Requiem For A Reform
On the surface, the only thing that distinguishes Littleton, Colo., from thousands of other American suburbs is the spectacular view of the Rocky Mountains that rise to the west of town, above the shopping malls and streets of well-kept, middle-class homes.
Beneath its placid facade, though, Littleton is a town torn apart by a raging argument over its schools. Once the pride of the community, the school system is now at the center of a fierce debate over how and what teachers should teach, what should be expected of students, what roles parents should play, how school board members should govern, and what schools should look like at the close of the 20th century.
Seven months after a trio of candidates running on a back-to-basics slate took control of the five-member Littleton school board, the answers to most of these questions are far from clear. But many people with high hopes for improving American education are paying attention to the furor in the Denver suburb, because its voters appear to have rejected many of the central tenets of the school-reform movement. And Littleton residents, they know, are not alone in their disaffection with the call for higher standards for all students, new ways of measuring their progress, depth rather than breadth of knowledge, and greater attention to developing students' thinking and social skills.
In tackling these emotional issues, Littleton has plunged into a remarkably sustained dialogue about its schools. A town that used to draw 10 people to its school board meetings has become accustomed to overflow crowds. Nearly every week's issue of the Littleton Independent carries articles and editorials on the schools, which serve 16,000 students, 91 percent of whom are white.
The major metropolitan newspapers in the area also have paid close attention. When the new board forced Superintendent Cile Chavez to resign in early February, large color photos of the crowds that showed up to support her--estimated at about 1,500 people--dominated the front pages of both The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News.
"The silver lining is that there is greater awareness and participation than ever before,'' Chavez says. "There is no apathy in Littleton.''
Since her resignation at the special board meeting that has come to be called the "Sunday-afternoon massacre,'' Chavez has had plenty of time to ponder the transformation that is reshaping the district she led for 10 years. The image that comes to her mind is a kite. It was built, she explains, by Bill Cisney and Carol Brzeczek, two of the new school board members, out of their concerns about changing graduation requirements at Heritage High School. The framework of the kite was made up of their complaints that parents were not listened to, that the school was venturing into uncharted territory with performance assessments, and that the decisionmaking committee at the school was breaking state "sunshine'' laws by holding closed meetings.
As the two pressed their case--eventually suing the school over the open-meetings issue--they began to influence a wider audience. And when they formed a slate last fall, recruiting John Fanchi to run with them, other parents and concerned residents attached their own gripes about schools to the tail of the kite. Soon, the kite took flight.
That metaphorical kite, which still floats over the skies of Littleton, is kept aloft by dozens of complaints, among them that the district emphasizes self-esteem over academics; that students' mathematical-computation and spelling skills have declined; that schools have abandoned teaching phonics; that middle schools are watering down their curriculum; that the district doesn't listen to parents; and that teachers are more concerned with shaping students' attitudes and beliefs than they are with making sure they can read, write, and compute.
The district's efforts to develop "learning outcomes'' for students sounded particular alarms, prompting arguments that some of the desired outcomes were not academic and trod on values and attitudes typically taught by families.
Parents who supported the slate, explains Doug Kenyon, who heads a group called the Basic Education Support Team, want to see an emphasis on traditional academic areas so that they know their children have learned the fundamentals for moving to the next grade. "We are not convinced that's been happening,'' Kenyon says. "For the past five to 10 years, the emphasis has shifted to a more diffusive type of education.''
While many of the criticisms of the Littleton schools involve issues that have been raised by conservative Christian groups, there's little evidence that the religious right played a major role in the November election. Cisney, now president of the board, points out that he's a registered Democrat and that not all the new board members even attend church regularly. Conservative groups, however, have crowed about the changes in Littleton: Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum newsletter trumpeted the slate's victory with a headline reading "O.B.E. [outcomes-based education] Trounced in Model District, Parents Vote for Three R's in 2 to 1 Mandate.''
