L.A. School Embraces a West German Import
Los Angeles--Wedged into a neighborhood of modest bungalow houses and auto-parts shops, D.W. Griffith Junior High School hardly seems the setting for an international experiment in education.
But four teachers here have imported a West German idea for restructuring education and are working hard to apply it to their own, predominantly Hispanic classrooms. And teachers in at least half a dozen other schools around the country, just beginning similar experiments, will be watching closely to see how they fare.
The concept at the heart of these projects is what is known in West Germany as the "team/small-group model." Though the idea is rooted in that country's own school-reform movement of the 1960's, its ele6ments are reminiscent of education-reform ideas currently gaining popularity in the United States: shared decisionmaking and greater autonomy for teachers and the creation of smaller, more personal school environments.
More than 20 West German schools have adopted the concept and more have incorporated features of it. But the showpiece school, those familiar with the approach agree, is the Koln-Holweide School in Cologne--one of two schools where the idea originated more than 20 years ago.
The formula, its supporters say, is simple: Teachers at Koln-Holweide are divided into small, relatively autonomous teams, with each team responsible for one group of students. The teams stay with their students from the 5th grade until precollegiate education ends in the 10th grade.
Time is set aside during the school week for the members of each team to meet with one another to plan how they will go about teaching the state-mandated curriculum.
Most classwork takes place in small "table groups" made up of four to six students of varying academic abilities and social backgrounds. Students typically stay with their table groups throughout the six grades.
"What students need more than videos and the excitement of street life are close personal relationships," Anne Ratzki, headmistress of the Koln-Holweide School, said in an interview last year with the American Federation of Teachers.
"That's what exists between our teachers and students," she said.
The AFT has been the major American importer of the approach. The union has promoted the idea in conferences and publications since its president, Albert Shanker, visited the Cologne school several years ago. Union officials say they were drawn by the concept's teacher-centered philosophy and its success in reducing dropout rates and raising student achievement at Koln-Holweide.
They cite studies showing that only 1 percent of the students at the school drop out, compared with a national dropout rate of 14 percent in West Germany. And 60 percent of the students test well enough on the country's rigorous high-school exit exams to be admitted to a four-year college.
For Day Higuchi, the teacher who brought the idea to Griffith Junior High, the philosophy seemed to address some of the doubts that had nagged him about his work. A veteran of 19 years as a teacher, he recalled recently that, despite some success at improving students' reading scores over the years, no "fires were being lit" among his pupils.
And he felt isolated in his classroom.
"After a while," he said, "you actually stop talking to adults about what it is you do for a living."
"When I heard about this idea at a conference four years ago I thought, 'Well, that sounds like something that might work and it really isn't that hard to do,"' he said.
Griffith, located in East Los Angeles, was ripe for new ideas. More than 2,000 students attend 7th through 9th grade here. With six class periods a day and 100 teachers, the school's principal figures that 1 million student-teacher combinations are possible--a situation that she says breeds a feeling of anonymity among the students and staff.
Virtually all of the students come from families poor enough to qualify for reduced-price lunches. Many must be tutored in English. And, every Monday morning, the custodial staff sets about removing the graffiti spray-painted on the buildings over the weekend by neighborhood gangs.
Shop classes are taught in rooms with no equipment. Because of ongoing construction projects nearby, the noise of heavy machinery often competes with teachers' lectures.
"It's natural for people to want to give up under these circumstances," said Lilliam Castillo, the principal.
But, like Mr. Higuchi, some teachers saw in the Cologne approach a way to begin transforming their dis4piriting school environment.
Leslie Watkins, an English teacher, was quick to sign on to the concept. She felt "something more should be happening" in her job, she said.
"This seemed to fit what was missing--contact with colleagues, the ability to control my students' education a little bit more, and longer-lasting and closer contact with students," she explained.
In addition to Ms. Watkins, Mr. Higuchi recruited Dallas Russell to be the mathematics teacher in the program and Laurie St. Gean to teach social studies. Mr. Higuchi teaches science.
George Hatem, the principal at the time, was also receptive to the idea.
Mr. Higuchi recalled: "He said, 'Well, either you ask for approval from the proper channels and that'll take two years, or you can just go ahead and do it and I'll cover for you."' The program has since been approved by school-district officials.
Putting the concept into practice, the teachers said, proved more difficult than getting the initial go-ahead.
The team members spent a year meeting during lunch periods and over the summer to come up with a strategy that would work at Griffith.
They settled on a plan to randomly select some 120 7th graders for the program. Allowing students to opt into the program, they feared, would skew the group toward more academically motivated pupils.
Under the plan, the students would stay with the four teachers over their three years at Griffith; they would leave the program only for elective subjects.
The teachers also decided to abolish a letter-grade system, evaluating students instead on an "achievement ladder" that assesses each skill individually.
Unlike in the Cologne school, the four teachers agreed to conduct separate classes in their respective subjects; at least initially, the interdisciplinary aspects of the program would be limited mainly to health lessons.
