teaching methods in the Practitioner Center. It had not been a smooth transition to the new way of doing things at Northridge, but the payoffs were now being seen, she said. Twice as many teachers this year were using pods.

"We've seen our grade distribution go up tremendously." There were impressed sighs. "Wow," exhaled one teacher.

"You mention grades going up," interrupted teacher Tom Maddux. "Has there been standardized testing to compare before and after on achievement?"

"Not really," Ward said.

This was not true. Some weeks earlier, just before the Christmas break, the CAP test--California Assessment Program--results for Los Angeles County schools were published in the newspaper.

The smile gauge and the learning gauge, it seemed, were going in opposite directions. Northridge's 1992 score plunged 21 points when compared to 1990, when the reforms were introduced. It was the fifth worst showing in the district.

The day the scores came out, Ronn Yablun came sailing into the teachers lounge at lunch waving the newspaper page with the scores on it like the head of an enemy.

"They'll smile all the way to the welfare office," he sang out.

There were several other ways to look at the performance of the students at Northridge, and in most every way the news was not good.

Linda Lownes, a specialist for the Information Technology Division at L. A. Unified, converted a second set of test scores, those on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, into a set of grade equivalents in an attempt to discover whether the students were on grade level.

The results showed that, by the end of the sixth grade, the students were reading and writing at the level of beginning fifth-graders--almost two years behind. In math, they were better, about half a year behind.

By the end of seventh grade, they had made up some ground. They were only two months behind in math.

But in the eighth grade, almost no progress was made. Students had fallen two years behind in reading and writing. They were a year behind in math. In essence, said Lownes, students lost ground during the time they spent at Northridge.

A final way to look at student performance was to analyze the school's relative rank when measured against schools with a similar population in terms of poverty level, education levels of their parents as supplied by students, student mobility and the number of students with language problems. A school doing a good job, said Lownes, would have a figure above 50% in this category.

In 1989-90, before the reforms, Northridge ranked as high as 61% in math, 37% in reading and 18% in writing.

In 1992, Northridge scored 35% in math, 15% in reading and 18% in writing.

"As low as these are, we're basically looking at a school in trouble," said Lownes.

Ward tried to find a silver lining in the results. The results may have been skewed, she thought, by the fact that Northridge is testing more children because the school's attendance is so high. Also, the test was geared to the old "drill and kill" type of learning, rather than the new kind of education going on at Northridge.

Finally, she said she thought maybe Northridge was being compared to the wrong schools.

"Bob pointed out," Ward said of Assistant Principal Bob Coburn, "that our kids feel so good about themselves and they're so successful, that they probably assume their parents have more education than they do."

However the test results may ultimately be interpreted, they did not cause Ward to lose faith in her reform philosophy. She was convinced that she was on the right track and that things would turn around eventually.

The kind of tug-of-war being played out at Northridge between members of the old school and the reformers has been a part of the educational landscape for generations.

"To the casual observer, American education is a confusing and not altogether edifying spectacle. It is productive of endless fads and panaceas. It is pretentiously scientific and at the same time pathetically conventional. It is scornful of the past, yet painfully inarticulate when it speaks of the future," said educational philosopher Boyd Bode. The year was 1930.

Since then, schools have tumbled from one crisis to another. In the '50s, said author Diane Ravitch, there was the progressive, anti-intellectual life adjustment education fad and vigilantes who wanted to cleanse schools of subversives.

The launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 brought a new crisis. American schools found themselves under attack for failing to graduate the scientists and engineers necessary to keep up with the Russians in space. The space race triggered a parallel race for excellence in the classroom.

That tide abated in the late '60s and led to a new concern for students' well-being. This triggered experimental educational ideas geared to making students feel better about school, Ravitch said.

The 1983 publication of the landmark report on education, "A Nation at Risk," by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, fueled a new back-to-basics movement. The concern was in part a result of alarming trends on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Average scores in verbal skills nationwide had declined from 478 in 1963 to 424 in 1980. Math scores fell from 502 to 466.

Ravitch said the drop in test scores was accompanied by changes in school philosophy that condoned absenteeism, made promotion to the next grade automatic and de-emphasized homework so much that half as much was being given out by teachers.

"A Nation at Risk" launched a return to basic educational goals. Michael Kirst, professor of education at Stanford University's graduate school of education, said students were put through a tougher academic schedule to prepare them for college. Kirst's study of the results of these efforts a decade later found "some modest improvement" in test scores and other educational goals.

The latest national SAT figures showed the verbal skills average was 424, the same as in 1980, while math scores were up 10 points to 476.

Now, there is "Caught in the Middle," which counsels that students should feel "that they are part of a family."

Kirst said "Caught in the Middle" adopted some of the whole-child movement's terminology and concern for the well-being of students. But it did not reject educational goals. Instead, it was concerned with presenting the subject matter in a different way, "a more personalized touch," Kirst said.

