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An A For Effort

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The women sitting around Dona LeBouef's butcher-block kitchen table look like a bevy of PTA moms dressed in coordinated shirts, pants, and denim jumpers, but in fact they are a rebel army. With classical music playing softly in the background, they sip their coffee, swap war stories, and sift through their arsenal of weapons: a large sheaf of photocopied newspaper articles, old report cards, and petitions.

The target of their wrath on this spring day is the Cranston, R.I., public schools, more specifically the district's efforts to overhaul the elementary school grading system. Last fall, local educators introduced citywide new report cards that dropped letter grades. They believed the innovative system would more accurately reflect their teaching and give parents more detailed information about their children. They thought parents would be pleased. They were wrong.

"We were flabbergasted,'' says Jean Germani, parent of three children in the Cranston school system and one of those seated in LeBouef's kitchen. "We've seen 30 years of the A-B-C format.'' Why, she wants to know, would the district want to tamper with it?

Opposition from parents like Germani and LeBouef already has led the school board to question and revise much of the report-card experiment. And teachers who worked for two years to craft the new grading system are fleeing the planning committee in droves.

Cranston is not the sort of town given to this kind of vituperative, ideological fighting over education. Located just south of Providence, the conservative community of 76,000 is largely viewed as a haven from big-city problems. Many of its mostly Catholic, middle-class residents have lived here for generations, attending the same schools as their parents and grandparents. Support for the school system traditionally has run strong and deep.

But that support and cohesiveness is being put to the test. Bring up the subject of report cards, and voices rise and tempers flare. Teachers and parents on both sides of the issue complain that they have been personally assaulted, their views discounted or derided, their concern for children thrown into question.

"There's been a major breakdown in trust between parents and the education system,'' says Albert Benetti, parent of a kindergartner and 2nd grader at Eaton Park Elementary School. "Now we want to make sure that the way we're interpreting things is the way they're interpreting things, that we're all on the same page.''

The use of letter grades to denote student achievement is one of the most sacred traditions in American education. Letter grades have an almost cult-like importance. They are the altar at which the nation's students and parents worship. Get a good grade, and mom and dad will be proud. Get a bad grade, and there will be hell to pay.

Educationally speaking, they are the primary, shorthand tool for communicating to parents how their children are faring and where improvement is needed. Without them, there would be no honor rolls or class valedictorian. Schools use them to signal whether children have mastered their subjects, to track students for educational courses and programs, to motivate and reward. To trifle with letter grading, as Cranston educators have learned, is to attack one of the most basic notions about schooling and competition in America.

Yet across the country, administrators and teachers are reevaluating traditional student report cards for a variety of practical and philosophical reasons. In many communities, elementary schools are moving away from the traditional kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade structure and letting children progress through the primary level at their own pace, a shift that has led educators to question their traditional grading system. Letter grades, they fear, cannot take into account the widely differing maturity levels of young children. The National Association for the Education of Young Children now encourages elementary schools to create report cards for ages 5 to 8 that reflect students' growth over time and that focus more on their strengths.

Alfie Kohn, the author of Punished by Rewards: The Trouble With Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes, is one of the most strident critics of letter grades. "What grades offer is spurious precision, a subjective rating masquerading as an objective assessment," he writes in the October 1994 issue of Educational Leadership. He argues that "grades of any kind . . . tend to foster comparison and competition, an emphasis on relative standing. This is not only destructive to students' self-esteem and relationships but also counterproductive with respect to the quality of learning.'' Kohn cites studies that suggest grades may depress creativity, foster fear of failure, and undermine interest in education for its own sake.

The current push to develop standards for what students should know and be able to do also has led educators to rethink traditional report cards. Letter grades, they say, tend to reflect how students are performing in relation to their peers rather than indicating whether students have mastered specific concepts or skills.

To give parents a better sense of what those skills are, some schools now rate student performance on long checklists of topics and subtopics, rather than in broad categories, such as reading and mathematics. Districts also have begun to experiment with narrative report cards, videotapes, and portfolios that can provide parents with greater insight into what their children are learning and how well they are learning it. Such changes are surfacing primarily in elementary schools.

"I think what you see today is people, particularly parents, asking for better and more useful information on students' learning, and, in response to that, schools have developed reporting systems that are trying to provide more accurate and more useful information,'' says Thomas Guskey, a professor of education at the University of Kentucky.

