Sophomore Stacey Hodge knelt before a computer at Riverside High School here and prepared to put Following the Leaders to work. Viewing a list of English skills her teacher had planned for her to review, Ms. Hodge said the computer programs were helping her pass her courses.
“At the beginning of this year, I was failing this class,” she said. Using the computer programs provided by Following the Leaders helped her see things differently: “I pay attention more to what’s going on.”
Schools in West Virginia’s 28,500-student Kanawha County district, which serves the state capital of Charleston and surrounding communities, are putting Following the Leaders to use on a regular basis. Superintendent Ronald Duerring has mandated, in fact, that all 69 public schools use the package of tools provided by Following the Leaders, a federally financed project of the Washington-based Education Leaders Council. He’s so supportive that he said he would find ways to pay for the program, which is provided free, if he had to.
“The expectation is to use it as a tool to upgrade their instruction daily in the classroom,” Mr. Duerring said of his teachers. “It is different in every school.”
The technology-based program was designed to help educators meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. It offers both classroom and district-level tools to help incorporate standards-based curricula into classrooms, diagnose students’ strengths and weaknesses, and analyze and report student data.
Students in the program who log on to homeroom.com, for example, see a Following the Leaders logo on their screens. They can access multiple-choice tests and tutoring exercises teachers customize for them.
Participating schools receive software, training, and support from regional “project leaders,” employed by Achievement Technologies Inc., of Newton, Mass., who visit schools regularly. Kanawha County’s schools get help from a full-time coach, Caleb Nugent, whom local educators praise as being like a member of their own staffs.
Faye Taylor, the director of Following the Leaders and a former Tennessee state education chief, said the program now serves more than 600 schools in 11 states. Most of the schools and districts that have signed on are in rural areas or smaller cities.
“The primary goal of this project from day one was to jump-start these school districts so that they could show the kind of progress No Child Left Behind was challenging them to show,” said Ms. Taylor, who began overseeing the project in 2003.
Ms. Taylor acknowledged that the level of implementation among Following the Leaders schools has been uneven. About half of the schools enrolled appear to be using the program consistently. This year, she plans to cut many schools from the program that aren’t actively involved.
At Dunbar Middle School, just downriver from Charleston, Principal Lynda Gilkeson uses Following the Leaders as a rallying point for improvement.
Her school, considered a standout among participants, has built in grade-level planning time, in part, so that teachers can compare notes on data gathered with the Following the Leaders tools. “Each year, it has just become a more ingrained part of what we do,” she said. “Teachers can get feedback that’s meaningful.”
Some teachers use the technological tools for remediation; others use them to help students review basic skills. Some teachers use online quizzes for everyday benchmarking. Others give more in-depth assessments and check for long-term progress.
Jeff Loftis, a 6th grade computer-lab teacher, said use of the program was “hit or miss” last school year, but has grown more widespread. “If the classroom teacher doesn’t have their heart in it,” he said, “it’s going to be real hard to get the thing going.”
Elsewhere in Kanawha County, Principal Candace Strader of East Bank Middle School said she hopes Following the Leaders will help raise her students’ test scores.
But the program has some “glitches,” she said. Some test questions are awkward, or the answers given don’t seem right. The online tests require few written answers, while students sometimes guess at the multiple-choice questions, she said.
Educators elsewhere expressed gratitude for the program.
“I don’t believe that there is any magic cure, but I do believe this program we’ve gotten into is right at the top,” said Susan Vance, the principal of Pope School, a K-8 campus in Batesville, Miss. Her school in the 4,600-student South Panola district has used the program to boost test scores and raise its rating on state report cards.
Tonya Chamberlain, who teaches 8th grade at East Elementary School on Alaska’s Kodiak Island, said her only complaints involve breaks in her school’s Internet connection while students are logged on to Following the Leaders. Otherwise, she uses the program regularly. “It is a great tool for me to be able to monitor their growth,” she said.
John Jordan, a deputy state superintendent of education in Mississippi, called Following the Leaders “an excellent example and a representative of several types of approaches for schools to get a handle on the achievement of their children.”
“We’ve had some very good successes with Following the Leaders in Mississippi,” he said, “and we’ve had some failures.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2005 edition of Education Week as Educators See ‘Following the Leaders’ as Helpful