Looking for clues at schools that work


Assessment: The Sun twice has taken a comprehensive look at area schools to determine what those that excel are doing right.

June 04, 2000|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

TWICE NOW, within a span of exactly two decades, The Sun has published ambitious news series about what makes effective schools - schools that work regardless of race, wealth and other factors.

Both times the newspaper asked Johns Hopkins University researchers to crunch test scores in a search for mavericks - those schools that exceed expectations.

Both times, Sun reporters visited successful schools to see what was in the water. Coincidentally, both resulting series were titled "Schools That Work."

What's changed in 20 years? Plenty, and not much. Hard work by teachers and strong leadership were two hardly secret characteristics found in successful schools in 1980 by reporter M. William Salganik and this spring by education writer Howard Libit.

The 1980 series concentrated exclusively on Baltimore City, listing 16 "schools that work." Salganik observed three of them for two months. Libit, concentrating on reading, profiled four schools, in Anne Arundel, Baltimore County, Baltimore City and Howard County. The newspaper published a ranking of all elementary schools in the four districts, from "most effective" to "least effective."

Generally, the schools that worked in 1980 held up well over the two decades. None on the 1980 list was in the "least effective" category this year. Six of the 16 were rated above average, and one, Sarah M. Roach Elementary in Southwest Baltimore, was judged "most effective."

Ann Moore, the fourth principal since Salganik visited in 1980, attributed the school's success to "continuity of strategies, focused assessment, a curriculum based on what we know works, and a fairly stable staff." The Open Court reading program adopted citywide two years ago has been "steady and consistent," Moore added.

At John Eager Howard Elementary, another school that ranked highly in both series, Principal Sandra Ashe was lifted by a city Fire Department cherry picker to the West Baltimore school roof Friday morning, where she kept her promise to dance in a beaver costume (the school mascot) if her 380 pupils read 2,000 books this spring.

When she was teaching here 20 years ago, Ashe said, city schools were nowhere near as "focused" as they are now. "I think we're expecting more of teachers. Kids are more engaged... ."

Salganik and Libit found that more time was given to direct instruction, but they documented it in different ways. Salganik, working with the Hopkins researchers, actually counted the minutes of "active teaching," concluding that students in effective schools "receive more instruction" - 13 minutes more per hour. Libit found schools rearranging schedules to put more emphasis on language arts - at least 90 minutes each morning, in most cases.

Class sizes have changed significantly over the past two decades. In 1980, the city was emerging from a decade of crowded schools, and large classes were a fact of life. "Teachers in schools that work spent more time instructing the entire class, as opposed to groups," Salganik reported.

By 2000, small classes were just as much a fact of life. Libit found working classrooms that appeared almost deserted, and all around the metropolitan area, teachers were grouping and regrouping youngsters as they assessed them on a daily basis. Good teachers now appear to be deploying resources more wisely, and they have a more reliable resource base on which to operate. They're working smarter.

Geoffrey D. Borman, the Hopkins researcher hired by The Sun to do the statistical work for the recent series, didn't travel with the reporter, but he came to his own set of conclusions by studying the data. "Across the board," Borman said, "poverty is by far the most consistent predictor of achievement in school. What this study shows is that there are schools that perform beyond expectations regardless of poverty level and racial mix."

Two other predictors found by the study, Borman said, are prior achievement - that is, how students performed on previous tests - and attendance rate. Attendance is related to home life; pupils who seldom miss school are likely to have involved parents.

Finally, a note about reaction to the series. Both Borman and Libit heard from angry principals and some teachers who felt insulted by low ratings. Some complaints came from educators at well-regarded schools who found themselves embarrassed. Others came from city principals whose achievement test scores this year had soared but were not included in the Sun analysis.

"I felt badly for the schools that did so well this year but weren't recognized because we only looked at data through 1999," said Borman.

Borman and James M. McPartland, director of Hopkins' Center for Social Organization of Schools who assisted in the 1980 study, said they had misgivings about the paper's decision to publish the names of least effective schools. Both said mistakes can be made in such an analysis, no matter how carefully research is conducted.

"You can call a bad school good and a good school bad," said McPartland, "but when you do the former, no one gets fired."

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