Photos by Benjamin Tice Smith
1995 has seemed destined to be the year that the District of Columbia public schools, eddying in a flood of failure and factionalism, finally go down the drain.
The year began with the fatal shooting of a Cardozo High School sophomore on school grounds. It trickled to a close with shots fired by a hostile Congress: The Senate passed a bill to set up an oversight panel to run the city's schools, while the House signed off on creating a voucher system to provide escape for the city's poorest students from its crumbling classrooms. The months between were spiced with bitter attacks on the school board's perks and performance, shouting matches over privatization and charter schools, and a public proclamation by the teachers' union that Ballou High School was in chaos after an 11th-grade girl was slashed in a hallway fight.
Nothing better typified the out-of-control mood than Valencia Mohammed's fall press conference, at which the school board member charged that attempts to contract out services amounted to "ethnic cleansing" of African-American employees in the 81,000-student district. Critics could be forgiven for throwing up their hands at the three-ring-circus atmosphere of it all.
But tragedy and despair aren't the only story in the nation's capital. Behind the scenes, out of sight of the media and the microphones on Capitol Hill, D.C. school people are laboring mightily to turn around the senior high schools. They're trying to keep their heads down and their eyes on the prize. There's plenty of tension, all right, but it's mostly about substance, not politics. The obstacles they face speak volumes about urban high schools and what must be done to make them work.
Right off the bat, Maxine Bleich warns that she's not a test maven. Still, she fervently believes that standardized tests can be the fulcrum to leverage up the dismal performance of the District's senior high schools. She is also a tireless advocate of prosaic policies that hardly register in the cacophonous national debate over school reform. Attendance policies. Grading policies. Promotion policies. Homework policies. These are the backbone of any system that says what it means and means what it says.
Unfortunately, over the years, these traditional concerns have slid off the agenda in the District. Sure, the system has a book of policies and procedures, and some schools have rules that are enforced. But mostly, Bleich insists, whoever complains the loudest wins. At least, that happens enough to undermine the policies that do exist and send the message that the rules are made of rubber.
And the standardized tests that are given to high schoolers--the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills--are not tied to any meaningful consequences for students, teachers, or administrators. Many students don't even show up when they know it's testing time.
"Most poorly performing places," Bleich explains briskly, "suffer the same indignities."
Bleich should know. She's the president of Ventures in Education, a nonprofit organization that bills itself as a turnaround specialist for failing schools. Ventures grew out of a successful program that the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation started in the mid-1960s to increase the number of minority college graduates prepared for careers in medicine, science, and technology. In 1980, the foundation shifted its focus to high schools with demonstration projects aimed at revitalizing schools with large numbers of minority and disadvantaged students.
Ventures in Education, which the New York-based foundation spun off 10 years ago, is now working with 77 schools in inner cities and rural areas and on Navajo Indian reservations. All suffered from the low expectations, low standards, and lack of leadership that made it possible for large numbers of students to pass through school without learning much of anything worth knowing.
For the past four years, Bleich has been pushing and prodding to try to focus the District's senior high schools on what counts: getting their 15,000 students into rigorous courses and getting them into college. Ventures has played a key role in helping the system to jettison low-level courses in favor of algebra, geometry, and laboratory sciences. The group's work in D.C. is being paid for, in part, by the National Science Foundation, which has given the system $13.5 million to upgrade its math and science programs.
For all her criticisms, Bleich, a self-described "blazing liberal," is one of the school system's biggest boosters.
"I say to them, `The whole world thinks you're the biggest fools in America, that you can't do anything right. I think you deserve a lot of cheerleading. You have a lousy system, but in the school buildings are a lot of terrific people.' The world thinks they're the dumbest group of teachers, as well as the dumbest group of kids, as well as the most dangerous people in America. It's just not true."
The kids, for the most part, are either "miseducated" or "unbearably noneducated," she asserts, but they're crying out to be challenged. "Ventures says, `Look, you've got lousy problems and a poor home life, but while you're in school, you can do this,'" Bleich explains. "This is the ticket out of your problems. And most kids understand that."