What did make a big difference was a new mail-in ballot system, which encouraged 45 percent of Littleton's 59,000 registered voters to participate. The conservative, largely Republican suburb elected members of the slate by a two-to-one margin. Some supporters of the district attributed the results to the large numbers of nonparents and retirees who cast ballots. But a poll conducted in March by the Independent found the back-to-basics slate would have won even if the election had been limited to parents of school-age children.
"What the election told us,'' Brzeczek says, "is that the schools really didn't know their parents and the community.''
One immediate and high-profile casualty of the political shift was Littleton High School's new graduation system, called Direction 2000. All three of the district's high schools had been working to develop outcomes they wanted students to demonstrate in order to graduate, rather than just pass a list of required courses. But Littleton High was furthest along.
The Littleton High faculty, under the direction of Principal Tim Westerberg, devoted countless hours over eight years to developing the new system. Teachers put in the time not because their school wasn't doing well, but because they believed it could do much better. They had all heard--and many agreed with--the assertion that too many high school students were capable of much higher levels of academic achievement. They all knew students who would figure out the minimum required to pass a class, and then do only that. They also taught "good students'' who exerted themselves only to learn what they knew would be tested. The familiar lament about graduation being based on seat time, not real learning, stung.
"Everything we'd read said this was where education needed to go,'' says Jim Anderson, a band teacher who is the chairman of the Direction 2000 steering committee. "We had trained students to be grade-chasers in quest of a stupid piece of paper.''
Beginning with the class of 1995, the school required students to complete a series of demonstrations of their knowledge and skills to earn a diploma. Many of the juniors at Littleton High spent the first part of the school year at work on the "demos,'' assembling portfolios that showed what they had learned.
The demonstrations were organized around 19 broadly stated graduation requirements, covering both academic subjects and goals like critical thinking, community involvement, ethics, and human relations. In all, there were 36 demonstrations containing dozens of tasks. Students had to be "proficient'' on 17 of the requirements and "excellent'' on two to graduate. A "proficient'' designation was roughly equivalent to a B. If students didn't do well on a demonstration, they could do it again.
Although parents and community members in Littleton High's own attendance area were supportive of Direction 2000, it quickly became an issue during and immediately after the election last November. Members of the back-to-basics slate criticized the graduation requirements, calling them too vague and objecting to the nonacademic outcomes. Cisney, in particular, raised questions about whether some of the performance assessments to be administered under the program were technically sound enough to use for something as consequential as high school graduation.
There were questions about the lack of required courses ("What would happen to Shakespeare?'') and skepticism about whether teachers were trained to devise assessments. Despite demands for a return to what they considered to be academic rigor, many people also didn't believe Littleton High's students could complete the demonstrations and didn't want them punished for failing to do so. Critics didn't like the school's solution: that students should stay in high school until they could demonstrate mastery--whether for a summer, a semester, or even an extra year.
"Isn't it bizarre to say that all students should be ready to graduate the same day?'' Westerberg asks. "We've broken that barrier in higher education--nobody gets out in four years.''
But to Brzeczek, the idea that a student could complete the demonstrations at 16 and leave high school was unacceptable. "I believe that kids need to sit through some of these classes,'' she says--but not under Direction 2000. "This program eliminated content. They spent an enormous amount of time on assessing and counseling students.''
After the election, knowing that the graduation requirements were in danger, the school offered to drop the nonacademic outcomes. Some of the new board members also briefly tried to work out a compromise between abandoning the requirements and forcing all students to complete them, but the attempt failed.
In February, the board voted 3 to 2 to return Littleton High School to its 1984 graduation requirements, which are based on accumulating Carnegie units.
Teachers, or entire academic departments, can still use the demonstrations as class assignments. Westerberg hopes that by next fall, the faculty will have decided to use Direction 2000 as a set of "schoolwide standards'' and will have worked out in detail which demonstrations will be used in which classes. Some will be scaled down, he predicts, and others will be dropped.
The final outcome depends on teachers, some of whom aren't enthusiastic about retooling the program after so many years of work and so many hard feelings over the election.
