Getting Down to Cases:'Change Starts Happening'

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Albert S. Weiss, the principal of Milwaukee's 20th Street Elementary School, remembers the time before his school initiated its effective-schools program as one in which teachers were so discouraged that they had stopped expecting students to turn in homework on a regular basis.

One of the first changes the school made, he says, was to be stricter with respect to homework. Students who did not do their work stayed in during recess or lunch periods to finish it. Teachers also began sending home reports to parents telling them when their children had failed to complete the assignments.

The results of those small changes, says Mr. Weiss, were remarkable. When a portion of the children began bringing in their assignments on time, teachers began expecting the others to do the same.

"It's like a domino theory," he says. "If you work on a couple of things that people can see, change starts happening."

For the Milwaukee elementary school, change began by establishing higher expectations--one of several characteristics that effective-schools researchers found to be associated with schools in which low-income children were succeeding academically.

Though opinion among effective-schools researchers is divided over both the number and interpretation of these characteristics, schools base their efforts to become effective on some combination of them.

Beginning below are examples of how several schools have developed programs based on the five characteristics identified by the late Ronald R. Edmonds, formerly professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and one of the founders of the effective-schools movement.

The policies and practices included represent only a sampling of how such characteristics are being interpreted in individual schools. And because researchers and practitioners define the characteristics in varying ways, the definitions given below are approximate.

Schools may use research on different aspects of teaching and learning to guide their efforts, say the experts. But ultimately, they note, each school must develop its own plan for change based on a clear-eyed assessment of its needs.

The Institute for Responsive Education, a Boston-based citizens' advocacy group, says in its book, A Citizen's Notebook on School Effectiveness, that the five characteristics identified by Mr. Edmonds "serve as umbrella terms for accumulating evidence about what practices are associated with effective schools."

"It is these practices that count," says the group. "There is no particular magic in the terms themselves."

A Clear School Mission: According to the Institute for Responsive Education, having a clear school mission means that administrators, teachers, parents, and students can give the same answer to the question, "What is the purpose of this school?"--and that the answer will emphasize instruction. The mission should then be evident in the goals the school sets for itself, the atmosphere it creates, and the way it allocates its resources, the ire says.

To emphasize its mission, Milwaukee's Benjamin Franklin Elementary School has replaced hallway artwork with students' academic papers. It also posts lists of students who have earned perfect test scores, holds academic pep rallies and spelling bees instead of athletic events, and generally tries, says principal Albert P. Cooper Sr., to let students and parents know that learning is important.

The school has also provided teachers with more inservice workshops in such areas as mastery learning, time on task, and reading across the curriculum.

Many other schools have developed written "mission statements." At the Woodland Hills Elementary School in Cleveland, for example, a copy of the school's mission statement is posted in almost every classroom. It reads:

"The mission of Woodland Hills Elementary School staff and parents is to improve the basic skills of all children attending this school as measured on standardized tests. This school will foster a school climate conducive to learning by encouraging good citizenship, good attendance, and high scholastic standards. It is the belief at this school that 'All children can learn. They will make it if they try.' Teachers will use strategies, basic and alternative materials, to meet the needs of all children assigned to them. It is also the mission at this school to involve parents in all aspects of the school."

To clarify the academic mission, schools and districts may also develop formal lists of grade-level skills and objectives that all students are expected to master.

"It used to be that when I had kids who were having problems, I would 'soften' things," says Dorothy A. White, a 4th-grade teacher at the Franklin School. "Now, everyone is aware of how the students are reading, exactly where you want them to be, and what you expect from them. We don't softsoap it anymore."

Monitoring Student Progress: Effective schools have a record of student progress that tells them what is working and what is not, said the late Mr. Edmonds.

At the Crofoot Elementary School in Pontiac, Mich., such a record is compiled through quarterly tests based on basic-skills objectives for each grade. The test results, says Helen E. Efthim, a research associate for the school district, "make students and classes and grades stick out like a sore thumb if they have not achieved the level of mastery the school has determined to be necessary."

Testing results are analyzed by race, by socioeconomic status, by grade level, and by teacher. When a class or child shows insufficient mastery, the entire faculty sits down to work out a solution.

"All the resources of the school go to work," Ms. Efthim says. "There's friendly cooperation and there's help, but there's also criticism--sometimes stinging criticism. When they use these tests at this level and in this cooperative kind of way, they literally don't allow children to fall behind."

Tests based on grade-level objectives are also a staple at Cleveland's Mary McCleod Bethune Elementary School. Students' progress in mathematics and reading is recorded on large charts that hang on the classroom walls and in the principal's office. "I can see at a glance what youngster is having difficulty," says James W. Hobbs, the school's principal.

Children at the Bethune school also design individual skills folders that allow them to see what they have mastered each semester. Their parents receive pupil-progress reports between report cards, listing their child's academic and social skills, where he or she needs to improve, and whether the parents should come in for a visit.

In addition, the district's department of research critiques tests given by individual teachers at the school, so that the teachers can improve their skills assessments and gain a better understanding of how tests are used.