"In teaching about tobacco, for example," Mr. Higuchi said, "one day I would do an experiment to see what it does to organisms in pond water."
"The social-studies teacher would do a lesson on the economics of tobacco growing," he continued. "The English teacher would give a lesson on attitudes about smoking and, in math, the kids learned how to interpret mortality tables."
The teachers were given a common preparatory period in order to confer with one another and be available, as a group, for parent conferences. And they allowed themselves the flexibility to swap classroom time slots and double up class periods for more involved lessons.
The project, now known as the "core" program, was launched at the start of the 1988-89 school year.
"Basically, what we found out that first year was that we had a lot to learn," Mr. Higuchi said.
The teachers said they spent much of their time that year doing "emotional bricklaying." They counseled students, taught them how to work cooperatively, and resolved conflicts that arose in the more intensive setting of small class groups. As in the West German model, the students at Griffith work in "table groups."
"This year," Mr. Higuchi said, "everybody seems to have gotten adjusted to one another."
The wide variability in the students' academic abilities also proved troublesome. In one subject, the teachers had to return to a traditional tracking system.
"Basically, the math teacher couldn't figure out how to teach algebra at the same time he's teaching the multiplication tables," Mr. Higuchi said.
At the end of the first year, a handful of students had withdrawn from the program and 12 to 15 others "were still not making it," according to Mr. Higuchi. The teachers asked to increase class sizes and create another free period to work with the students who were having trouble.
In addition to the setbacks, however, there were successes. The teachers said discipline among the students had improved.
"The kids know that they can't just keep a low profile, make it through the year, and leave us," Ms. Watkins said. "They're stuck."
The teachers also noticed that their students had grown more comfortable with the school.
"I see a large proportion of our kids at dances or on the drill team," Mr. Russell said, "and I have to attribute that to the fact that they're able to identify more with their teachers."
But perhaps the biggest benefit has been for the teachers themselves.
"The greatest thing is the fact that we can communicate with other teachers who are teaching the same kids," Mr. Higuchi said. "For some reason, that's immensely fulfilling."
In addition to discussing what works for individual students, the teachers spend their time together planning lessons and critiquing one another's teaching methods.
"It's not an easy thing to start a program like this," said Bruce Goldberg, who tracks such efforts around the country for the AFT "Teachers are used to working in isolation and students are used to working in isolation, but I think the payoff, in terms of having teachers who are much more involved and interested in their students, is phenomenal."
Mr. Goldberg said that rising interest in such school reforms as shared decisionmaking and site-based managment--both of which allow teachers a greater say in their students' educations--have made the Cologne model more acceptable to a number of schools across the country.
He said schools in San Francisco, Toledo, Ohio, and at least four other locations are beginning to experiment with the "team/small-group" approach being pioneered at Griffith.
Part of the reason the concept has "traveled well," Mr. Goldberg speculated, is that the schools in West Germany that have adopted it are more comparable in many respects to American schools than they are to their German counterparts.
The Koln-Holweide School, for example, is what is known in Germany as a "comprehensive" school. Its student population includes a fairly equal mix of high-, middle-, and low-ability students. According to figures supplied by the AFT, about one-third of its pupils are children of Turkish immigrants, many of whom don't speak German. And approximately one-fourth have parents who are unemployed.
In contrast, the traditional German educational system is characterized by a rigid tracking system. Beginning at age 10, students are placed on one of three tracks: the "gymnasium," for university-bound children; the "realschule," which leads to elite vocational schools; and the "hauptschule," from which children enter the workforce at around age 16. The result has been schools with fairly homogeneous student populations.
Practitioners of the Koln-Holweide approach acknowledge that their methods remain outside the mainstream of West German education.
"Many superintendents and principals are not too keen on it," Ms. Ratzki said in her interview with the AFT. Teachers trained in the traditional system have been resistant to the concept as well, she said, noting that they may feel unqualified to teach a wide variety of students or deal with subjects outside their own areas of expertise.
At Griffith, Ms. Castillo said she was not sure if her teachers' experiment would ever become the norm for instruction throughout the school. For now, the principal said, plans to replicate the program on even a limited basis will hinge on the results the teachers achieve after three years.
"My feeling is that if you give the exact same program to four other teachers, it wouldn't work," she said. "These people have bought into it."
"These teachers are not 8-to-3 teachers," she added, "and if they have to go out to a student's home, they'll go out to a home."
Other teachers, Ms. Castillo said, might not be willing to bear the extra burdens involved in closer relationships with the school's mostly disadvantaged students.
But Mr. Higuchi and other team members disagreed. They said the team structure could, in fact, help prevent other teachers from "burning out."
"One of the reasons teachers are 8 to 3 is that they find out that almost everything is out of their control anyway, so they sort of punch a time clock," he said. "We're not like that because, with this program, if a kid has not shown improvement, basically it's our fault."
"We think about that all the time," he said.