The principal emphasizes that the school board didn't kill the entire program--it simply changed what was required to graduate from the school. "If we cancel the program,'' he notes, "it will be because we do that to ourselves.''
Littleton High's appearance is as typical of American high schools as its frustrations with student performance. The low-slung beige brick-and-stucco building, bordered on two sides by car dealerships, is still decorated with the distinctive purple-and-white logo developed for Direction 2000, whose slogan is "Rethinking the American High School.''
Inside, the school is notable only for its tidiness. The names of academic departments are painted on the walls, reflecting down on polished tile floors. Above the rows of lockers are colorful murals depicting Native Americans, outer space, and rock bands.
Littleton High's students hail mostly from families that work for local businesses or for Marathon Oil Company and Martin Marietta Corporation, two of the area's largest employers. If past patterns hold true, 70 percent of the school's 1,175 students will continue their educations at two- or four-year colleges. They perform above state and national averages on college-aptitude tests, and can choose from 11 Advanced Placement courses, including computer science and studio art.
During Direction 2000's heyday, when educators from across the country were eager to get more information, the school served as host for monthly open forums for visitors. Faculty members traveled to other districts to explain their work, sticking a map with pins on their return to show where they'd been. Littleton High also did a brisk business selling copies of the 196-page demonstration book that explained what students would have to know and be able to do to graduate.
Clearly, educators and the Littleton public saw two different things going on at the school. An approach that educators hailed as addressing head on the problems of high schools was seen by some parents and taxpayers as an ill-conceived experiment that could damage students' futures.
In many ways, Westerberg and his teachers got caught in the middle. The scorn heaped on the school for venturing to develop a sense of ethics in students, to insure that they could work together, and to require them to do 30 hours of community service contrasts sharply, the principal observes, with the demands of the local business community.
"The ability to work in groups came through loud and strong from the business community,'' he says. "That's what we heard they wanted.''
And many teachers believe that they had, at long last, begun to address issues for which schools are berated. Under Direction 2000, they say, students and teachers were finally being held accountable for their work. Standards had been raised and made more uniform throughout the school. These changes came about not because the superintendent, school board, or state legislature demanded it, but because teachers had come together to create a program they strongly believed in.
Now, after what many refer to as a grieving period marked by anger and tears, teachers are coming to grips with what they had and lost. Not all teachers, of course, were sad to see the requirements dropped.
The most outspoken opponent of Direction 2000 is Linda Young, an English teacher who was concerned that the study of literature would have been lost in the focus on developing students' communications skills (even though there were two required literature demonstrations). Young estimates that 20 percent of the faculty members were happy to see the requirements go.
"We are not trained assessment writers,'' she asserts. "We were well-meaning people sort of winging it.'' And the inclusion of nonacademic goals, she charges, amounted to "trying to make everyone alike.''
Another teacher, who doesn't want her name used, says she became disenchanted with the reforms because the school moved too fast and didn't offer teachers adequate training. "It was just a runaway train,'' she complains. "I feel very resentful, because I feel like if our building hadn't pushed so hard, there would never have been this uprising of parents voting for back-to-basics in the first place.''
In contrast, Littleton High's approach was so attractive to Katherine Dinmore, a science teacher, that she quit a job in a nearby community to teach at the school. Working toward common goals for students, she explains, forced teachers to become active members of their departments and to take responsibility for preparing students to do demonstrations. "If everyone in the sophomore class was passing but Kathy Dinmore's students,'' she says, "that comes back on me.''
Without the requirement that students complete the demonstrations to graduate, though, much of the collective responsibility that teachers felt has been lost. "This job all of a sudden is becoming just another job,'' Dinmore laments.
The hardest thing for her to watch is the students. Under Direction 2000, "we'd say, 'Two weeks from today we are going to do this assessment,' and students knew it was different and wanted to shine. The room felt different. There was a lot of pride when they got something back that said 'proficient.'''
If students' demonstrations--creating and executing a science experiment, for example--weren't proficient or better, "They immediately would come up and say, 'What should I have done?''' Dinmore says. "It's not like getting an A and shoving it in a notebook.''