This fall, each of the city's 18 comprehensive high schools opened its doors to entering 9th and 10th graders with a six-week program designed to help them communicate better, solve problems, think critically, make decisions, and learn independently. The Academic Preparedness Project, developed by teachers over the summer, marked Ventures' full-scale debut in the city. The project was required in all schools, even the top two or three considered to have their academic houses in order.
With dropout rates hovering at about 50 percent in most major cities, urban high schools are seen as discredited dinosaurs, combining factory-style teaching with the rigid departmental organization borrowed from higher education. This structure is frequently blamed for high schools' intractability and resistance to reform.
Bleich will not be drawn into abstract arguments about whether urban high schools can be saved. "What would our alternative be?" she snaps. "They have to be salvaged."
In D.C., rather than disparage the academic departments, Ventures and District administrators and teachers are using them to broker change. The teachers who now chair the departments in the city's senior highs have a contract with Ventures that requires them to be leaders of curriculum and instruction.
Maurice R. Sykes, the district's deputy superintendent, says chairing a department used to be "a role that fell on an unsuspecting victim." Teachers in these jobs did little more than order books. With principals and assistant principals buzzing around schools with walkie-talkies to keep order, that left no one on site to oversee the quality of teaching and learning. And after the District cut the central-office supervisors who used to oversee what was taught and how it was presented, the void grew even wider.
Over the summer, the department chairs designed the six-week introduction to high school. They set the bar high: Students would write three-page research papers in all their classes, give speeches, analyze newspaper articles, compete in Quiz Bowls, write in journals, and do a lot of reading.
Every school also administered the Preliminary SAT to its 9th and 10th graders as practice to expose them to the test material. The same students will be tested again in March to see how much they've learned. The department chairs also took the test last summer. For some, it was an eye-opener.
"You did not realize what materials were on there until you sat down to take the test," says Gwendolyn Logan, who chairs the science department at Calvin Coolidge Senior High School. "I imagine the last time most teachers took a student test was in graduate school."
Precisely, says Bleich. Teachers can't be expected to prepare students to make good marks on college-entrance tests--the gatekeepers to opportunity in our society--if they don't know what's on them.
Standardized tests like the Scholastic Assessment Test and Advanced Placement courses can be powerful tools to unify teaching faculties around common goals for students. Without these benchmarks, and shared standards throughout an academic department, teachers can drift.
"You could argue that that would be teaching to the test," Bleich admits, "but these courses are so far away from national norms that I wouldn't worry about it. For the kids, the practice is money in the bank. For the teachers, it forces them to look at how far afield their course is."
The first day of school goes off without a hitch at Calvin Coolidge Senior High School, a classical red-brick building with a white cupola on a large, grassy campus at Fifth and Tuckerman streets in Northwest Washington. The school's 953 students are quiet and respectful as Leonard A. "Tony" Upson, the principal--or headmaster, as he likes to be called--addresses them during a schoolwide assembly to kick off the year.
Although the meeting starts late and it's quite warm in the auditorium on the early September day, the sea of jeans, T-shirts, and gleaming new tennis shoes filling the rows of seats manages not to spill over into a tidal wave of adolescent energy.
Upson, a somber man with a small, neat build and an unflinching gaze, talks for more than half an hour about Coolidge's policies and expectations for its students. He's no Joe Clark, wielding a baseball bat and a tough-guy air, and he's not folksy with the kids in an effort to be their buddy. He's a concerned adult, earnest and a bit pedantic as he makes his way through his remarks.
"We pledge to you our undying support," he tells the students.
They're a talented bunch, he tells them, and thanks to them, Coolidge is improving every year. More students are passing courses, advancing in grade level, and graduating every year. Test scores are going up. Coolidge also is one of the three safest senior highs in the city, he notes, with few violent acts or disruptions. (A metal detector at the students' entrance helps keep it that way.)
Attendance, though, "is an area where we are perhaps weakest," the principal says. Last year, average daily attendance at Coolidge was 85 percent.
