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If It Ain't Broke

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Parkway South High School in suburban Manchester, Mo., is a sleek glass-and-concrete structure, where students' cars outnumber faculty vehicles in the parking lot. Located on a grassy knoll, surrounded by playing fields and housing developments, it is the kind of school that real estate agents crow about: More than 85 percent of its graduates go on to college. Fewer than 3 percent of its students drop out. Test scores routinely hover at or above the statewide average.

When people talk about the need for school reform they typically focus on blighted urban high schools--not on the Parkway Souths of this world. But teachers here say that their school is not nearly what it could be--that despite its reputation as a "good school,'' too many students are just marking time or not being challenged enough. If things are so good, asks Jerry Benner, a media teacher at the school, "why are we only getting 90 percent attendance? Why do I have kids sit in class not working when they don't know that much?''

'They're not doing what they could do,'' he complains. "Or maybe I'm not doing what I could do.''

Jim Radtke, a physical education teacher at the school, agrees: "A certain percentage of these kids are going to do well no matter what sort of schooling they get. But there are a lot of kids here who aren't doing very well either. And we can kind of sweep them under the rug.''

To address such concerns, teachers and administrators have spent the past six years on a quest to make a good school better: a seemingly endless journey that has produced both friends and foes, small triumphs and bitter disappointments.

On this particular spring afternoon, as the Missouri sun beats down out of a cloudless sky, the frustration in the faculty meeting is palpable. Last week, teachers and administrators voted 59 to 50 to discard an experimental schedule that had been in place for most of the year. The split decision has left many teachers uncomfortable, concerned about the gulf that has opened up between them.

Now, a group of students are complaining that their views were not considered in the debate: that most students liked the new schedule, even though many of them abused the freedom and responsibility it offered. The students have sent a delegation to present their plaint to the faculty. "We know the decision is final,'' says Bridgette Bates, president of the student body. "We're here to show that students actually do have the mental capacity to care about their education.''

The delegation leaves. The teachers debate their decision again, only to have Principal Craig Larson halt the conversation in midstream. "If I feel awful about anything, it's that we have not been able to get to consensus on this,'' he tells the assembled audience. "But folks, that's the truth. And there's no reason to just bludgeon it to death.'' The experimental schedule will be abandoned, as planned.

In his classroom the next day, science teacher Paul McCaffrey voices the frustration of many teachers in the building. "It seems like a lot of wasted time,'' he worries. "We seem to be oscillating back and forth and never making any positive changes.''

To an outsider, the enigma is why teachers at Parkway South felt the need for reforms in the first place. It is, after all, the type of school parents have in mind when they give their local school an A but American education in general a C. A typical comprehensive high school of nearly 2,000 students, it offers a little something for everyone.

And precisely because it is so typical, its fate may well presage the fate of school reform in America. It is one thing to talk about changing teaching in an innercity high school where test scores are abysmal and the dropout rate astronomical. But it is quite another to convince parents, teachers, and school board members that the local school with the fine reputation doesn't really provide students with the education they need for the world that awaits them--that it must be improved and that more than cosmetic surgery is needed.

Many reform advocates argue that if the public continues to be largely satisfied with the Parkway Souths of the nation--the schools that enroll the majority of ordinary, middle-class teenagers--then there is little hope of making substantive changes in the present educational system. "As these schools go,'' predicts Larson, "so goes the nation. If you can turn suburban schools--or a set of suburban schools--in a particular direction, then good practice is defined differently.''

Parkway's odyssey began in 1985, when a group of teachers, parents, and students who were worried that the school was not demanding enough of its youngsters ran across the ideas of Theodore Sizer.

Sizer, a professor of education at Brown University, had just written a book called Horace's Compromise, based on five years of research in American high schools. The former private school headmaster was appalled by what he found. And he invented the fictional English teacher Horace Smith to describe what he saw.

