Pencils Down

From new tests to new concepts in schooling, Kenyon alumni grapple with education reform.

Ellen Gillespie Oakes '82 teaches English to eleventh graders in what she describes as a "largeish" suburban high school in Exton, Pennsylvania. Lately, though, she's found herself dealing less with Shakespeare than with something called the PSSA--the Pennsylvania State System of Assessment, a state testing program mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind act.

"We have had to focus a lot of attention on our state tests," Oakes says. "We've spent countless hours, and an unfortunate number of trees for paper, in faculty meetings reviewing students' old eighth-grade scores in an attempt to target current eleventh graders who might be 'bumpable' from 'basic' [a non-passing score] to 'proficient.'"

In addition to meetings, Oakes and other teachers at Downingtown High School East attend workshops to learn about the methods of development and scoring for the tests, use class time to coach students on how to "beat" the essay exams, and volunteer in their spare time as tutors for targeted students.

While it sounds exhaustive--and exhausting--the efforts at Downingtown still don't guarantee success on the state tests.

"Mathematically, it's almost impossible for my school to meet the No Child Left Behind criteria," Oakes says. In order to meet the "adequate yearly progress" guidelines, she explains, each target population must achieve at higher levels annually. But the more students a school has at the higher level, the smaller the percentage of students there is left to move up. Therefore, as schools improve, adequate yearly progress becomes less and less attainable.

"Had school administration really known where this was heading a few years ago," Oakes says, "the incentive would have been to discourage performance in order to leave room for improvement each year. Now we have principals who 'affectionately' call the program All Administrators Left Behind!"

Oakes is one of many Kenyon alumni who have chosen education as a career, only to discover that this noble calling offers not only rewards but also knotty problems that extend from the classroom to the halls of policy-making. The complex issues raised by the No Child Left Behind act and by charter schools touch upon school accountability, federal involvement versus local control, teacher training, market-based reform, for-profit education, and testing. Every answer seems to generate its own array of questions, and Kenyon graduates are grappling with those questions at every level.

An alum with a particularly broad perspective is Thomas W. Toch '77, one of the country's leading education journalists. Toch is the author of two books on education, In the Name of Excellence: The Struggle to Reform the Nation's Schools, Why It's Failing, and What Should Be Done (1991) and High Schools on a Human Scale: How Small Schools Can Transform American Education (2003). A reporter who covered education for a decade for U.S. News and World Report, Toch is currently writer-in-residence at the National Center on Education and the Economy in Washington, D.C. (See a profile of Toch on page 33.)

He sees today's education-reform movement as the continuation of a debate seeded in the 1950s, when American schools "educated a very small percentage of students to use their heads, and a bigger majority to use their hands." This approach seemed less and less tenable as a growing "information economy" favored academic ability over blue-collar skills. By the 1980s, it was clear that system-wide reform was needed. "The notion," Toch says, "was that you have to set standards and hold educators accountable for ensuring their students meet these standards."

Accountability is a central premise of No Child Left Behind, the main education initiative of President George W. Bush. Signed into law in January 2002, the measure is in effect a revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. It attracted bipartisan support for testing as a means of accountability.

"The Republicans began to realize that local control was not going to raise standards, so moderates began to embrace accountability," says Toch. He explains that Democrats supported the Republican-backed proposal in part because many believed it would expose gaps in education for special-needs kids and thus generate new programs and funding.

Toch predicts that No Child Left Behind is going to prod the United States toward a system of national exams analogous to those in some Asian and European countries. "I'd say it's going to be in place within a decade," he says. "And it will be a good thing."

Professor of Political Science Kirk Emmert, who teaches a Kenyon course called "American Public Policy: School Reform," agrees, but with one caveat. No Child Left Behind, says Emmert, succeeds in focusing on improvements in the worst schools and thus on students who need the most help. The law holds public schools responsible for their poor results, forces schools to take into account the background of their students, and attempts to establish some common standard by which to evaluate schools. But for the law to meet its goals, Emmert cautions, "we need to improve the training of teachers before they start teaching and as they progress, and we need to attract more capable people into teaching. This will cost money."

The new law has created a sense of urgency in the schools and provoked resistance among teachers. Again, Toch provides some context. Traditionally, he says, teachers have addressed institutional problems by calling for smaller classes and more materials, while policy makers have looked to leverage change on a larger scale, seeking solutions that will transcend individual classrooms and individual schools.

No Child Left Behind calls for states to test all students annually in reading and math during grades three through eight as well as during one high-school grade. Schools that fail to meet minimum standards set by the state and federal governments are placed on "watch lists" and face increasing interventions. For example, the law requires Title I schools--those that serve a significant number of economically disadvantaged students--to offer students not only tutoring and other types of assistance but also the option of transferring to a better-performing school in the same district.

Cliff Edge '79 teaches third grade at Stripling Elementary School, a Title I school in Norcross, Georgia, serving mainly Hispanic and African-American children from lower- to middle-income families. After being identified as a low-performing school, Stripling implemented an early intervention program that devotes a minimum of forty-five minutes daily to helping kids with test-taking skills in reading and math. This leaves Edge little time to teach any science or social studies. The pressure is intense to improve test scores.

"In Georgia," Edge says, "all of our third graders must obtain a 300 out of 450 on the standardized reading test in order to be promoted from third grade. I expect three to eight of my twenty-one students to pass the reading test, and thirteen to eighteen to fail. Our assistant principals are already preparing for the worst by scheduling special meetings this summer over students of concern."