As the students file out of the auditorium for their homerooms, Lindsay Zobenica, a French teacher, remarks that the rules Upson described are what kids crave. "The structure makes them relax and feel safe," she says.
The next week, Upson calls another schoolwide assembly go to over the rules in more detail. Afterward, Sheldon Lisbon, a 25-year veteran and chair of the social-studies department, shares a detail a casual observer might miss: All of the administrators were able to sit up on the stage during the assembly, rather than pacing the room to keep students quiet.
Upson is widely credited with restoring order and an academic atmosphere at Coolidge. In 1994, Coolidge closed down as a traditional comprehensive high school and reopened as a "restructured" school with houses, most with a distinct career focus like business or teaching. All of the teachers were forced to reapply for their jobs and go through a selection process. But only about 15 percent of the faculty was replaced. Upson says the limited pool of candidates--just 22 applicants, some with the proper qualifications and some not--hampered the panel that selected teachers.
Teachers are grateful that the school is back on track. "I can teach with my door open," Lisbon says. "Until his coming, I had to close the door because the halls were too noisy."
Before Upson arrived, asserts Frances Clark, an English teacher at Coolidge since 1975, "We weren't able to teach. There was too much confusion. Students would set fire to a trash can and run in and out of the building. It was very frustrating."
In their lengthy tenures in the District schools, Lisbon and Clark are typical. The average D.C. teacher, Deputy Superintendent Sykes says, has 32.8 years of experience in the city. Sykes calls the teaching force "chronologically challenged." And everyone uses the same word to describe teachers: demoralized. Teachers have been beaten down by the furloughs they were forced to accept in 1993 when the local government ran short of money and by the constant barrage of criticism heaped on the city's schools.
Nearly all of the teachers and students at Coolidge are African-American. Systemwide, 88.5 percent of the students are black; 6 percent are Hispanic, 4 percent are white, and 1.5 percent are Asian. Many of the teachers in the city are lifelong residents of the District who well remember the glory days of "home rule" in the 1970s that saw the predominantly black city gain a measure of self-governance from Congress, which controls the city's budget and approves its laws.
Instead of moving toward the cherished goal of statehood, with full voting rights for residents, the District has fallen into disgrace. Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr., back from a stint in prison for drug use, was re-elected last year only to see Congress create a financial-control board to run the District's affairs. With the school system firmly in Congress' sights, it's no wonder teachers are feeling discouraged. The proposal to create a voucher system, championed by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Rep. Steve Gunderson, a Wisconsin Republican, is particularly galling to educators who believe in public schools.
Against this backdrop, the effort to turn the senior highs around seems all the more ambitious. It doesn't depend on the central office, although Sykes has grand plans for the system as a whole. It depends on the hard work of teachers, and many seem willing to step up to the task.
Some 75 department chairs from high schools across the city spent two weeks last summer designing the Academic Preparedness Project and developing lesson plans. The idea was to inject energy and rigor into classes by weaving into the regular curriculum an emphasis on developing the skills students will need to succeed.
Each of the first six weeks of school was focused on one of the program's critical skills--communication, problem-solving, and the like--culminating in written research papers. The PSAT tests, journals, and homework policies were designed to support and complement this academic focus.
While a couple of the District's best-regarded senior highs already had tutorials for students who needed extra help and advisory programs to give students a chance to get personal attention from their teachers, most had nothing of the kind. And they were not getting results. The District's data show that during the first marking period last year, high schools reported a grade-point average, on a scale of 1 to 4, of 1.88 in English, 1.82 in mathematics, 1.76 in science, 2.05 in social studies, and 2.07 in foreign languages. Students also scored abysmally on the ctbs test--many in the first and second quartiles--and well below national averages on the PSAT and SAT.
Department chairs are required to attend a three-hour "institute" each month, organized by the local Ventures coordinators. Each focuses on a topic like academic standards, assessment, or new pedagogical methods. While some teachers have complained about the increased paperwork that comes with their new duties, such as describing what staff-development opportunities they've provided for their departments, most seem to relish their new roles.