"As we talk to educators in different parts of the country, there seems to be a strong thrust toward reporting student learning in terms of clearly specified learning criteria, rather than relative standing among classmates,'' he explains. "It's harder to do that. But one of the things that we find consistent in the research that has looked into grading and reporting are the detrimental aspects of grading on the curve. When you do grade on the curve, it makes learning a highly competitive activity. Students compete against each other for the few scarce rewards--the high grades--that are going to be administered by the teacher. It sets learning up as a win-lose situation for the students. And because the number of high grades is typically limited, most students will be losers.''

Given this national mood, educators in Cranston had every reason to believe that their grading reforms were taking the district in the right direction and that they were in good company. "No red flags went off in my mind,'' says Edward Myers, the local superintendent of schools.

In 1987, the school system revised its literacy curriculum to reflect changing state mandates and educational research. It expanded the defi-nition of literacy to include reading, writing, speaking, and listening. It introduced more quality children's literature into the elementary classroom and trained teachers to use process writing. At the same time, the district revised its mathematics curriculum to bring it in line with the standards developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

By 1990, a handful of schools had begun to change their kindergarten report cards to reflect the new approach. Teachers rated their students on a range of skills, checking one of two boxes for each: "satisfactory development'' or "improvement needed.'' A small space was reserved for narrative comments.

Few parents and teachers seemed to notice the change, and those who did reacted positively.

In 1992, the district organized a committee of more than 25 teachers and administrators to rethink report cards for grades K-6. Only a handful of parents served on the panel. In the fall of 1993, the committee began testing a pilot grading system for kindergartners and primary students in seven schools.

The old report card had rated students in key categories--such as reading, spelling, and handwriting--on a scale of A ("outstanding performance at instructional level'') to E ("does not meet instructional level standards''). Beneath each category, teachers could check off whether a a student's skill or effort needed improvement. The revised report card for grades 1-3 introduced a three-level grading scale: C stood for "consistently successful,'' M for "making progress,'' and I for "improvement needed.'' The revised kindergarten report card asked teachers to rate whether students demonstrated a particular skill or concept "most of the time'' or "not yet.''

The reactions of parents and teachers to the changes, as noted on a February 1994 district survey, were mixed. Parents, in particular, griped that the highest marks a student could receive was a row of straight C's. They also complained that phrases such as "making progress'' were too vague to let them know where their children stood.

So in March 1994, the report-card committee was reconstituted to include more parents. A call went out to the Cranston Education Advisory Board, a parent group, for help. Still, only 10 parents volunteered. The committee swelled to 40 individuals: 25 teachers, 5 administrators, and 10 parents. Their charge was to refine the pilot grading system and expand it throughout the elementary grades.

Most of the teachers on the committee didn't share the parents' concerns. They felt that the changes they'd made on the primary-level report card were long overdue. Millie D'Aguanno, a teacher at Woodridge Elementary School and vice president of the Cranston Educational Alliance, the local teachers' union, was one of them. "When you have 1st and 2nd grade kids who are at all different points on the continuum, it's so difficult to say that the child that's having difficulty has to get a D,'' she says. "Maybe he couldn't do it because he just was not ready. So I just felt, and a lot of 1st and 2nd grade teachers felt, 'My God, we need to look at these kids differently. We have to assess differently. And we have to evaluate differently.' ''

The primary-level teachers weren't the only ones who felt this way. "I hate report cards,'' says Mary Crawford, a 5th grade teacher at Glen Hills Elementary with 28 years in the school system. "Some kids will say to me, 'I know I'm going to get D's. I'm not going to make the honor roll.' And some parents won't accept anything less than an A or a B. C is not a good grade. Well, C is an average grade. But it is not acceptable. So there's a lot of pressure.''

The committee reviewed report cards from around the country. It considered using narratives but rejected them as too time-consuming and subjective. It argued back and forth about letter grades. In the end, it settled on a six-point scale that would provide more gradations than the C-M-I format but would not be equated directly with A, B, C, D, and E. On the new scale, one would stand for "inconsistent progress,'' and six "excelling.'' A six would be reserved for students whose self-motivation, participation, and achievement exceeded grade-level outcomes. (Before the report cards were actually used, the district told teachers to disregard number one--"inconsistent progress''--because educators could not agree on what it meant.)

Rather than receiving an overall mark for reading or mathematics, students would be graded in individual subcategories, such as "reads for a variety of purposes'' and "computes accurately.'' Teachers could check a special box on the new report card to indicate whether they had modified their instruction or expectations to accommodate a student with special needs or limited proficiency in English.

