Trickling Down

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Scholars and policymakers have been drafting standards for a decade. Now, it's time to ensure they're seeping into the classroom.

Columbia, S.C.

More than six weeks into the school year, the pressure hasn't eased for Terri Butts. As happens every year for Butts, a 3rd grade teacher at Blaney Elementary School in a suburb of the South Carolina state capital, a flurry of thoughts about lesson plans and bulletin boards quickly supplanted the usual summer lull. This year, Butts says, the fall frenzy began too early and has persisted. At a time when the rhythm of the school day is usually flowing more smoothly, and teacher and students are getting into sync, Butts is still constantly re-evaluating her lesson plans, teaching strategies, and even the pace of the day.

"I'm in panic mode," Butts says.

She has plenty of company. Throughout South Carolina, a collective anxiety hangs over teachers and administrators. Even veteran teachers, who have had years to build up their immunity to the manic energy of each new school year, are feeling insecure.

After two decades of reform efforts, the winds of change have kicked up at this state's 1,100 public schools. As another hurricane season comes to a close, a powerful force is promising to alter the educational landscape. Its name: accountability.

The latest improvement measures pushed by state legislators and education leaders over the past five years have been slowly seeping through the layers of bureaucracy and into the classroom. But the trickle of change has turned into a flood since lawmakers here passed the Education Accountability Act in June. The new law, which promises rewards and threatens sanctions based on student performance, has given the state's new academic standards some teeth, observers say. With more than 50 new tests to gauge how well students in grades 3-12 meet standards in mathematics, English/language arts, science, and social studies, education leaders, lawmakers, and the public will be able to pinpoint low-performing schools and districts.

That reality has mobilized principals, teachers, and students to take the state standards, and end-of-year tests, more seriously.

At Blaney Elementary and elsewhere, teachers are huddling after school and on weekends to rework their curricula and lesson plans and find ways to improve instruction. Principals are adding days to the school calendar for professional-development workshops and digging deeper to pay for extra materials. District officials are taking greater responsibility for scrutinizing what is being taught. And the state's 650,000 students are being prodded to focus on their studies--perhaps more than ever before.

"Our teachers were already pretty well prepared," says Gregory C. Owens, the principal at Summit Parkway Middle School here. Although Columbia's 16,600-student Richland 2 district, which includes Summit Parkway, had been putting its own performance standards in place in preparation for the state initiative, teachers have been unusually attuned to how and what they are teaching. "The stress level for teachers is at a real high," Owens says.

Throughout the United States, the development of statewide academic standards has been under way for more than a decade. At this point, nearly all states have either adopted or are planning to adopt guidelines that outline in varying detail what students should know and be able to do in key subjects at different grade levels. South Carolina is one of only a handful to move on to what many experts say is the next step: a comprehensive accountability plan. Such a plan--one that reports scores for individual districts or schools, offers help to those that are struggling, and issues rewards and penalties based on performance and progress--may be the most effective way of ensuring that rigorous academic standards at long last filter down from policymakers and dusty documents to teachers and students, supporters say.

Some observers doubt California's new standards will have the intended impact in the classroom without a system of holding schools accountable for the results.

Kentucky, North Carolina, and Texas also have comprehensive plans for holding schools accountable for student performance, according to Achieve, a nonprofit group formed by the nation's governors and prominent business leaders to help raise academic standards. But the challenges of implementing such a system are daunting. California recently adopted the last of its academic standards after more than a decade of work toward improving curricula. State assessments to measure how well California students meet the standards are supposed to follow in that state. But some observers doubt California's new standards will have the intended impact in the classroom without a system of holding schools accountable for the results.

"The states that have gone beyond just writing standards and developing new assessments, and have really made it clear that this is all going to count in a very real way for schools and for kids, have helped to start to break through the complacency that has existed or the feeling that this is another fad that will go away with the next administration," says Matthew Gandal, the director of standards and assessment for the Cambridge-Mass.-based Achieve.

That complacency had become common in South Carolina. Many educators and residents were weary of the pattern of reform here: A grand plan is unveiled to fanfare, lofty promises are made for improving student achievement, few additional resources or support services are offered to help implement changes, and the program is hastily canceled before it has time to take hold.

Not surprisingly then, curriculum frameworks that were introduced here five years ago to bring more uniform instruction to schools from Charleston to Columbia were met with some skepticism. The broad guidelines for teaching math, English/language arts, foreign languages, and science in grades 3, 6, and 8 were widely distributed, but not mandated. Many districts simply began making piecemeal adjustments to their local curricula, matching some of the expectations outlined in the document with their own. Some districts decided to wait it out, unconvinced that the standards movement would take hold.

Within a couple of years, new state achievement standards--which complemented the frameworks with more detailed descriptions of what students in those grades should be learning--were unveiled. Again, many districts tinkered with their courses of study, while others continued to ignore the state's efforts.