Horace had too many students to teach, a curriculum that covered too many topics in too little depth, and a day fragmented into 50-minute class periods shattered by the ringing of bells. Faced with such exigencies, Horace compromised: Don't demand too much of students and they won't fight back. But privately, he worried about the costs entailed in such bargains.

"When we read Horace's Compromise, that struck such a responsive chord,'' recalls Rita Linck, Parkway South's librarian. "The compromises that Horace was making were the compromises that teachers felt, yes, they were making.''

'We're the epitome of the shopping-mall high school,'' Linck continues, "where students are allowed to slip through school without ever really being engaged in their learning.''

As it happened, Sizer was putting together a network of schools that were interested in pursuing his ideas for reform. Parkway South liked what it heard. And in May 1986, the faculty voted for its school to become a founding member of the Coalition of Essential Schools.

In 1987, the school launched a small pilot program to try out Sizer's concepts among a self-selected group of teachers and students. Within two years, the voluntary "school within a school'' had mushroomed to encompass nearly 300 students and 13 instructors.

But participants quickly learned about the politics of running an alternative program in the midst of a larger comprehensive high school. "It led to fragmentation within the faculty, who perceived the pilot project as drawing off resources and money that would otherwise be devoted to the whole school,'' says B. Patrick Conley, coordinator of the school's coalition project. Teachers complained about the "haves'' and the "havenots.''

In January 1989, faculty members voted to disband the pilot program and work for change throughout the school. Parkway South began concentrating its efforts on helping all teachers alter what they were doing inside the classroom. That fall, about 45 of the school's 120 teachers volunteered to participate in team teaching, staff development, and other activities growing out of its coalition work.

As part of that effort, the school asked the St. Louis-based Danforth Foundation for $75,000 to help teachers think about how to create an "outcomes-based diploma.'' Such a diploma would require students to exhibit their mastery of important knowledge and skills in order to graduate. The idea that students should be expected to display what they know and can do--rather than just accumulate course credits--is a central tenet of Sizer's coalition.

But what began as an open-ended "plan to plan'' exploded into an all-out fight with members of the school's parent community when a few conservative parents got wind of the school's proposal.

'We're not about to let our children be experimented upon,'' complained one parent, Richard Fruland, who helped raise the alarm about the school's efforts. "We've got parents who feel the school is exemplary now,'' he said at the time, "that it does an absolutely wonderful job of preparing children and educating them for the future.'' What Parkway South needed, he and others asserted, was some "fine tuning,'' not an overhaul.

It took months of meetings and phone conversations for the controversy to die down. In the process, Parkway South abandoned a plan to integrate its honors English students into regular classrooms, where they would have earned "honors'' credit through a combination of enrichment activities and leadership roles. Although the plan had little to do with the school's involvement in the coalition, the coincidental timing of the two proposals linked them in parents' minds.

Even today, some parents remain skeptical about the affiliation with the coalition, convinced that Parkway educators have a full-blown reform plan crouching in the wings, ready to pounce. "I still get the feeling that we are dealing with what has already been decided,'' worries one parent, who asked not to be identified. "Everything can be improved,'' she adds, "but dumping everything we have--I don't know.''

Despite such setbacks, teachers at the school have forged on, devoting most of this past year to defining what students need to know before they graduate, how well they have to know it, and how they will demonstrate that knowledge.

Eventually, every student will be asked to develop a portfolio of projects, assessments, and tasks--culled from their four years at the school-- that proves they have met the new standards. Most of the materials in those portfolios will be produced in the course of students' regular classroom assignments. In practice, this means that teachers must adjust their curriculum, their course work, and their expectations to support the broader outcomes that they want students to achieve.

The process is a daunting one that has involved, at some level, input from nearly every teacher in the school--as well as parents and community members.

The proficiencies outlined by the staff are broad and interdisciplinary: communications skills; critical thinking and problem solving; national and international awareness; understanding the interrelationship of science, technology, and society; artistic creation and interpretation; and personal and social development. They will be phased in over the next three years, beginning this fall.

