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Learning From Littleton, Colorado

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Until recently, the Littleton, Colo., school district was in the forefront of educational change. Taking seriously the dictum that all graduating students should be able to perform at high levels of achievement, the district embarked in 1987 on a process of reform that incorporated many of the latest ideas in organizational and educational structure and theory--strategic planning, school-based management, and performance- or outcomes-based requirements. The three high schools in Littleton, along with its middle and elementary schools, introduced these new ideas, especially performance-based learning, in varying degrees. A total revision of the curriculum was undertaken to emphasize the latest thinking in curriculum development.

Littleton High School, under the direction of its dynamic principal, Tim Westerberg, took the lead in introducing a set of performance-based requirements for every student. Over the past five years, the school's administration and staff devoted their efforts to the development of what eventually became 14 "performance areas." These included communication, literary arts, visual and performing arts, the sciences, technology, mathematics, social and world relationships (citizenship), consumer economics, critical thinking, personal health, community involvement, ethics, human relations, and personal growth. The performance areas were then made an operational part of the curriculum through the development of 36 "demonstrations" required for graduation, each with its own standards and scoring procedures. The high school established a four-year advising program (every student had a staff member as an adviser for all four years) and a system under which students could each year perform some of the required demonstrations through their courses. The personal-growth performance requirement was measured by how well students managed their portfolios of demonstrations and planned their future work. The 1995 class of students, the first expected to graduate under these new requirements, did not have to meet any credit requirements for graduation. In other words, they could conceivably fail their courses and still graduate if they passed all demonstrations at a proficient level, with two at an excellent level.

In Littleton's school board elections last year, these new requirements became a major issue. The community was split about keeping them, but it elected board members who did not want to keep them. After a lot of discussion and controversy at board meetings held after the election (700 supporters of the new requirements turned out at one meeting), the board voted last February to eliminate the performance and demonstration requirements for graduation. After that, the superintendent left the district. While many Littleton teachers and administrators are trying to continue performance demonstrations on a voluntary basis, the program has been seriously, if not fatally, wounded by the board's actions and by the loss of the superintendent, who was a major force behind these changes. (See Education Week, June 1, 1994.)

Because the Littleton innovations embodied many of the reforms proposed by business, educators, and experts in many fields to raise the standards of achievement for graduation and insure that students can perform at high levels, it is important to ask: What went wrong? Given its high profile nationally, it would be a shame if Littleton High School's recent troubles with performance-based graduation requirements led to the demise of performance-based education in other districts. kp:cld be QB.srUnfortunately, educators and the public at large have a habit of throwing out valuable innovations when the first serious problems come along, and educational programs suffer as a result. Perhaps in this case it would be wise to analyze the situation as it unfolded, learn from the mistakes, and improve the future implementation prospects of similar reforms.

As the researchers Alan Davis and Catherine Felknor have reported from their work evaluating changes at Littleton High School, the introduction of required demonstrations, portfolios, and four-year counseling relationships had some significant, positive results, especially on classroom instruction. Students were working on more complex tasks requiring more time to complete, the researchers said, and the amount of substantive writing had increased markedly, extending across subject areas. The use of technology, including the use of library data bases, had also increased.

Mr. Davis and Ms. Felknor found a rigorous educational program, with many honors courses and a strong curriculum. There was also little evidence of boredom and few discipline problems. The Littleton program also stimulated changes in curriculum, such as the development of an integrated science program. Yet these positive factors were not enough to save the program. Why not?

In hindsight, one of the major problems with the Littleton High School approach was that it tried to do too much too fast. Because a completely new system of graduation requirements was instituted over four years, one grade level at a time, there was relatively little time for piloting and experimentation. Many students, parents, and community members had trouble understanding what the innovation was about and why it was necessary. The new school board that eliminated the requirements considered as a compromise measure use of an "endorsed diploma"--in other words, when students graduated and voluntarily met the performance requirements, they would have a special endorsement attached to their diplomas. In retrospect, it would probably have been wiser to have begun the Littleton experience with this approach, so that the first introduction to these new requirements would have been voluntary, and the students, parents, and community could have had a better opportunity to familiarize themselves with the requirements and their value without risk of confusion and misunderstanding.

