Postcard From Independence, Mo.
Sherri Miller, the principal at William Chrisman High School here, knew it was bad when her superintendent called one day last September to say he’d be over in half an hour.
It was worse than she feared: New test results showed her school had failed to meet almost every one of its improvement goals under the No Child Left Behind Act. The news was a painful blow to the oldest high school in a district with a proud history that includes graduating a future president, Harry S. Truman.
"When I told staff, there was a long silence," Ms. Miller recalled recently.
So began life under the most significant federal education law in a generation. Nine months later, the 11,000-student Independence district offers a glimpse at how a typical American school system is coping with the measure’s tough academic standards.
It’s a complex portrait. Much of what’s being done to improve performance here began before President Bush signed the legislation in January 2002. What is clear is that the law has focused new attention on those students most at risk of academic failure. It also has added urgency to the district’s efforts to better align instruction with Missouri’s standards.
At Chrisman High, one result is a new community task force of parents of children with special needs, members of minority groups, and others representing the groups of students who have struggled the most academically.
"We are concerned about every child," said Superintendent Jim Hinson. "Do we demonstrate that? Do we actually always perform that? Probably not, and that’s part of what we’re trying to change."
At the same time, there’s a sense among many here that the law is unfair. Its high expectations came just as the district swallowed state budget cuts that reduced staff planning time and increased student-teacher ratios.
Most here predict gains in test scores in the coming years, but no one interviewed believes that the system can meet the law’s stated goal of having all students performing at state standards by 2014. Many say they’re counting on further changes before then in the measure—an overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which Congress first passed in 1965.
"I think it’s frustrating, more than demoralizing," said Libbi Sparks, a mathematics teacher at Chrisman, referring to how poorly her school fared under the new law. "When you talk to people, they’re not sure what else we can do."
Changing the Rules
Independence, a largely blue-collar town just east of Kansas City, Mo., brims with pride of place. While housing developments and "big box" stores dot its outskirts, the town center is a living American history textbook. Among the local landmarks are the Jackson County courthouse, where Mr. Truman served in the administrative post of judge, and the starting point of the Oregon Trail that connected east and west in the 1800s.
Likewise, the school district has had much to boast about. It helped pioneer Parents as Teachers, a nationwide program that helps families better prepare their children for school. The district also consistently earned one of the highest performance ratings under Missouri’s 14-year-old school accreditation program.
"[My son] has never had a teacher he didn’t like," said parent Janie Frisbie, who helps manage an old-fashioned soda fountain on the picturesque town square. "They’ve got to be doing something right."
The No Child Left Behind Act cast things differently. When the district received its first round of results under the law last year, both of its two regular high schools had failed to meet certain improvement goals, as had two of its three schools serving students in the middle grades. Similarly, the district as a whole was labeled as not having met all its objectives for "adequate yearly progress," a centerpiece of the law.
The discrepancy stems from key differences between the No Child Left Behind law and the state’s accreditation system. Both accountability programs are based on the same test scores, but Missouri accredits only whole districts, while the federal law forces the state to also look at individual buildings.
The state accreditation system stresses improvement over past scores, while the federal law demands specified amounts of annual progress toward the ultimate goal of 100 percent proficiency. Missouri gives credit for a narrowing of the achievement gap between low-scoring minority students and their peers, but No Child Left Behind goes further, by expecting the same performance results for all groups of students.
So while the Independence district did meet last year’s performance targets for the federal law, it still failed to make adequate progress, because of the results for its black, Pacific Islander, and special education students.
As in many states, Missouri education officials are considering changes to the state accountability system to make it more compatible with No Child Left Behind.
In not measuring up to the new standards, the Independence district has plenty of company. Last year, half of Missouri’s 2,000 public schools failed to make adequate yearly progress under the federal law, which partly explains why so few people in the larger community here have expressed concern over the results.
‘We Trust Our Schools’
"We trust our schools," said Rick Hemmingsen, the president of the Independence Chamber of Commerce. "And I don’t need somebody from Washington, D.C., telling me that my school is not a good one."
For the district, the results pose few immediate consequences. Independence has long funneled its federal Title I dollars for disadvantaged students to its elementary schools, which met their improvement goals under No Child Left Behind.
Only Title I schools face the law’s most severe sanctions, such as having to let students transfer to other schools. But educators here are hardly in the clear, since the law requires states to intervene in any district that fails to meet its performance targets under the law for four years in a row. As allowed by the federal legislation, that could mean imposing new curricula or changing personnel.
Many teachers and administrators here feel they’re being punished because Missouri has chosen to set a high bar for student performance. In neighboring Kansas, which lowered its standard for proficiency after the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, just 175 of the state’s 1,400 public schools failed to make their performance goals.