This spring, for the first time, juniors and seniors were told that they could also choose to pursue optional "mastery assessments'' that would earn them special recognition on their high school transcripts. Such "assessments'' go far beyond what students are traditionally called on to do in school: drawing on knowledge and skills from a host of disciplines.

Students who want to pursue a mastery assessment in communications, for example, must pose an "essential question'' that focuses on a universal theme, value, or democratic ideal and then develop a research project in response to that question. Such questions--like "What is the nature of a good life?''--compel students to grapple with serious material and complex and important ideas. As part of the project, the youngsters must read three literary or expository texts not covered in the classroom and summarize each reading; read and summarize a fourth, shorter text in a foreign language; and participate in a 10-minute oral interview about their research methods.

They must also choose three of the following ways to express their findings: an expository essay; a short speech; a written and oral critique of an audio-visual production; an original computer program, film, broadcast, or performance; a properly documented, 10-source research paper that incorporates two community resources through the use of interviews or surveys; or a creative composition or oral interview in a language other than their own. Students can substitute a score of 3 or higher on an Advanced Placement examination for some of these requirements. For each exercise, the teachers have specified the level of performance that would qualify for the designation of "mastery.''

While the proficiency requirements are expected to be a "stretch'' for about 20 percent of the school's students, Larson anticipates, only 3 or 4 percent will be able to demonstrate mastery in a particular area.

Jeannette Williams, the president of the school's parentteacher organization, says the new focus on performance will give students "the opportunity to show what they've learned and not just be shuffled along.''

Diane Lawrence, a former PTO president, agrees. "I have been concerned for a number of years that there's not a whole lot of pursuit of excellence,'' she says. "The teacher draws a line; the kid gets to it and stops.''

But they both admit that many parents still do not understand what is involved in either the mastery exhibitions or in the proficiencies that will eventually be required of all students. "A lot of parents out there, as long as things are going smoothly, don't really care,'' Williams says.

An initial meeting to inform parents and students about the mastery assessments drew about 75 people, most of whom were supportive of the idea. But few students have come forward thus far--in part because the opportunity was presented so late in the year and in part because the rewards for pursuing so much extra work are minimal.

'All they do is put a sticker on your transcript,'' says Donna Franklin, an upperclassman at the school. "To me, it just didn't seem worth it.'' Other students complain that it has been hard to find teachers who are willing to mentor them on such projects. There are not enough teachers and not enough time.

'I think we've started off in much too complicated a fashion,'' says Patrick Berger, the chairman of the school's English department, "so complicated that we're not going to be able to push it forward. Some of our assessment sheets look like dissertation handouts.''

Meanwhile, the commotion over the schedule has amounted to what almost everyone describes as an "enormous distraction'' from the work at hand.

It wasn't meant to be that way. At Parkway, as in most high schools, the schedule is the bane of teachers' and students' existence. Its rigid, 50-minute time blocks send students shuttling from one wing of the enormous building to another, interfere with team teaching and extended projects, and leave students with minimal opportunities to make use of the school's richly endowed library, computer laboratory, and career center.

So the decision to revise the schedule was seen by many teachers here as highly symbolic: the kind of "big leap'' that showed the school was serious about reform. The new schedule allowed for 90-minute class periods, by having classes meet four times a week, rather than five. It rotated the time slot when individual classes met. It gave students 30 minutes a day of "contact time'' to use as they saw fit--for enrichment, for club meetings, to get help from teachers. And it built in something called a "teacher-guided assistance period,'' during which small groups of students met with a teacher to receive help putting together portfolios, completing college applications, and making career decisions.

But the results were discouraging. Although some teachers--and students--loved the new schedule, many complained about the infrequency with which classes met, the number of students milling in the halls, and the stress involved in filling up a 90-minute time slot. Without the proficiencies in place, teachers were uncertain about what to do during the teacherguided assistance period, which started to meet less and less.