The overall goal was to show students' gradual growth over time on specific skills and competencies required by the curriculum. As long as youngsters mastered the competencies by the end of the marking period, they could earn a five--for "achieved''--whether they had mastered the skills quickly or slowly.

Another key decision was made during the spring of 1994 that many on the committee would come to regret. Rather than pilot the new report card at one or two Cranston schools, it was decided, at the urging of the district's parent-advisory group, to test it in each of the system's 18 elementary schools. The advisory group argued that all parents should have a chance to experience and react to the new format.

The plan, then, was to pilot the new report card twice during the 1994-95 school year--once in the fall and again in the winter--and then survey parents and teachers for their reactions. The Cranston school board closely followed the committee's work and went along with the plan, although it did not officially vote on it.

Maureen Kirby, chairwoman of the report-card committee and principal of William Dutemple Elementary School, says she and the other educators on the committee failed to see the storm clouds on the horizon. "What we tried to do with the report card,'' Kirby says, "is make it work for all the individual needs.'' She now realizes how naive they were.

Shortly before the beginning of the 1994-95 school year, district administrators introduced the new report card to teachers. Some 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade teachers were not particularly happy with the changes. They were less familiar than their colleagues in grades K-2 with the district's new literacy curriculum, having received far less training and support. But rather than wave a red flag, they chose to go along with the plan. In retrospect, some members of the report-card committee say this was a mistake.

"Because so many teachers, especially on the intermediate level, were uncomfortable with the change, they couldn't explain it to the parents,'' says Janice Santos, a 5th grade teacher at Hope Highlands Elementary School, who served on the committee. "Even though they appeared to be supportive, they didn't totally believe in it.''

The district held a few workshops for parents. Although the school system advertised the workshops in its newsletter and mailed information home to parents, few people attended. The first session, at the local public library, drew only nine people; the second, seven. Still, the reaction was favorable. "We had a very positive response from those parents,'' Kirby says. "Overall, we left with a feeling that the parents are interested. They're concerned. There was a real sense that we're working together on this.''

The district also produced a half-hour television show on the new grading system for a local cable station. And two weeks before the pilot report cards were to be passed out in the late fall, educators offered six additional workshops in elementary schools across town. The first went smoothly. Then the team hit Hope Highlands.

Hope Highlands Elementary School sits on a hill on the western side of town, home to the city's more affluent baby boomers. The two-year-old building, known locally as the "castle,'' includes a separate kindergarten wing and a large, central foyer. It is, as one parent puts it, "the place where anyone who's anybody in the town of Cranston has their kids at school.'' Many of the parents describe themselves as overachievers who want the best for themselves and their children.

One of those parents is Jean Germani. A thin woman with frosted blond hair, Germani and her husband run a dry-cleaning business in town. She was incensed to learn that the school system had been working on a new report-card program for two years without giving parents details until the last minute.

"Maybe we're traditional,'' she says. "I consider us as a group to be moderate.'' But Germani believes the A-B-C format is universally understood and tells parents "exactly--precisely--where our children stand. It's so objective.''

Another concerned parent was David Dulude, a former high school teacher and school board member who has a 5th grader at the school. "We had what we felt were some very well-founded concerns,'' Dulude says. "In order for parents to understand how their child is doing, you see papers coming home each week with grades on them. Then those grades have to be reflected in a mark. Something solid.''

The new report card, he says, "gave no indication, in any concrete manner, how the child was doing. It was a very, very subjective system based on this feel-good mentality that is prevalent in education today. Here, we see 'substantial progress,' or 'moderate progress,' or 'progressing slowly.' What does that mean? We felt we weren't being given the information, as parents, to help much. And then, on top of that, we were given a handbook that only a specialist in educational jargon could understand.''

Many parents objected that their children were being rated only in subcategories. "In the past, they never used subcategories,'' Germani says. "Now, all of a sudden, all they wanted to tell the parents is where their children stood in subcategories.'' What's more, some parents objected to the subcategories themselves. Math, for example, was a subcategory listed under the broader heading of "literacy,'' while speaking and listening, which some parents viewed as nonacademic, had categories of their own. There was no longer a separate category for spelling or handwriting.

After the Hope Highland workshop, Germani, Dulude, and others decided to go to war. They picketed in front of the school the week of the fall parent-teacher conferences. The 24 most active created an organization, Parents for Quality Education, and began circulating petitions, urging others to fight the new report cards and demand a return to the A-B-C grading system.