"Even though they've had [several] years to get ready ... there's been a lack of focus on teachers incorporating best instructional practice," says outgoing state schools Superintendent Barbara Stock Nielsen, who has helped oversee the most recent round of reforms during her eight-year tenure. "Many people felt that this too shall pass."

A more aggressive approach to state standards began last year when a commission appointed by the legislature proposed grade-by-grade standards that build on the previous documents. The commission seemed to jump-start the process; suddenly, the wheels of change started rolling. The plan was approved by the state school board in January. Then, just as teachers were preparing to close their grade books on one year, the new law forced them to concentrate immediately on the next.

All summer long and well into the current semester, teachers and curriculum specialists have been comparing their own curricula against each state standard. Line by line, they're analyzing how their lesson plans, classroom activities, and textbooks address each of the specific topics or requirements outlined in the standards. They're formulating teaching strategies for filling in the gaps and finding ways to assess what children have learned at various points during the school year.

Preparing the teachers is a "mind boggling" task, Susan A. Agruso, the director of the state's office of assessment, told a gathering of testing experts at a conference last spring. "It's getting it into the classroom that is making us crazy."

The state education department has dispatched a team of staff members to offer guidance on how to comply with the new law and to give a crash course on how to prepare children for both the content and format of the new tests.

Those districts that have been following the long road to standards will have to make only minor to moderate changes to their academic programs.

During one recent week, the department's Andrea Keim and Pat Mohr hopped around the state, repeating the workshops they had been conducting all summer for principals and teachers. Principals arrived here one morning from the farthest corners of the state for an abbreviated session on implementing the standards in the classroom.

Keim and Mohr start with the basics. They chronicle the history of the state's reform process, explain the difference between the frameworks and standards, and define terms and themes found in the standards documents. Next, they suggest resource materials for helping districts evaluate and adjust their own academic programs and walk the principals through examples of how to align local and state curricula.

They also try to ease their audience's anxiety about the upcoming testswithout glossing over the reality of the situation.

"The tests are going to be a real surprise to a lot of students next year," says Mohr, whose comments are met with a chorus of "ahas." The students "are used to bubbling-in the answers."

The districts the principals represent are at various stages of adopting standards-based curricula. Despite their level of readiness for the new guidelines, most express considerable uneasiness about bringing their districts up to speed.

"Our curriculum is already aligned," says Andrenna Smith, the principal at South Kilbourne Elementary School in the 27,000-student Richland 1 district here. "But that doesn't end the tension and the fear about whether we are doing it right."

Those districts that have been following the long road to standards will have to make only minor to moderate changes to their academic programs. Those that have not will have to undergo significant reform in order to catch up, officials say. With South Carolina's history as one of the worst educational systems in the country, many believe it is time for drastic measures.

"When you're number 50 [on national comparisons], you've got to start somewhere," says John L. Scott Jr., a Democratic state representative from Richland County, near Columbia. Scott says he still has concerns about how districts mired in the problems of poverty, high teacher turnover, and limited resources will step up to the challenge without more resources. "We can't just sit here waiting for something to happen," he says.

When it comes to education, South Carolina is no different from many other Southern states. Students here have always performed below the national average on standardized tests. Certification requirements for teachers have traditionally been minimal and salaries low. Students' average scores on the SAT college-entrance exam have often been the lowest in the country.

The schools have also been beaten down in the forum of public opinion. Everything wrong with the state, from its poverty to its difficulty filling high-skill jobs, has been blamed on the schools. Heading into this month's state elections, candidates from both parties pointed to the dismal condition of the education system and the need for wholesale transformation.

"If you are running for dog catcher in this state, you talk about how bad the schools are," state chief Nielsen, a Republican, says.

Current policies grew out of the education initiatives pushed by Richard W. Riley, now the U.S. secretary of education, who earned his reputation as an education reformer when he was governor of South Carolina in the 1980s. Although many of the changes made during his two terms--including increased state funding for schools and the introduction of basic-skills tests--have proved inadequate, they started the state on the path to real reform, observers now say.

The latest plan also hinges on testing. This time, though, officials say, the tests are aligned to rigorous standards and provide a more accurate picture of what students know and are able to do.

Children in this state are accustomed to taking tests. Each year since 1981, they have taken a basic-skills test in math and reading; the tests are not considered very rigorous or a good gauge of what students have learned, however. The students have taken a separate standardized test in those subjects to show how they match up against national norms. Many districts also do additional testing. And some 226,000 children in 800 public schools participated last year in a field test of the new state assessments.

Those assessments, the Palmetto Achievement Challenge Tests, or PACT, will be unlike any test South Carolina students have taken before, according to Agruso. "There will be a lot of writing in all subject areas and more challenging questions that will require higher-level thinking and problem-solving," she says.

Vol. 18, Issue 12, Pages 22-27

Published in Print: November 18, 1998, as Trickling Down
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