Much of the attack on Direction 2000, she notes, has come from people who are successful professionals. "Any system would work for their kids,'' Dinmore says. "We can't ignore the other half of the population. It just seems very selfish to me--'I succeeded, so I want my kid to have the same system.'''
One of the many visceral reactions Littleton residents had to performance-based graduation requirements was fear.
"Littleton High was trying to improve schools and thought their program was the way to do it,'' Doug Kenyon of the BEST group says. "But in the job market, that's not perceived as an advantage. You've got to convince us there's something to be gained by it. I don't see colleges clamoring for portfolios.''
In fact, Principal Westerberg had been having promising talks with Colorado's five major public colleges and universities about automatically admitting Littleton High students who had completed the graduation performances.
Kenyon, a senior technical consultant with Marathon who earned an engineering degree from Cornell University, worries that the program would have "watered down'' students' grades, making them less competitive. "We're very eager for our children to succeed,'' he explains. "We see so much more stress in the workplace. The opportunities are going to be so much harder for our children. I see a real dog-eat-dog world out there.''
Conversely, some parents whose children weren't faring well under the traditional system turned into strong supporters of the focus on outcomes.
Debby Novotny's first son was a high-achieving, motivated student. But her second son, now a junior at Littleton High, "needs a kick in the pants,'' she says. "There are so many kids who need that, and we just kind of let them do their own thing.''
Novotny, a fervent Direction 2000 booster who has served on several committees and spends most of her days at the school, admits the second son hated Direction 2000 when it began. But as time went on, and he plunged into his demonstrations, he became sold on it.
"Josh came home with a proficient and said, 'Look what I did!''' she recalls. "Instead of, 'Yeah, I got a B on a paper.' He had a real sense of achievement.''
When Josh and his friends saw what now will be required of them under the Carnegie-unit plan, Novotny says, they laughed. They found out they could easily graduate early because they had taken so many now-required courses to complete their demonstrations. Next year, she predicts, they'll take a lot of ceramics and physical education.
Student opinion about the performance-based requirements was divided, at best. Alan Davis and Catherine Felknor, a University of Colorado at Denver professor and an independent consultant, respectively, who studied the Direction 2000 reforms, found that only 36 percent of this year's junior class supported the graduation requirements. They also found that only a handful of the 18 students with Spanish surnames believed they could complete the requirements.
What's more, the researchers learned that the majority of students weren't doing proficient work. Teachers did note, however, that students were gradually improving and that they were becoming more motivated to complete the demonstrations.
One reason, Davis says, is that the demonstrations and accompanying skills were woven throughout the school. "All teachers were emphasizing the same skills in various classes,'' he explains. "The concerted effort of the teachers was paying off.''
The same writing demonstration could be attempted, for example, in an English or a social-studies class. Many departments took responsibility for teaching overarching skills. Science teachers taught listening, because they felt that listening closely was critical to laboratory work.
For many students, Katie Pridgeon, a sophomore, says, the bottom line was worry over whether they could graduate under the new system. Students had to complete pull-ups to be proficient in physical fitness, she complains, and give a series of speeches to fulfill a communications requirement even if they were shy. If they elected to do a musical performance to meet the performing-arts requirement, they had to perform a solo or duet--not just pass the class.
"It's too rigorous,'' she charges. And even though Pridgeon teaches Sunday school at her church--which would easily have qualified for her community-service requirement--she objects to the idea of compelling students to do volunteer work.
So does Michael Rempe, a junior who, like Pridgeon, is a good student. Rempe, aware of the political turmoil in the district, put off doing many of the demonstrations. It would have been fairer, he thinks now, if the school hadn't imposed the requirements after he'd been in high school for two years.
"My teachers are saying, 'Thank God we don't have to waste all that time doing demonstrations, now I can just teach,''' he reports. One of his teachers, Rempe relates sympathetically, has been using the same curriculum for 30 years and would have had to change significantly to incorporate the demonstrations. But when asked whether he really wants to learn from someone who hasn't changed in more than a quarter-century, Rempe looks blank.