But the monitoring of student progress is not limited to test-taking. Schools are also keeping closer tabs on attendance rates, suspension and expulsion rates, dropout rates, and other measures of school success or failure.

High Expectations: According to Wilbur B. Brookover, professor emeritus at Michigan State University and one of the earliest researchers on effective schools, it is not enough simply to express through words the school's expectation that all students can achieve a minimum level of mastery. Staff members, he says, must show through the norms, behaviors, and practices of the school that they believe this to be true.

Teachers at the Silver Lane School in East Hartford, Conn., participate in state-sponsored workshops on "teacher expectations for student achievement," which include such topics as distributing attention equally among low- and high-achieving students and providing positive feedback. As a regular feature of their encouragement program, they send home "smile-o-grams" to parents whenever a child's academic skills or behavior improve.

Greeneville Elementary School in Norwich, Conn., has created monthly award programs that recognize the best citizens, best spellers, and best mathematics students in each classroom. The students receive a certificate of merit and have their pictures hung on hallway bulletin boards. A local liquor store also posts the photos in its windows.

"There's a big incentive for children to try harder," says Natalie L. Caron, a parent and member of the school's parent-teacher organization. "There are a lot of positive rewards. The kids need that."

A Safe and Orderly School Climate: In his often-cited study of effective schools, Fifteen Thousand Hours: Secondary Schools and Their Effect on Children, Michael Rutter found that the age of a school's physical plant made little difference in learning, but the neatness and pleasantness of the building did.

But effective-schools researchers define "climate" as more than a school's physical environment. It encompasses, they say, a positive, orderly learning environment--one in which teachers and students feel safe and are free from distractions--and a sense of shared pride, collegiality, and team spirit.

For Central High School in Bridgeport, Conn., for example, improving the climate has involved tightening up the lax enforcement of disciplinary policies.

Before Central's effective-schools project began last year, students were routinely late for class and often roamed the halls disrupting instruction. As part of the school's improvement plan, the staff developed "sweep" teams made up of teachers, administrators, and security guards to ensure the quick and orderly passage of students to and from classes. Two of the teams monitor the halls during each class period.

The staff also established new rules for student conduct and designed a corridor pass for students to carry when they have a valid reason for being in the halls during classes.

According to Martin B. McGreth, coordinator of the school's English department, the sweep teams have been "almost 100 percent" effective in reducing class-cutting and hall-wandering during classes.

The Bridgeport high school has also removed broken furniture from the faculty lounge, painted the walls, and installed new flooring, drapes, plants, and an air conditioner, so that faculty members can see immediate, positive changes in their work environment. School "pride" buttons have also been distributed to teachers and students, and the effective-schools team has helped institute a "teacher of the month" recognition award.

At the Bethune elementary school in Cleveland, teachers have received inservice workshops on discipline and new rules and regulations for student conduct in the classroom have been developed.

To improve attendance rates, signs are placed on classroom doors each day that show either a smiling face with the message , "We're all here today," or a sad face with the notation, "We have absences." Teachers and administrators plan social events together after school hours to increase feelings of collegiality.

An Instructional Leader: Principals who are instructional leaders, say effectiveschools researchers, are those who are well-versed in pedagogical and curricular issues, observe their teachers regularly and provide constructive criticism, and concentrate on the school's academic mission rather than on managerial problems.

Instructional leadership is not just having a "charismatic" personality, adds the Institute for Responsive Education; it is a set of learned behaviors and skills based on a growing body of research.

Jean T. Carpinteri, principal of the Stanley Holmes Elementary School in New Britain, Conn., says her many years as a classroom teacher have made her "very opinionated" where instruction is concerned.

"I have some strong feelings about what constitutes good instruction and I visit classrooms regularly," she says. "I have to be there on a regular basis to have any credibility for the evaluations I give teachers at the end of the year."

Ms. Carpinteri also conducts workshops for her staff and teaches classes while they observe.

In the effective-schools efforts of Cleveland's Bethune school, "the principal was really the motivator," according to Agnes W. Ross, a 5th-grade teacher.

"He set up his expectations and monitored us every six weeks, just before report-card period," she says. "He had us develop pupil-progress reports that were sent to parents, perceptual goals, lesson plans, remediation tasks. He checked our lesson-plan books and gave us timelines to achieve our goals. Then he evaluated us."

According to Ms. Ross, that leadership was received tentatively at first. "He would say, 'Why are you threatened?' Well, we were threatened because we hadn't done the work. But once we began to do the work, we couldn't wait for our evaluations, so he could see what we had done."

The wide variety of activities undertaken in the name of "effective-schools research" supports the contention of many researchers and practitioners that there is no one formula for building an effective school.

In a 1982 interview for the journal Educational Leadership, Mr. Edmonds noted that educators still know far more about the features that characterize an already effective school than they do about how a school becomes effective. But he added: "You can't argue with success. It shouldn't trouble us to say, 'They got the results; we don't know exactly why."'

Vol. 05, Issue 18

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