At meetings of Coolidge's social-studies department, Lisbon gives his colleagues suggestions for their classrooms. He'd like to do more.
"The system is not in place to go into classrooms and observe and give feedback," he says. "I don't feel comfortable, at this point, walking into a classroom. I should be given opportunities to observe."
Robert Robinson, the English department chair, agrees. "I have a little bit of desire to do observations, to make sure that people are doing what they say they do. Quality control is what's missing in the system."
At Coolidge, it quickly becomes apparent that the most successful APP lessons are the invisible ones--where teachers don't have to tack artificial exercises onto their lessons.
In Jean Savoy's second-year Spanish class, the 90-minute class period flies by in well-organized chunks as students participate in a whole-class discussion of a short novel they've been reading. Then, they break into pairs to start writing acrostic poems using the descriptive nouns in the story. The kids also take five minutes to write in their journals in Spanish.
Savoy, a self-assured former department chair who is planning to take her students to Costa Rica to study the rain forest next summer, says she hates "chapter reading and answering the questions." So, she says, do students.
Savoy has been trained in problem-based learning--one of Ventures' key strategies. The methodology involves giving students real-life problems to wrestle with that require them to examine a problem, do research, develop and synthesize ideas, analyze possible solutions, and produce a final result. Her classroom now serves as a demonstration site for the technique.
A sample problem would ask students to act as reporters for a major newspaper assigned to report on a tragedy. They would have to produce a commentary and film strip on the incident.
To teach the subjunctive--always a tricky verb tense--Savoy plans to have her students invent a country and run a political campaign, making promises about the future in the subjunctive. She's also going to let them "Jones" on one another--slang for insults--in the subjunctive. "They learn real fast," she laughs.
In Lisbon's social-studies class, students seated in groups debate a First Amendment case that was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. A Minnesota student claimed that his free-speech rights were infringed upon when he was punished for vandalism. Lisbon's students, like Savoy's, don't need any prompting to get to work. They're clearly interested in the subject.
"I love breaking them into groups to analyze something and report back," Lisbon says. "Kids come up with great ideas."
In his 6th-period algebra class another day, Brajendra Sharma is working just as hard as his colleagues. But the kids seem almost dead. Sharma badgers and cajoles them, trying to get someone to call out the answer to a problem on the chalkboard about the relationship between a numerator and a denominator. At one point, he physically tugs on a boy's arm to get him out of his seat and up at the board. "Come on, let's go," he says. "I'll help you."
After class, he mentions that the problems on the board were the previous day's homework--which no one had turned in. But Sharma remains good-humored. It's too early in the school year to get down. "Some students take more time to wake up," he explains.
To teach the students in her college-planning class communications skills, Clark decides to have them interview one another and write up the material as biographies of one another. She also hands out poster paper and markers so the kids can draw pictures to express themselves.
"It doesn't matter what you put on that poster as long as you can explain it and how it reveals you," she tells the class.
One boy draws a car, an airplane, and a camera. He's artistic and quite serious about his work. But when it's his turn to get up before the class and present his poster, Clark doesn't ask him how he developed such precise interests. Many students, in contrast, have drawn flowers and rainbows and described themselves as nice people.
"We're trying to address the students in new ways," Clark explains of the Academic Preparedness Project. "Hopefully, they can get a little bit more involved at the beginning of the year, and that can carry them through."
Upson reports that teachers already are talking about ways to continue the various academic-preparedness activities throughout the year. "They're beginning to talk about the academic focus of students," he says, "rather than their behaviors. They're feeling good about having some sense of what other teachers are doing in their classrooms."
For Chinweze Agaghotu, who enrolled at Coolidge last year after attending a government-funded special school for gifted students in Nigeria, Coolidge has a long way to go. "The students are not given enough challenges," he complains. "The teachers come down to their level. Everyone wants to make a good grade here, but I don't think they want to work for it."
In the effort to rebuild the senior highs, standardized tests have become a sore point. Bleich is openly frustrated with the way the system administers the ctbs, a basic-skills test that she says is inappropriate for use at the high school level. Worse, she says, the results have no consequences. And many students don't even open the test booklets or come to class when it's testing time. If you're going to test kids--and you must--then Bleich thinks you ought to do it right.