The new graduation requirements allowed junior Heather Hope to skip classes that were once required and become involved with the school newspaper. She's now the editor. Hope doubts that the Littleton High faculty would have allowed larger numbers of students to fail to graduate. "I'm disappointed,'' she sighs, "because graduation won't mean as much now.''
In their three years studying Littleton High School, Davis and Felknor focused on the core academic departments: mathematics, English/language arts, social studies, and science. Direction 2000, they found, had markedly different effects on the departments. Math teachers came up with three tests, to be administered outside regular classes. The English department was riven with controversy over whether the study of literature or learning to read, write, and speak should take precedence. Science teachers had already come together to redesign their core courses. It was in social studies, they found, that focusing on the goals of instruction and how students would be assessed had the greatest effect.
Over time, by crafting demonstrations, teachers developed a common set of goals for the study of history and a common language for talking about them, Davis recounts. They identified five skills that students should acquire--including an understanding of cause and effect, the ability to compare similarities and differences in historical events, and the ability to use evidence from the past and present to draw conclusions about the future--that became the organizing principles for all of their classes.
"Teachers could give evidence and explain in a minute how the activities they were doing in their class related'' to the skills, Davis says. At the same time, students received a coherent message about what the study of history was all about.
"It made me much more consistent,'' Becky Parnell, an American-history teacher, says of the system. "It helped me focus where I was going to take every unit in history and work toward that goal.''
Parnell describes Littleton High's staff as "sort of in chaos'' since the return to Carnegie units. Even though history teachers still use some of the same demonstrations, she notes, students are less likely now to redo their work and make it better--because they don't have to. The new school board members, she concludes, just didn't understand what Littleton High was trying to do.
For Anderson, the band teacher, it's as if the school board, determined to be a different kind of parent, has stolen a child that the school had reared for eight years. "After you've eaten, slept, and breathed this for years, it just tears your guts out,'' he says.
Bryan Letvin, the chairman of the math department, also feels that the school's work has been undone. "To be realistic, my life's a lot easier now, isn't it?'' he says. Teachers voted to stop the schoolwide counseling program, under which they monitored a handful of students' progress toward completing the performances. Such tasks took a lot of time.
"It would have been much easier to stay the way it was and make superficial changes, like is being done in other schools in America,'' Letvin remarks. "What we tried to do was a little too much for some in the community to deal with.''
While there's little doubt that Direction 2000 had many beneficial effects on Littleton High, the program also had some serious drawbacks. Cisney, the board president, insists that the assessment program was too ambitious and untried to be used for graduation purposes. The board now plans to develop a districtwide assessment strategy. The focus, he argues, should be closer to the classroom and not so much on "punitive'' approaches with dire consequences for students.
Lorrie Shepard, a professor of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder who is an expert on testing, advised the Littleton board last winter that students should have multiple opportunities to learn the material in the demonstrations. That's not the same thing, she points out, as staying in school longer.
While Shepard believes teachers are "absolutely'' the best people to develop assessments, she cautions that assessments to determine graduation must meet higher testing standards than the tests, quizzes, and projects teachers now develop and use to grade students. The best way to answer these questions, she advises, would have been to preserve a "developmental and experimental atmosphere'' at the school, without attaching high-stakes consequences for students.
In addition to awarding diplomas, she suggested, the board should issue a certificate to recognize and demonstrate that it valued students' work on the demonstrations. "Board members were losing sight of whether these were important things to learn,'' she says of the content of the demonstrations. "That seemed to have been lost in the debate about whether graduation should hang on it.''
In their research, Davis says, he and Felknor turned up no evidence that teachers at Littleton High were guilty of the "lazy, feel-good approach'' suspected by some in the community. "I saw good teaching at that school,'' he says. Still, the researchers concluded that the school would either have to lower its standards or see large numbers of students drop out under the performance-based graduation requirements. If anything, Davis thinks, the requirements may have been too narrowly academic to accommodate students interested in auto mechanics and other trades. "All students were expected to be proficient in all areas,'' he notes. "It's unreasonable to expect all people to be good at all things.''