In the view of James Guthrie, of UC Berkeley's graduate school of education, "Caught in the Middle" was not insignificant. "But in the overall landscape, so what? When it's stacked up against the disincentives for schools to work, particularly in the LAUSD," it doesn't amount to much, he said.

Carol Ogawa, an administrator with the middle schools unit, said the district intends to convert all of its junior highs to sixth- to eighth-grade middle schools by 1995. School officials said it may take longer for all the reforms in use at Northridge to spread to the other schools, but all of the schools are moving in that direction.

Spreading the good news of those reforms is the job of Ron Klemp and Susie Shapiro, who operate the Practitioner Center. Depending on who you talk to, it is either a place where the light of a new day in education is peeking over a distant horizon or the heart of darkness, where edu-garble like "brain-based learning" is tossed around, relentlessly spreading the contagion of feel-good education.

About 300 teachers and principals attended three-day training sessions in cooperative learning and team teaching during the 1992-93 school year.

One exercise Klemp asks teachers to perform is to imagine themselves as heads of a corporation that cannot afford to pay its workers, yet must motivate them to work hard.

The visiting teachers, scrunched into the child-size desks, proposed things such as flexible scheduling, allowing the employees to set their own goals and to decide what they are going to make.

The metaphor, of course, is the American school. "On most of the things we listed, schools are really missing the boat," Klemp said one day.

Getting the students to buy into their own education is what this is all about, so he tries to trade on their natural instincts. Since you can't stop students from talking, he says, give them something to talk about by putting them together in learning groups, where they are free to discuss out loud the lesson of the day.

There were weaknesses in the metaphor of a school as an employee-run factory, and a teacher named Marc-Vincent Jackson, wearing sandals, sunglasses and dreadlocks that shrouded his head like a wool cap, jumped on one.

"There was a time when our schools had a reputation for functioning well," he said. "Actually, what was making schools work was compulsion. Children frequently do not know what is good for them. If you let a child have control of his diet, you might have a Twinkie feast. We used to compel children to behave. We're in a situation now where compulsion is no longer very much a part of the culture. I question the power of some of these incentives to get kids off the mark."

"What you're saying is true regarding the way it used to be," said Klemp, moving in Jackson. But, he argued, the used-to-be ain't anymore. And Klemp didn't think it was all that good the first time around.

"I spent many days in a fog," he said. "I was glad to leave."

"Did you learn?" Jackson persisted. "Why do you keep putting down education when you learned?"

"Because I could have learned so much more," Klemp said, putting his hands on the desk and thrusting his face up to Jackson's, a move that made the teacher lean away.

After silencing him, Klemp moved away and Shapiro came over and put her arm around Jackson and began talking urgently to him while Klemp went on with his lesson.

Shapiro, a sharp dresser who changes the design of her fingernail polish every few weeks, was a finalist in the California Teacher of the Year competition in 1992.

But she thinks traditional education has veered badly off course. When she was in the classroom, she gave very few tests--"if I gave two a year, that was a lot"--and accentuated group project work.

Asked about the purpose of grades, she replied: "I don't know, something to put on the report cards because I had to."

Shapiro thinks the solution is to drop grades, "unless you give everyone positive grades. Someone always says, 'What about the kids who didn't do anything? Shouldn't they get zinged?' Why should they get zinged?"

She said her classes were fun because her kids were not afraid to get their report cards. "My kids were always successful."

Describing a particular classroom project, she said, "They all do it in pods."

"Then they copy each other and get the same grade," said a teacher who was clearly not persuaded of the benefits of group work.

"What's wrong with that?" asked Shapiro.

Traditionalists scoff at this kind of talk, but Klemp said too often their attitude is like the old war veteran telling stories about how tough things were in his day and how soft the current generation is.

To Klemp, it's a matter of accepting reality and then trying to deal with it. You can no longer order kids to read a chapter and answer the questions at the end.

For one thing, the kids who can't read won't do it. Others find the "litany of factual information," as Klemp puts it, boring. So he has come up with something he calls the Fact Storm to try to hook them.

Students go over each chapter three times. The first time would not be for understanding. "Word-by-word reading does not work with comprehension," Klemp said. During the second reading, each student has responsibility for a different section of the chapter. They all share the information, then go through the chapter one more time for comprehension. This repetitive process is slow. It can take as much as two or three days--though Klemp said that's not much different than under the old method--but a group of teachers attending the Practitioner Center one afternoon were eager to give anything a try that might break through to their students.

"I have been through 25 years of messianic educational ideas," said Tom Maddux during a break. "That idea he put out was excellent and it will be tried in my class. You don't know how frustrated teachers are because students bring less and less to school."

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