Attached to the petitions was an editorial from a Los Angeles newspaper about outcome-based education--a philosophy that has been widely criticized for encouraging mediocrity in the schools. In reality, an outcome-based system is simply one that focuses on student results (what students actually know and can do), rather than inputs (time in school, money spent, credits earned). Although the Cranston report-card handbooks referred to "learner outcomes,'' local educators were stunned that anyone would perceive them as pursuing outcome-based education--something they flatly deny. They felt as if they were fighting ghosts.

Approximately 1,300 people signed the petitions, which were passed around at school and sporting events and prominently displayed in Germani's dry-cleaning store.

Many educators on the report-card committee felt blindsided by Germani and the others. "She will tell you that she has 1,300 signatures,'' says Kirby, a petite blonde who claims she lost some 10 pounds this past year due to stress. "But how those signatures were obtained was a disgrace.''

Kirby's view that Germani and fellow parents misrepresented the new grading system is shared by several parents who supported the pilot report cards. "There were parents who were very concerned that the change also meant a change in the curriculum,'' says Lynn Aberger, PTO president at Waterman Elementary. "Though it wasn't true, there were a lot of parents who were very concerned that this was heading toward outcome-based education; that there were going to be no objective standards anymore; that everything that the children received would be purely subjectively based. So there was a lot of concern that this was a trend toward something bigger, and let's stop it now.''

Adding fuel to the fire was a decision by Cranston elementary school principals to suspend honor rolls at their schools for one year. What's more, the district is scheduled to replace its junior high schools with middle schools this fall, and many parents worried that dropping letter grades in elementary school was a precursor of things to come in the upper grades.

"There were parents who said they were eliminating all tracking at the middle schools because of this, parents who had all kinds of wild ideas that were going to happen; the overreaction was very strong,'' explains Aberger, who joined the report-card committee this spring. "What happens is that you hear from people who are opposed because those are the people who motivate themselves to get out and do something about it. What you don't hear from the silent majority is: 'Hey, I got more out of my parent-teacher conferences than I've ever gotten before; I know more.' You don't ever hear from the parents who have anything good to say. You hear from people who have bad things to say. Change is always hard.''

On Dec. 12, 1994, the Cranston School Committee listened to more than two hours of heated and bitter testimony from people on both sides of the issue. Searching for a compromise, the board unanimously agreed to return letter grades to the pilot report cards, at least for the January marking period. It also directed the school district to survey the parents of elementary school students.

The surveys were mailed out Christmas week. They asked parents whether they would like to continue with the new report card, add letter grades to it, or see additional changes. Parents were not asked whether they wanted to return to the old system. Only about 2,000 of the 5,000 parents surveyed returned the questionnaire. But 1,501 of those said they did not want to continue with the new report card their children had received in the fall. And 1,638 said they favored adding letter grades to the pilot system.

At another tense meeting in January, the school committee voted to keep the pilot report card intact in the primary grades (K-2); but teachers in grades 3-6 were told to assign letter grades in the core subjects. Although the subcategories would be retained, they would only be used to identify areas where students needed further improvement.

That same week, Linda DiCecco, parent of two district students, filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Depart-ment's office of civil rights, alleging that the new grading system discriminated against disabled and limited-English-proficient students by "blatantly identifying them'' on the report cards.

The school district quickly instructed teachers not to check the box specifying whether instruction had been modified because of a child's special needs. But DiCecco decided to pursue her complaint anyway, albeit somewhat reworked. "It would be wise to put a procedure in place so that they could review objections before a controversy arises,'' she says of district administrators. "There was nothing. There was no procedure for us. We had to play it by ear.''

In May, district administrators proposed that the school committee leave the compromise grading system in place at all elementary schools for the 1995-96 school year, while yet another reconstituted report-card committee works on an alternative. The district's goal is to hold parent-education meetings at each elementary school and to carefully survey parents about their desires and concerns. The school board did not officially vote on the proposal but gave its tacit approval.

Neither side in the dispute is particularly happy with the way things now stand. And that pleases school board member Joe Ventetuolo, a former principal of Cranston East High School. "I actually think we did a good job on that,'' he says. "You can't satisfy everybody.'' The pilot report card, he asserts, "was difficult to understand, even for me as an educator. It took me a half-hour, even three-quarters of an hour, to decipher it.''