The irony is that the low test scores routinely posted by D.C. students, even if they don't accurately gauge what they know, are used by parents and the local media to bludgeon students and teachers alike. But the results of the tests are released so late--10 months after students have taken them, Bleich says--that teachers have no opportunity to analyze them and gear their courses toward students' weak spots.
"When I first said that, they got mad at me. Now many of the people working with us have come to realize it's really true," she says. "This world is organized around standardized testing, and good schools provide a combination of criteria for your grade. That includes standardized tests, journals, and portfolios. It's not one or the other."
If the admission that the testing program is hollow was hard for administrators to make, it isn't for classroom teachers. "Many students don't take it seriously," Robinson, the English department chair at Coolidge, acknowledges.
By giving every 9th and 10th grader a practice shot at taking the PSAT, and training teachers to interpret the results of the tests prepared by Ventures, Bleich is hoping to help teachers learn to think strategically about what to teach. At first, the attitude among the department chairs was that it was somehow unfair to prep students for a test, but Bleich believes she's overcome that resistance. After all, she asked dissenters, don't doctors and lawyers take courses to help them pass the tests that are critical in their profession?
"We have to raise the level of sophistication in our profession," agrees Sadia White, a Spanish teacher now working full time on the Ventures project. "We need to teach to students' weaknesses to raise them."
White, a charismatic, cheerful woman who begins meetings of the department chairs by bursting into song, feels the urgency of the mission personally. She's a D.C. native whose father taught music in the city. Teaching, she notes, was one of the few professions open to African-Americans. Now in her early 40s, she entered teaching at 30, after selling telephone equipment after the breakup of at&t. She wanted something more fulfilling than sales and found it using the language skills her Cuban mother passed on to her.
Part of the reluctance that surrounds testing, White explains, stems from the negative attitudes fostered by books like The Bell Curve, which theorized that intelligence is inherited and that African-Americans inherit less of it. Nonsense, she says. "Intelligence can be taught."
Like other residents, White has watched the pain of diminished opportunities in D.C. as the once-expanding local government and the economy have contracted. When she went to school, White says, "You either knew it, or you didn't. We weren't taught strategies. Now, there's competition that weeds people out. You must be prepared to compete."
Maurice Sykes says he's as impatient as Maxine Bleich to see schools improve. But Sykes, who earned a national reputation for creating the city's model early-childhood program, insists that focusing on standardized testing isn't the way to go.
Although the two continue to work closely together, they know that, at their core, they're very different kinds of educators. Sykes calls himself a progressive and likes to talk about students and teachers constructing knowledge together. Bleich, a New Yorker, grew up steeped in the progressive tradition and never found it very appealing. She's a nuts-and-bolts thinker. On testing, they just disagree.
What the system really needs, the deputy superintendent says, is a new, multipart testing program to match the more "holistic" teaching styles that the district's administration, through its Center for Systemic Educational Change, is pushing. With Sykes at the helm, the center is coordinating the school system's reform agenda, including the senior high changes.
The high school strategy has four parts. The first is overhauling high schools, using a competitive request-for-proposals process, around a model developed at the National Center for Research in Vocational Education at the University of California at Berkeley. The next is developing leadership in schools through the department chairs, who are paid an extra $2,000 a year. Third is offering leadership seminars to principals. And last will be offering five- to six-week stays at a professional-development school for teachers to refresh themselves--if the system can find funding for the training.
Sykes notes that the District is developing academic standards in core subjects that will require much more from teachers. In the future, the emphasis will be on performance--not just delivering instruction--and teachers will be expected to have an expanded repertoire of skills that can help students approach their work in multiple ways. Every department chair--and the teachers who visit the professional-development school, which is just getting off the ground this year--will be trained in problem-based learning.
