LEARN Program Offers a Better Way Than 'Smile Gauge' : Northridge School Would Benefit From Plan That Spurs Student Confidence by Beefing Up Instruction in Academic Subjects

Principal Beryl Ward of Northridge Middle School criticizes teachers for giving too many "D" and "F" grades and scolds those who boast of their high standards. "There's nothing standard about standards," she says. "We go by the smile gauge," administrators say, quoting the principal, "We'll look at the test scores later." Another administrator says "our purpose is to get them to high school with as much self-esteem as possible."

COMPETITION AS ANATHEMA: Such is the philosophy found at Northridge, according to the account of an invaluable year spent there by Times reporter John Johnson. School officials say they are trying to reverse generations of instruction that they feel have pushed students too hard and crushed their spirits. "Competition is to self-esteem what sugar is to tooth decay," read one message from the principal to some teachers.

Some teachers, according to Ward, are simply too focused on content. She believes good teaching has more to do with how the teacher interacts with their students than a mastery of the subject matter. Under the same line of thinking, teachers should be more concerned with making students feel good about going to school rather than trying to have them meet some sky- high standard of excellence. The principal suggests that teachers should look at whether difficult material was appropriate for today's kids, by which she means the mostly minority student body.

Not even order in the classrooms is necessarily important to Ward, who referred to a student's frequent outbursts during her librarian's orientation lecture as a sure sign that the student will someday be a "big success."

A BREAKDOWN IN ORDER: Similar behavior apparently occurs on a regular basis in a science class where the decorum, in the reporter's words, was "rapidly reaching the noise level of dime-a-beer night at the stadium."

No student paid that teacher the slightest mind as he attempted to gain their attention. Posted grades showed that 24 of those 30 students were receiving A's. "I'm more in the middle," the teacher said later. "Some teachers give all A's." The teacher added that he used to be a tougher grader, until the principal criticized some for giving too many low grades and harming self-esteem.

Another class had already succeeded in driving away two teachers and was working on a third. A shaken social studies teacher likened her work environment with an unruly class to "being in hell." Another teacher says that he spends a third of his classroom time on discipline.

A FLAWED STRATEGY: The shortcomings here are apparent.

It was fine when school officials decided to move from a "sage on a stage" model with the teacher at the chalkboard. There was also nothing wrong with the move to a more nurturing approach that emphasized team-learning concepts in which students worked on lessons together, not the drudgery of "drill and skill." (Ward calls this "drill and kill.") Trying to make the school day more enjoyable was also a sound idea, as was the declaration that "numbing memorization" was out as an educational tool.

"We teach concepts instead of facts," said one teacher who added that understanding the concept of the presidency of the United States was more important than memorizing his name. Again, so far, so good. And the idea of encouraging students to speak up in the belief that kids learn better by debating and sharing ideas was hardly a radical concept.

Unfortunately, other matters have been taken to extremes, such as the idea that facts are not that important. Small wonder that teachers were stiffening their resistance to other reforms that brought classes in baseball card collecting and watching videos, playing board games, and working jigsaw puzzles into the curriculum. Ghost stories are told in one of them, while a class on ham radio was rejected as too cerebral, according to the teacher who wanted to offer it. Such classes are supposed to make school more enjoyable and keep kids from dropping out, but the thinking here is flawed.

A CHANGING POPULATION: It is certainly true that significant changes have occurred at Northridge, a school that was overwhelmingly Anglo a generation ago and comprised of the children of aerospace workers and movie-industry people. Now it is 82% minority and classified as a PHBAO school, which stands for "Primarily Hispanic, Black, Asian or Other." Nearly half of the students there were classified as limited English-speaking.

It's also a fact that significant numbers of Northridge students from Central America are illiterate in their native Spanish because of conflict and strife in their former homelands. When one also acknowledges that some Northridge English teachers have to read the material to their students because so many have trouble with reading, it is a clear sign that the school faces tough challenges teaching a new kind of student population.

'LEARN' PROMISES A BETTER WAY: But we believe that this simply means that the Northridge school would be far better off if it followed the LEARN educational reform plan that is critical to the future success of the city's schools. That offers far more hope for these and other students around the region than the idea of relaxing high standards and simply helping students feel good about themselves.

LEARN, which stands for Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, brought together top people in the education, corporate and civic fields to reform public education in the region. It plots a far more reasonable course toward the goal of stronger and more confident students, in part by beefing up instruction and performance in math, science, social studies and language arts.

According to Mike Roos, president of LEARN, focusing on self-esteem without an emphasis on demanding academic work and the kind of support students need to master it is like "a 20th-Century version of the Pied Piper, leading students merrily down the road of self-esteem without substance." Roos rightly adds, "We believe that there should be tough academic standards. We must push all students to their limits, and I don't think we do a lot of that any more."

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Mike Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents 47 of the nation's largest urban school districts, including Los Angeles, says that "the prevailing and evolving consensus nationally is that we need to do absolutely everything necessary to make certain that disadvantaged kids meet the same high academic standards as everyone else." Casserly added, "We're not saying that they might not have to go a lot further to meet those standards, but that is not an argument for expecting less."

Otherwise, according to Casserly, "You dupe the kids into thinking that they are performing better than they are. The rubber hits the road when they arrive at a school where the standards are more demanding. It turns out to be a cruel hoax."

Diane Ravitch, author of "The Troubled Crusade," a study of American education from 1945 to 1980, believes that the Northridge approach is both misguided and condescending. Many well-meaning teachers have told minority students that they are great and can be anything they want, Ravitch says. Well, "you can be anything you want," Ravitch adds. "but not just by saying it. You need tools and skills."

Stan Pogrow is an associate professor at the University of Arizona and the developer and director of the HOTS program, which stands for "Higher Ordered Thinking Skills." HOTS is used in some 2,100 schools in 49 states. To Pogrow, Northridge has been "sidetracked by the notion of self esteem, and that can be disastrous."

Pogrow says that "it has to include high levels of learning. You build self-esteem by helping them accomplish something challenging. These students can do very well in school."

The Accelerated Schools Project at Stanford University uses concepts that are in place in more than 500 schools in 35 states. There, professor Henry Levine says that "you need to accelerate the learning, development and academic achievement of these kids. We know it can be done, by making school more substantive."

Well into Northridge's own reform effort, the school's standardized test scores are plummeting in comparison to similar schools in the district. Few students are adequate or better in their grasp of basic subjects. On average, graduating students are more than two years behind grade level in reading and a year behind in math.

Ironically, the principal can quote a letter from her days as a teacher in which a student wrote, "You're the best teacher I ever had, even though I didn't learn." The goal ought to be to avoid similar letters in the future, the "smile gauge" notwithstanding.

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