Ventetuolo believes the district should incorporate letter grades into its new system. "If that's what this community wants,'' he argues, "give it to them.''

But that view angers many teachers, particularly members of the report-card committee. They feel their ideas and hard work have been slighted in favor of a small minority of parents who exerted inordinate pressure on the school board. And they are particularly upset that the experiment was altered midstream, before it was allowed to run its course.

"This has set us back with teachers,'' superintendent Myers acknowledges. "They are much less enthusiastic about joining committees, giving time, because there is a perception that if a pressure group comes forward, their views are going to be washed out.''

This spring, when the report-card committee met for the first time since the blowup, only one of the 25 or so teacher members showed up. Three attended a meeting held a week later.

"Teachers worked very hard,'' explains Woodridge Elementary teacher Millie D'Aguanno. "We're not saying, 'You didn't take my opinion, or you didn't do what I wanted, so the heck with you, I'm not going to be on the committee anymore.' I just think teachers felt they were humiliated. Some very nasty things were said at those public hearings. And people really felt like, who needs this?''

Deborah Boehm was one of those people. Also a teacher at Woodridge, Boehm heads the state's whole language association. She has an easy rapport with students, and her classroom is a vibrant place, full of overflowing bins of children's books. She was a valuable and active member of the report-card committee. But all the debate and criticism has soured her.

"I'd lie in bed until 2 or 3 in the morning, knowing that I shouldn't take it personally,'' she says after class one day. "It did make me understand that parents don't know what's going on in the classroom. But the attitudes--I don't need that. I'd rather sit home and make one of these book bags for three hours.'' She holds up several bags she has crafted for her children to take materials home in.

"I think the most important thing that many of us as teachers have to remember is that we do have to listen to the parents,'' says Joan Goyette, a 2nd grade teacher at Hope Highlands. "That's important. But, on the other hand, I think they have to listen to us, too. It definitely has to be a give and take.''

As tensions over the new report cards escalated, educators and parents began to realize that they were not on the same wavelength, that their long-held assumptions about letter grades differed dramatically.

Parents such as Germani and Dulude assumed that the letter grades used in elementary school were the same as those used in junior and senior high school, where each letter carries a specific numeric value. An A plus, for example, represents 97-100, an A 93-96, and so on down the line. But that wasn't the case at all. In fact, many elementary teachers viewed letter grading as inherently subjective. Although they tried to amass as much evidence as they could to document their decisions, they ultimately exercised a great deal of personal discretion and judgment.

"We didn't always have consistency among the teachers,'' admits James Cofone, principal of Stone Hill School. "I'd go to a meeting and hear a parent talk about how objective a grade was, and I thought, 'This is amazing.' I think those numerical averages just became tradition in their minds. Even though we didn't use them, they did.''

To the teachers who served on the planning committee, the pilot report cards--while imperfect--represented a tremendous step forward, in both the level of detail they were providing to parents and the kinds of evidence they used to make their decisions. Although the future of the new system is uncertain, many teachers now keep detailed notes on their observations of children and collect pieces of their work in portfolios. In addition, they are designing performance assessments that ask students to apply what they know and are creating scoring rubrics for use in the classroom. Many say they will never go back to the old way because the new system helps them know their students so much better.

In retrospect, some believe that if they had done more to communicate with parents about the changes, the parents would have bought into the new system, too. "We had workshops with the teachers where we showed them how to set up a rubric, how to set up the criteria,'' Kirby says. "But that was never shown to parents, which was unfortunate.''

Cranston's troubles are by no means unusual. When the Houston Independent School District piloted a narrative report card several years ago in grades K-3, the move received national attention and was widely criticized.

"What we realized,'' says Lynn Barnes, a Houston assessment specialist, "is that we needed to involve the parents in an ongoing way, especially parents who didn't just love it. So we pulled in the very vocal parents, and we worked with them through last year and during last summer.''

The new report card, which schools opt to use on a voluntary basis, is now in place in 70 of the district's 176 elementary schools.

When elementary schools in Elmhurst, Ill., an upper-middle-class community about 15 miles west of Chicago, dropped letter grading in 1992, some parents there were outraged. As a result, the school system added a grid to its 4th and 5th grade report cards that lets parents know how their children are doing in relation to others in the class.

But for some parents, particularly those on the far right of the political spectrum, that still wasn't enough, says Jean Cameron, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. "They want to see that letter grade, and they want to see it starting in kindergarten,'' she says. "I really don't think you can compromise or build bridges with that group.''