'We were not prepared,'' says Gerri Ridgell, a social studies teacher who argues that, in retrospect, teachers needed more training to cope with the changes. Longer class periods, for example, invited a different kind of pedagogy than just lecturing from the front of the room.

Now, a majority of the teachers have voted to return to a modification of the way things have always been. The rest are just frustrated that after a year of bickering and arguing and debating the merits of one schedule over another, they are back where they started. "The schedule, I think, has been an enormous distraction,'' says Conley. "A great deal of energy has been expended to no purpose.''

Worse still, it has highlighted for teachers what they feared all along: that not everyone is in agreement about the school's reform efforts. "It saddens me to see the divisiveness,'' says Phyllis Abling, the school's drama director. Teacher Radtke says: "I'm afraid what the vote indicates is that if we were to vote on more things, we would have more things that would be that close. And I don't feel good about where we are right now.''

Parkway South's experience with the schedule also reflects an inherent strength and weakness in the coalition's approach to reform. There is no cookbook recipe for coalition schools to follow. Instead, each school must pursue its own quest based on a set of commonly held beliefs, which are themselves open to interpretation. For example, what one person means by "student as worker, teacher as coach''--a frequently invoked coalition principle--is different than what another person means.

The coalition provides member schools with support. The National Re:Learning Faculty, a group of experienced teachers, administrators, school board members, and community people, for example, is available to work with schools on a regular basis. (See "Critical Friends,'' page 31.) But its basic assumption is that no two schools are alike; each school must shape its own destiny, based on the people and the community that it serves.

The coalition also emphasizes that true reform must come from the bottom up, through the voluntary participation of teachers and principals. Larson, the slim, tawny-haired principal with a soft-spoken manner, epitomizes this democratic approach to decisionmaking.

But the result of such ideologies is that the coalition's influence at Parkway South varies widely from teacher to teacher and student to student; its gains come in fits and starts. "Everybody has been involved to some extent, just by being here,'' says Abling. "But on a daily basis, my involvement has been pretty much left up to me.''

Abling, for example, now builds her lessons around essential questions, not checklists of course objectives. Edward Mihevc, chairman of the social studies department, asks students in his psychology class to write a paper defining and describing an emotion, present a literary work in which that emotion is expressed, write a paragraph on the emotion in a foreign language, and express the emotion in a visual form. This coming year, five of the 15 teachers in his department plan to do some kind of interdisciplinary work, ranging from short-term projects to team teaching a course.

In many classes, says Larson, "you see a more active kid. You see more project work. You see more group work. You see less use of the textbook and going through it chapter by chapter.''

Says Linck: "I do see teachers questioning what they're doing; being more thoughtful about it; trying some new things.'' But others say the coalition has polarized the faculty and made things more difficult. McCaffrey contends that for most students, "it's made no difference.''

"I think a small percentage of teachers are involved with it,'' he says. "And I think that there are a lot of teachers who are confused and frustrated and put off by it. I guess that's the way it is with any kind of change.''

At the end of Parkway South's journey, observers suggest, there may be no "magic elixir'' that will transform it from a good to a great school. And there may be no shortcuts around the herky-jerky, one-step-forward, two-steps back nature of education reform.

Indeed, in a suburban school like Parkway, suggests Larson, the slow and gradual approach may be the only way to go. "When we had the parents get angry with us,'' he explains, "it was very much over the issue that they thought we were going to do something revolutionary and do it quickly. And how would they know it was going to be better? And what was wrong with the school in the first place?''

'So the only way that really makes sense for me,'' he concludes, "is if you think about it as constant improvement that is substantive. But it isn't a whole turning over of the school at all.''

"It's a slow process that we have to keep working at,'' agrees Ridgell. "Maybe a lot of people don't want to be committed to anything. I'm going to remain hopeful. And I guess it's going to take a lot of modeling on the part of teachers who see the need for change.''

"When it gets to the point that I don't feel things need to change,'' the outspoken and vivacious social studies teacher adds, "then they might as well lay me out at Schrader's.'' And she gestures to the funeral home down the street.

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