Shunning the piecemeal

The Education Beat

Overhaul: Sustaining schoolwide reform isn't easy. A new guide evaluates the programs out there, including ones in Maryland schools.

February 17, 1999|By MIKE BOWLER | MIKE BOWLER,SUN STAFF

SCHOOLWIDE REFORM is the latest trend in education. It means that you don't try to change schools piecemeal -- a reading program here, a computer program there -- but rather as a whole, stem to stern, top to bottom.

Such reform (sometimes known as "whole-school" or "comprehensive") is awfully difficult to accomplish and sustain, which may be why only a few thousand schools nationally have tried it. People have to change the way they behave -- and stay changed. Everyone has to be in the act, from parents to principals to students to teachers.

If the reform isn't sustained year after year, through changes of staff and superintendents, it dies. Thus, Success for All, developed by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University and pioneered in Baltimore 12 years ago, no longer has a presence in the city. It ran out of gas.

But schoolwide reform has been refueled by a $150 million federal "demonstration" project. A number of organizations, most of them nonprofit, are competing for the money, and established schoolwide programs such as Success for All are coming under greater scrutiny.

Welcome, then, is a consumer-friendly analysis of 24 programs, "An Educators' Guide to Schoolwide Reform." Prepared by the Washington-based American Institutes of Research (AIR) and sponsored by five national education groups (including both teacher unions), the guide takes us through the wilds of reform in understandable language.

Here's a summary of the AIR findings for several programs in Maryland schools:

Core Knowledge is based on the premise that people need a common base of knowledge to function well in a democratic society. The centerpiece is the "Core Knowledge Sequence," a 200-page outline of the specific content that should be taught in each subject, each year.

AIR says Core Knowledge has "promising" but not "strong" effects on student achievement. The program is in 750 schools across the country and costs $56,000 a year per school.

Success for All is one of only three programs showing "strong" evidence of gains in achievement. It's a program with heavy emphasis on reading in the early grades. Students spend 90 minutes a day in uninterrupted reading instruction. Those who fall behind get one-on-one tutoring by certified teachers.

Success for All is in 1,130 schools from coast to coast, including 15 in Baltimore County. First-year costs are $270,000 with a new staff, $70,000 with the current staff reassigned.

(A recent study in Miami found Success for All has failed to boost third-graders to grade level in reading. The rare example of a critical independent report on the popular program raised eyebrows across the country.)

Roots and Wings was created in 1993 to extend the Success for All curriculum to mathematics, science and social studies. About 200 schools have joined the network.

AIR gives Roots and Wings a "marginal" rating for student achievement, though it's so new that enough time hasn't passed for a lot of evaluation. Costs are the same as those of Success for All.

Talent Development High School apportions large, urban high schools into smaller units called "academies."

Also developed by Hopkins at Patterson High School in East Baltimore in 1995, this program has spread to 10 schools. The ninth grade is a single "success academy." The other grades feature self-contained career academies, each with its faculty and management and separate entrance.

AIR gives this program a marginal grade for improving student performance. Costs are $57,000 per school for a new staff, $27,000 for a reassigned staff.

Direct Instruction, now in so many Baltimore schools -- 18 -- that it rates its own area superintendent, is a scripted program of instruction with a 30-year history. Now in 150 schools and several thousand classrooms nationwide, Direct Instruction has been widely used in low-performing schools in poverty areas, but it is marketed commercially for all students.

AIR gives the program a strong rating for increasing student achievement. First-year costs are $244,000 with a new staff, $194,000 with the current staff reassigned. Much of the cost of starting the program in Baltimore has been borne by the Abell Foundation.

In a preface to the report, the heads of the five sponsors call for more reliable research into the claims of reformers. Some of the programs rated in this report have no research support at all. Others have been researched primarily by their developers, who tend to like what they see.

The text of the report, or a link to the text, is available on the Web sites of the five sponsors, the American Association of School Administrators, American Federation of Teachers, National Association of Elementary School Principals, National Association of Secondary School Principals and National Education Association.

Schools in United States becoming middle-aged

U.S. schools are entering middle age. According to the U.S. Department of Education's statistics people, the average age of our public elementary and secondary schools is 42 years. Almost half (45 percent) were built between 1950 and 1969, and these older schools weren't planned with connection to the Internet in mind.

Pub Date: 2/17/99

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