"I’m not upset with the expectations that Missouri has," said Ms. Miller, the principal of Chrisman High. "But what kind of ramifications could I have at some point because of the expectations that the kids here in Independence and across the state of Missouri face?"
Still, some here also see grains of truth in the picture painted by No Child Left Behind. Although solidly outpacing state averages at the elementary level, achievement at the middle and high school levels in Independence has lagged in recent years.
Superintendent Hinson, 42, finds more in the law to agree with than object to, which he knows puts him at odds with many of his counterparts in other districts. The son of a pastor and a schoolteacher, he firmly believes public schools must change the way they go about their work.
Since Mr. Hinson took over the superintendency here in early 2002, after leading a much smaller Missouri district, his strategy has been to assemble a talented team of leaders at the central office and charge them with honing instruction.
"All of our teachers, all of our employees, are working extremely hard, and I don’t think we can put anything else on their platter," he said. "The problem in education is we haven’t figured out what to take off the platter."
"We can’t work harder," he added. "We have to work smarter."
Independence hasn’t cut back art, music, or electives, Mr. Hinson said, but it has boned up on the state’s expectations for students like never before. Committees of teachers are revising the district’s student objectives. Administrators have prepared new guidelines to help classroom educators interpret state standards in detail. Training on how to analyze state performance data has intensified.
Decking the Walls
One sign of those efforts is the presence of laminated posters titled "Writing Better Answers," which now adorn every classroom. Including such reminders as "restate the question," they were drafted by the district in direct response to the short-essay items on the Missouri Assessment Program. Students in all courses practice responding to such questions.
Teachers have mixed feelings about the focus on state standards.
"It’s had us step back and look at the curriculum and have a common vision of where we all need to go," said Patrick Layden, a social studies teacher at Chrisman High and past president of the local National Education Association affiliate. But, he added, "you’re beating that drum so much that you almost lose sight that these are kids."
That focus didn’t start with the No Child Left Behind Act. The initial push, say administrators, came from Missouri’s school accountability system. The stakes are just higher now.
"We would have gone in the same direction had No Child Left Behind not been there," said Edwin Streich, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and assessment. "It probably sped up the process. It probably got a little more buy-in from some people, because you don’t want to be on the ‘needs improvement’ list."
No school in Independence is feeling that pressure more than Chrisman High. While other buildings here failed to make adequate improvement for one or two of their subgroups of students, such as those living in poverty or from racial-minority groups, not one of the subpopulations at Chrisman met their targets in every subject. Even the white students who make up the bulk of the school’s enrollment didn’t reach most of their goals last fall.
Ms. Miller, the principal, wasn’t surprised that her building missed its mark, though she was shocked by how far off it was.
Of the town’s two regular high schools, Chrisman is the most ethnically diverse, and it has the most special education students. Thirty-eight percent of its students are poor enough to qualify for subsidized lunches, compared with 16 percent at Truman High School.
"Because of the low socioeconomic level, because of the poverty, we have been very, very good at nurturing our kids and taking care of our kids, which is extremely important," said Ms. Miller, who took Chrisman High’s top job just weeks before getting its test results last fall. "But we have to be better at having those high academic expectations for our kids along with the nurturing."
Doing More With Less
Doing so is complicated by spending cuts. Reductions in state funding last year forced the district to carve $10 million, and 110 teaching positions, from its $112 million budget. Ms. Miller would like to provide support classes to help struggling students succeed in their regular coursework, but she can’t afford to.
One new strategy that has been undertaken this year at Chrisman is its parent task force. Put together with the help of Beatrice Agee, a former elementary school principal coaxed out of retirement by Mr. Hinson, the committee represents a cross section of all groups of students in the school. The district’s message to the group: Help us help your children to be more successful.
"This is a group of people that, they’re not in the PTA, they’re not in the booster club, and they need to be involved," said Ms. Agee, an African-American who attended a segregated elementary school in Independence in the 1950s.
In monthly meetings held since October, task force members have learned about the state assessments. Members have discussed ways to improve communication between families and the school. In recent weeks, they’ve begun drafting their own parent handbook.
Mercedes Mendoza, a native of the Dominican Republic whose eldest son attends Chrisman High, admits that before joining the group, she didn’t even know the name of the school’s principal. Now, she said, "I feel more like I’m part of my son’s education."
The task force, which district leaders want to copy at other schools, is perhaps the most direct, and yet unpredictable, result of the No Child Left Behind law here. Nothing in the law mandated its creation. But after seeing how badly the school fared in meeting the new expectations, district leaders felt they had to reach out to more families.
Whether the effort translates into better student performance remains to be seen. Ms. Mendoza, for one, thinks it’s a step in the right direction.
"When you go to a place like a school, and you feel like you have a friend there," she said, "you can succeed more."
Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation.
Vol. 23, Issue 39, Pages 1, 14-15Published in Print: June 9, 2004, as Postcard From Independence, Mo.