Now that Littleton High is back to using decade-old graduation requirements, there's a widespread feeling that the school board is finished with the high schools. Its task now is to figure out what to do with its elementary and middle schools, the focus of many parents' complaints. Although returning to basics sounded appealing during the election--when board members praised E.D. Hirsch Jr.'s cultural-literacy program--they soon found out that going back to basics meant different things to different people. In fact, their first attempts to define it were so fraught with controversy that the board switched instead to its current search for "effective instruction.''
The board has directed Jim Weatherill, one of Chavez's deputies who is now superintendent, to come up with a proposal for reviewing how math, reading, and writing are taught and to review educational research to determine which methods and practices work. To many Littleton teachers, these actions are further indication that the school board doesn't trust or respect teachers.
"What we're looking for is opportunities and tools to really share what we believe is going on,'' says Nancy Cain, the president of the Littleton Education Association. "The assumption has been that we do not have a content-rich curriculum, and teachers think we do. Teachers are very frustrated--the morale is as low as I've seen it in a long time.''
Morale also is low because the new board's style is so different from the collaborative relationship previous boards enjoyed with the administration. The slate caused a furor in February, for example, when it hired Mel Sabey, the lawyer who had represented Cisney and Brzeczek in their lawsuit against Heritage High School, to be the district's lawyer. The outcry was so loud that Sabey resigned two months later; the previous lawyer is now back representing the district.
The school district missed out on a National Geographic Society Education Foundation teacher training grant because of all the turmoil. There were also so many rumors about principals and teachers being fired that some parents formed a formal network to communicate accurate information. In the past few months, stung by criticism that they were moving too fast and too harshly, the slate members have taken a quieter approach.
"We are getting beaten up all over the place. I walk into a room, and there's a chill,'' Cisney, the owner of a fabric store, complains. Part of the reaction, he argues, is because the district didn't tolerate dissent or talk about its problems before last fall's election.
There is little doubt that each of the three new board members holds very strong views about what schools should be doing. Cisney is concerned about what he calls the district's failure to coordinate its curriculum, complaining that under its commitment to school-based management it simply "let a thousand flowers bloom.'' Fanchi, a physicist with Marathon Oil, objects to all "non-directive methods'' of instruction--such as circle time in elementary school and conflict-resolution programs--which he charges leave students confused. And Brzeczek, a part-time accountant, is critical of schools' emphasis on self-esteem, particularly in middle schools. "I grew up in Littleton and went to the junior high model, and I didn't have a problem,'' she states. "Junior high seemed to work.'' She also believes students should receive counseling and psychological services from social-service agencies, not at school.
The slate members reject calls for teachers to become coaches, helping students learn on their own, and for them to foster students' ability to work in groups. They also don't think teachers should be developing assessments. Their campaign literature conveys a traditional image of teaching: The slate stated that education is best realized not when children "chart their own course,'' but "through the active leadership of well-educated, competent adults in the classroom.''
It's popular to say that the Littleton schools didn't do a good job of informing the public about their reforms, leaving the door open for suspicion and rumors to flourish. Karen Kaplan, a 15-year board member, says the district did reach out. "But we reached out once,'' she says, "and sometimes you forget--I know I did--that the stakeholders change.''
"The major issue for us, underneath all this stuff, is that there are major philosophical differences in the community,'' she adds, "and we don't know how to address them and talk about them with each other.''
Chavez, the former superintendent, has done lots of reading about change, and believes the country is going through an era of "vigilante consumerism'' in which people not only want to be involved in decisionmaking, but insist that decisions go their way. Combined with the well-documented distrust of public institutions and anti-tax sentiment that pervades many states, including Colorado, it's a potent mix.
Still, people in Littleton try to sound hopeful that compromise can be reached and that the wounds inflicted during and after the election can heal.
"I don't think we're going to end up killing each other off,'' Cisney says.