To make a massive effort now to train teachers and gear the high schools around a standardized test that measures isolated skills would send the wrong message, Sykes believes. What the system has done instead is establish new performance targets aimed at moving students from the bottom quartiles of the ctbs closer to national norms. Before, the general goal was to get kids at or above national norms--"an unrealistic notion" that did not help schools set priorities.
Sykes thinks the real engine to drive change lies in creating two prototype high schools of math, science, and technology that can serve to "pull everybody else along." That's how he handled early-childhood reform, which is credited with creating some solid elementary schools in the District.
"You have to be strategic and focused," he argues. "This stuff didn't get messed up over night."
As the first six weeks of school draw to a close, the 9th graders in Jocelyn Harden's English class at Coolidge are working on their research papers. At least, that's their official assignment. Instead, many are complaining that they can't find their pencils or talking to their friends. Harden can't take her eyes off them for a minute to explain the lesson she has prepared.
You have to understand, Harden says, how revolutionary it is for 9th graders in the District to be asked, in October, to write a three-page research paper. The official curriculum doesn't call for students to tackle that level of difficulty until the spring term of their senior year. Trouble is, most kids are far into graduation celebrations by then. By the time the papers are graded, it's too late for the students to learn much from their efforts.
Harden is all for the higher standards. As a college student herself, she recalls, she felt unprepared because she had only written one research paper in high school.
In designing the lesson, Harden faced limits. She's not comfortable enough with the Internet to have her kids do their research on computers, although she knows that's the wave of the future. Even taking them to the library seemed too much--they're unruly. And getting 130 9th graders in and out of the locked computer lab downstairs so they could type up their work seemed a logistical nightmare.
So Harden picked two topics for her classes and found excerpts from a magazine article, a book, and a newspaper. She stapled together a packet with examples of how to write a bibliography and is helping them make their way through the assignment. They can write about television violence or about how watching television affects people in general.
She knows the kids will be OK with the bibliographies because all they have to do is copy what she's given them. But she thinks it's going to be hard for them to paraphrase the short excerpts she's provided.
"My expectations are that it not be lengthy, that it not be typed," Harden explains. "I want to know that they know the steps of a research paper."
For other elements of the Academic Preparedness Project, Harden found creative ways for her students to communicate and learn to use research materials. The class brainstormed a composite picture of the typical city kid--not someone to be found in the library--and then plotted out schedules that could help the teenager in school. Then, they had to make a directory of local church and youth programs that the student could join.
Harden wanted to get them thinking about the gap between their lives, filled with rap music and hanging out at go-go dances and shopping with friends, and their goals--to be lawyers and doctors and computer programmers.
"The world is changing," she tells her students, "and you need every bit of help you can get. When I started teaching, a man would come in the classroom and say, `Sign your name for a summer job."'
In D.C., those days are gone.
The Academic Preparedness Project
During the first six weeks of this school year, each of the District of Columbia's 18 comprehensive high schools offered a special program to get 9th and 10th graders off to a good start. Teachers developed weekly activities to help students communicate clearly, study effectively, solve problems, think critically, make decisions, and learn independently. Students were expected to have a common set of experiences that included:
- Rigorous courses with opportunities to solve problems.
- Tutorial programs to offer extra academic help.
- Regular homework assignments, backed up by a consistent, schoolwide policy.
- Administration of the Preliminary SAT to expose students to the college-entrance test. Students will be tested again in March.
- Parent seminars to maintain communication with the home.
- Formal orientations to school for students and parents.
- Quiz Bowl competitions to encourage academic achievement.
- Journals to be used for writing in each class and an emphasis on reading in all classes.
- Advisory periods to allow time for teachers to give students consistent, caring guidance.
By the end of the six-week period, students were expected to develop a one-page r‚sum‚. They also had to write a three-page research paper in all classes; make a two- to three-minute speech; summarize the message of a five- to 10-minute recorded speech and ask questions about it; distinguish between fact and opinion in a newspaper article; and draw reasonable conclusions from written and spoken information or tables and graphs and be able to defend their conclusions. They were also expected to work in teams to analyze a situation, define the problem, collect and analyze relevant data, develop solutions, and choose the best solution.