A second problem is that the speed of implementation hampered the ability of staff members to judge the adequacy of the performances and to assess the demonstrations accurately and fairly. Major changes in assessment often lead to high rates of initial failure, because the tasks and the standards for judging students change dramatically. This happened at Littleton High, when fewer than 20 percent of the students passed the math-skills demonstration on their first attempt. In addition, performance-based assessments often have very special problems in scoring reliability. Parents and students were legitimately concerned that the speed of implementation would undermine accuracy in evaluating student demonstrations. Time for working out scoring procedures that enable every student and parent to feel as if they are being judged fairly is an important consideration in conversion to a performance-based system--especially when diplomas are on the line!

There were probably too many performance requirements within a very complex implementation system. In addition to taking courses (even though course credits were not required for graduation), students had to complete 36 "demonstrations" over four years. Students in traditional subject-area courses had to complete numerous performance requirements each year in a variety of courses, in addition to the other demands made upon them in each class. And, of course, for those in charge, keeping track of demonstrations, meeting with advisers, deciding on courses based on demonstrations (or partial demonstrations), and explaining these requirements to parents and the community--all of this required additional time and energy. Many of the demonstrations also overlapped; for example, one "communication" demonstration required students to write about a current political issue. If fewer required demonstrations had been implemented initially, and each with an interdisciplinary approach, much of the confusion and difficulties with time, schedules, and record-keeping might have been eliminated.

It did not help, either, that some of the demonstrations first developed were controversial. "Community involvement" and "ethics" were included in the 36 perform-ance requirements for graduation, which raised the ire of some community members. Given the added burden of controversy, the normal resistance to change was intensified.

Several other problems may have also led to the demise of performance-based requirements at Littleton. The requirements began, for example, with the high school's 9th-grade students, who had passed through the traditional system up until then. Suddenly, they were confronted with new requirements for graduation--all the rules had been changed on them. While many in the high school certainly adjusted to and supported this change, only 36 percent of the junior class (the first one slated to graduate with the new requirements) believed graduation should be based on demonstrations.

Perhaps it might have been better (although longer-term) to have begun this program with 6th-grade students, or even with kindergartners, so that students and parents could have adjusted to a new set of rules over a longer period of time. Of course, that would have meant coordinating this approach with feeder schools, something that is often difficult to do. But, ultimately, the success of a new and different approach hinges on the ability of a district to develop a coordinated, comprehensive program across grade levels and schools.

One unforeseen problem, an obstacle that may be hidden from evaluators' view even now, is that the new requirements in Littleton were imposed on top of a structure geared to credits and courses. That teachers, when questioned, were much more positive than students about performance-based requirements is no small matter. It is easy to forget that traditional courses impose a fragmented, discipline-based system of education which may, in the end, be incompatible with complex, integrated performances. Students who had to adjust to this new system found themselves taking a variety of discipline-based courses in which complex performance requirements were imposed. Dividing the day into traditional subject-centered periods probably made it difficult for students to see their work holistically, and students needed to do an average of nine performances each year in these courses, just to graduate on time.

Once a commitment was made to a large number of performance requirements for graduation, the course structure, which was developed for another set of requirements, probably should have been revamped. Leaving the traditional course structure in place while adding the required 36 demonstrations was more than likely unworkable in the end. Some thought needed to have been given to redesigning the system to eliminate confusion, fragmentation, and overload--for example, by reducing the number of required demonstrations to a manageable few, by having a two-week period at the end of each semester devoted to successfully developing required demonstrations, or by creating interdisciplinary teams.

We can learn a lot from Littleton High's difficulties. Performance-based graduation requirements have some very positive features, not the least of which are to raise the standards of educational excellence, require students to perform "real life" tasks to graduate, and improve instruction. The primary lessons of Littleton are those of time, structure, and the need for changes in thinking, not of leadership. A voluntary pilot program would have provided more time to get accustomed to the new approach and to develop assessment reliability. Fewer, more carefully chosen demonstrations, with less controversy, would have eliminated confusion and some resistance. Better coordination and implementation with feeder schools could have started the process earlier. More attention should have been paid to the conflict between the traditional course structure and the imposition of 36 interdisciplinary demonstrations.

In short, the lessons of Littleton High are that there are significant, positive advantages to a performance-based system for graduation, but that the conversion to such a system is fraught with potential peril and difficulties. We can use Littleton's experiences to create better implementation procedures, or we can again lose our way in this process of educational reform.

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