In other places, such as Cherry Creek, Colo., and Tucson, Ariz., school districts have skirted controversy by working with a small number of pilot schools, involving parents early in the planning, or leaving it up to each school to develop its own report card in collaboration with community members. At the Polton Community School in Cherry Creek, for example, parents demanded more norm-referenced information, so a box indicating a students' standing in the class was added to the report card.

Grant Wiggins, an expert on student assessment, argues that letter grades themselves are not actually the problem. Rather, he writes in the October 1994 issue of Educational Leadership, "using a single grade with no clear and stable meaning to summarize all aspects of performance is a problem. We need more, not fewer, grades; and more different kinds of grades and comments if the parent is to be informed.''

He goes on: "Grades are clear if clear standards and criteria are used, in a consistent way, by each teacher. Grades are unclear if they represent idiosyncratic values and inconsistency from teacher to teacher. Narrative comments don't change this fact.''

One of the problems with letter grades is that they can reflect so many things--children's effort, progress, ability, and relative standing in the class. Another is that teachers use a wide range of evidence to arrive at the mark--from teacher-made tests and homework assignments to classroom discussions and group projects. There is little agreement among educators on how all of this information should be expressed in a grade.

The research literature on the subject doesn't offer much guidance, according to Guskey, the University of Kentucky professor. "What we find,'' he says, "is that no matter what method of grading is selected, it serves some purposes well and not others. Letter grades, for example, aren't inherently bad. It's just how we use them. The advantage to them is that they can communicate in a very brief form an overall summary of learning. The disadvantage is that a great deal of information is abstracted into a single symbol.

"The point that I try to stress in my writing--and I think others have, as well--is that reporting is more a task of effective communication than it is just documenting achievement. So if those forms become so complex that parents can't interpret them, or they can't derive meaning from them, then they are not serving their purpose well.''

Back in Cranston, the battle lines are drawn. Parents like Germani and Dulude still want a return to letter grades--ones that are based on numerical scores. Germani was the only member of the reconfigured report-card committee to vote against the proposal to continue some aspects of the pilot program for another year. She wants the district to abandon the project altogether.

Committee chairwoman Kirby has concluded that she will never win over the Germanis of the world. Her goal now is to limit their influence. "Should this group of parents be more valid than others?'' she asks. "I don't think they should.'' She believes that there is still enough good will in the community to forge a workable solution.

Some of the parents who opposed the initial grading reforms say they are willing to work with Kirby. Michael Anthony, parent of two children at Dutemple Elementary School, is one. "It just seemed like they were throwing out the tried-and-true system,'' the Cranston native says of the original proposals. "I'm the product of traditional education. A-B-C's, and you knew if you came home with a D, you didn't have TV, and you hit the books. I think this [new] report card was designed to address a self-esteem issue. For a child who has a D, it's as if you can't tell them to hit the books, they'll be so depressed. That's language I don't understand.''

On his own initiative, Anthony contacted the U.S. Education Department and requested a list of "blue ribbon'' schools. He then got in touch with a number of them and asked for a copy of their report cards, which he now keeps in a large folder. He spoke with about 15 schools before he found one that uses a grading system similar to the one the Cranston teachers and administrators drew up. But Anthony, a young, exceedingly polite insurance salesman, isn't out to derail the Cranston effort. He has decided to stay on the planning committee and work for a solution. "I don't want to just lob fireballs from the outside,'' he says. "I think it will take work. I think it will take longer. But I think they can do it.''

At this point, no one in Cranston expects the district to drop letter grades in upper-elementary school any time soon. But many are hopeful that much of what the teachers and administrators have accomplished can be refined and built upon.

"I'm a strong believer in academic freedom for teachers,'' says school board member Ventetuolo. "Whatever they do within the purview of their charge, they have the right to do it, and they must be protected. On the other hand, when they're reporting to a parent, they have to convert what they're doing to a language that parents can understand. Unless you're able to convert from the educator's jargonese, you're going to create a problem.''

Slipping into a reflective mood, Ventetuolo recalls his days as a classroom teacher back in the 1950s. "We did our thing,'' he says. "At the end of the road, we made our report. The parents accepted it. I guess we were little gods back then. But today, [parents] want the involvement. You really have to keep the information flowing on a daily basis. The only way you can overcome that whole thing is just by flooding the airwaves with all the information you can.''

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