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Low-Profile Reviews Can Lead To High Honors for Schools

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WASHINGTON--Early this summer, Secretary of Education William J. Bennett will announce the selection of approximately 300 schools to be honored for innovation and excellence through the Education Department's school-recognition program, now in its fifth year.

And, for the fifth time, educators, parents, and students across the nation will wonder how and why their schools were--or were not--chosen.

Two years ago, for example, several teachers attending the National Education Association's annual convention said they were astounded to learn that their schools had been selected for recognition. Their schools, they said, were ordinary at best and, at worst, in dire need of improvement.

"We're--I don't want to say mediocre, but--we're an average school in an average city,'' Kathy Wallentine, a teacher at Mount Ranier High School in Des Moines, Wash., told the Washington Post in July 1985 after she learned her school had been honored. "I don't think we're something the world should come and study.''

Since that time, however, panels of reviewers at the state and local levels have continued to work in relative obscurity. And they have continued to produce lists that purport to honor the best in American elementary and secondary education.

Fact and Opinion

To earn a place on the Secretary's list, an applicant school must survive: an initial screening that varies by state; two reviews by a federally appointed panel; a site visit; and a check of its civil-rights record. Each level of the selection process, only partially visible to applicants, employs a mix of objective measurements and subjective impressions, much like a college professor's tenure review.

Quantifiable measures of success, such as test scores, awards, faculty qualifications, and curricular breadth, are counted as important factors in the process.

But in addition, reviewers are also asked to judge schools on less-easily measured factors, such as teacher and administrator "leadership'' and "community support.''

The volunteers who review applications are also repeatedly instructed to measure each school's achievement by an "appropriate yardstick.''

"We take into account the demographics in each case,'' said Jean Narayahan, the Education Department official who oversees the school-recognition program. "We are looking for the most successful schools in what they're trying to accomplish. We do not compare an inner-city school with a lot of challenges with a suburban or private school with lots of parental support.''

"We don't have any single model of a school in mind,'' Chester E. Finn Jr., the department's assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, told 68 reviewers who gathered in Rockville, Md., last week to narrow down the 370 schools they chose last year in the first step of their two-tiered process.

"I hope you include public and private schools; rural, suburban, and urban schools; schools that serve the disadvantaged; schools that are being responsibly innovative; [and] schools that are being responsibly traditional in their modes,'' Mr. Finn said.

Because Education Department staff members develop the application forms for the program, and set the criteria by which schools are judged, winning applicants, to some extent, must resemble the department's vision of what an exemplary school looks like.

According to Ms. Narayahan, the criteria that the department considers most important are those that "research has tended to say are most often associated with effective schools.''

However, federal reviewers are also urged to pay close attention to such factors as strict discipline codes and curricula that build "character'' and impart traditional moral values, elements that Secretary Bennett and President Reagan have said are essential to school improvement.

At the meeting last week, for example, Peter Greer, the department's assistant secretary for intergovernmental relations, asked panelists to consider the case of one finalist school that has an innovative curriculum and a record of high student achievement, but relatively lax discipline.

Students at the school are often late, "smoke everywhere,'' and drink at extracurricular functions, he said. Graffiti can be seen wherever one turns, he added.

"Is this an exemplary school? It's an interesting question you have to answer,'' Mr. Greer said. "These schools may never know they are not as good as they think they are. I hope these things are worrisome to you.''

For public schools, the road to recognition begins with state education agencies, which nominate a predetermined number of applicants based on the size of the state's Congressional delegation.

All secondary schools were eligible for the competition under this year's federal guidelines. Elementary schools, which compete in alternate years, must be able to demonstrate that 75 percent of their students score at or above their grade levels on standardized reading and mathematics tests. Elementary schools can also qualify by demonstrating that the test scores of 50 percent of their students have improved by at least 5 percent in each of the previous three years.

Aside from those threshold standards, state officials are granted great leeway in the methods they use to select nominees, a practice that was criticized by several members of the federal review panel, and by observers in the education community.

"I have a feeling that it is handled very differently in different states, and that might create inequities,'' said one of the panelists, Jacqueline Danzberger, director of local-improvement programs for the Institute for Educational Leadership. "There could be more guidelines there.''

Officials in 10 states surveyed last week said they begin their reviews by convening panels of local educators--including superintendents, principals, college professors, and representatives of teachers' unions--to examine applications. Nine of the states base their reviews on the federal application form, and all 10 grade applications on a point system similar to the one used by federal reviewers.

Some states remove identifying characteristics from the applications; others allow reviewers to know which schools they are judging.

A few states begin the process with their own local-recognition programs. One of them, California, conducts its competition a year before the federal contest, and adds several intermediate screening mechanisms to the process.

Private schools, which competed separately until this year, are nominated by the Council for American Private Education. Robert Smith, CAPE's executive director, says the group encourages every private school it can locate, including non-members, to submit the application form. The group received 350 applications this year, of which 120 were sent to the Education Department.

The private-school applications are screened twice. Some groups of schools, such as Catholic schools, form committees to perform the first review; others are screened by a panel drawn from a variety of private institutions. A similarly diverse steering committee composed of directors of private-school organizations then screens all applications and sends the final selections to Washington.

The states and CAPE submitted a total of 670 nominees for this year's competition. The federal panel reduced that number to 370 in the first stage of its review process last year.

Early this year, educators selected by the department visited the 370 finalist schools to tour their facilities; sit in on classes; and interview administrators, teachers, parents, and students.

With the site visitors' reports in hand, panelists said they looked for schools demonstrating significant improvement in student achievement and schools with innovative programs. They also looked for schools that conveyed enthusiasm for teaching, a cooperative philosophy, and a commitment to high standards. The words "involvement,'' "leadership,'' "warmth,'' and "excitement'' came up often.

"We looked for something that indicated commitment and involvement ... [and] not just a bunch of buzzwords the school had adopted,'' said Laurie Garduque, director of government and professional liaison for the American Educational Research Association.

Many of the federal reviewers said they were not entirely satisfied with the grading forms developed by department officials.

"Homework policy and drug education are made equal to ... academic development and the priority of administrative time. It's frustrating,'' said Barbara Buswell, director of a resource center for parents of special-education students in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Several reviewers also said questions regarding citizenship and instruction on the Constitution--which were added this year in honor of the document's bicentennial--skewed scores unfairly.

Other frequent complaints were that special-education programs are not specifically mentioned, and that questions about the curriculum and course requirements were compressed into one section and given one score.

Stephanie Weiss, a spokesman for the N.E.A., said the union decided at its 1985 convention to survey its affiliates to determine if the program's criteria were adequate. The results of the survey were "not conclusive in a way that would have encouraged us to go to the Education Department with our concerns,'' she said.

Still, reviewers unanimously gave high marks overall to the competition's criteria.

"They seem realistic to me, well grounded in what research tells us about effective schools and reflective of current issues,'' Ms. Garduque said.

"On the whole, they make a lot of sense,'' Robert Smith of CAPE said. "The problem we have is with the danger of putting in a number, when in every category there really needs to be, in the interest of truth and accuracy, considerable commentary.''

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