Edge asserts that this level of failure doesn't reflect the true talents of his students, "because the tests are primarily exercises in understanding oddly worded questions and comprehending the vocabulary 'du jour.'"

The states like standardized tests, Edge hypothesizes, because "standardized tests are easily quantified--excellent for the non-thinking bureaucrat." But the tests ignore alternative kinds of intelligence, he says, like "the intelligence of music, or of construction, or of higher-level problem-solving. The tests do an injustice both to the students of my school and to the teachers, because our students know and can do so much more than their scores suggest."

According to a March 2004 article in the New York Times, about 28 percent of the nation's 93,000 schools are currently identified as failing, and experts say that within a few years the vast majority of all schools will be forced to undertake costly remedial measures.

Anne Dealy '73, a registered school psychologist who chairs the committee on special education in Amenia, a poor town in rural New York State, believes that such measures will place a huge burden on special-education programs. Teachers, she says, are already looking to "funnel" the lowest performers into special-education programs "so their test results don't look so bad."

Furthermore, Dealy says, "There is no amount of education that will bring most of our students on par with children from the wealthiest districts." The kids in her area contend with a spectrum of disadvantages that will continually undermine educational reform efforts, she contends. Their problems start before they're even born, with poor or nonexistent prenatal care, and extend to low education levels among their parents, low socioeconomic status, and lack of parental involvement. What her town needs is not more testing but increased funding for early intervention programs, Head Start, academic support programs, and English-as-a-second-language programs.

Offering her opinion on No Child Left Behind, Dealy does not mince words. "No Child Left Behind is like the emperor's new clothes," she says. "Everyone in education knows that Bush's policy is naked, but no one wants to be the one to point it out."

Thomas Toch points out that many current reforms in public education are leading, ironically, to a decrease in the influence of public schools themselves. Toch predicts that the services traditionally provided by public schools will revert, increasingly, to other nonprofit or even for-profit organizations.

"Museums, YMCA affiliates, and urban-league affiliates are but a few of the institutions that are operating publicly funded, publicly accountable schools today," Toch says. "It's a completely new era. And this trend will only spread. We will never go back to the era when only public entities--school systems--both fund and operate public schools."

The most popular alternative to the traditional public school is the charter school, a concept that originated in the 1970s but that has only recently taken off. Between 1999 and 2003, charter-school enrollment increased by more than 40 percent, according to the association U.S. Charter Schools. Thirty-seven states now have charter schools in operation, with a total enrollment of more than 685,000 students.

Defined as "nonsectarian public schools of choice," these institutions are accountable to sponsors--usually a state or local school board--to produce positive academic results and adhere to their charter contracts. At the same time, they are free from some of the governmental regulations placed on traditional public schools.

Mary Ellen Hammond '78 established a nonprofit charter school in Bryson City, North Carolina, where she runs a small press that publishes guidebooks for outdoor-adventure enthusiasts. She understands that established public schools view charter schools as a threat. But she argues that the charter schools have a lot to offer. (See the story on page 36.)

"Charter schools are smaller and more agile," Hammond says. "They attract a full spectrum of students, but they especially tend to attract students whose parents are very involved in their education. Because they're smaller and more agile, they can test out a lot of experimental things, new things that regular schools cannot."

Moreover, Hammond says, competition--or even the perception of competition--can serve as an incentive for public schools. Because of her school, called Mountain Discovery, "change is happening throughout the public school system that they didn't think they could do," Hammond says.

One of Hammond's colleagues agrees. Hannah Levin, another Kenyon alumna (Class of 2001), teaches art at Mountain Discovery. "I think it raises the bar," she says. "An established school system that's been there for a while may be doing things that we can't do, but there is a kind of freedom offered by a charter school that has a different philosophy. I tell people that I don't believe a charter school like Mountain Discovery is right for every kid, but the fact that we have a choice is amazing."

"Choice" can also be a code word for market-based reforms--schooling in for-profit institutions. Toch believes that public education should not fear this concept. Education run by for-profit companies does not necessarily mean commercialism, he says.

"I've seen a lot of curriculum materials that Exxon [the oil company] and Mars [the candy maker] have tried to introduce into schools' curricula that are pretty crass attempts to sell their products, but that's not the same thing as letting for-profit companies run schools," he says. In fact, he argues, most for-profit schools are "truly about the business of school performance and student achievement." If they weren't, Toch says, they'd lose their contracts.

"Like any new business sector that is initially unregulated, there are good actors and bad actors," says Toch of the for-profit schools. "My sense is that like any other market sector, especially one that is dealing with something as important as the education of students, it has to be regulated. Where there is strong financial and educational accountability, these companies are doing just fine."

Political scientist Kirk Emmert believes that the success of charter schools, whether they're nonprofit or for-profit, depends in large measure on increased parental involvement. While parental involvement in traditional public schools has decreased, parents tend to be highly involved in charter schools. "I don't think this is because parents want involvement," Emmert surmises, "but because they want a better education for their kids, and these schools expect more involvement."

Too many parents have been complacent about public schools, he argues. "Education is not sufficiently important to us," he says, "and thus we are easily satisfied with mediocre education. Most of us think our school is above average and our kids are doing fine. But measured against students from other countries, this is not true."

Complacency. Mediocrity. Choice. Accountability. It's safe to say that American education will be experimenting, and struggling, with "reform" for some time to come. Kenyon alumni will undoubtedly play a role in the struggles.

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