Let It Be

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments
A perfect spawning ground for a revolution against the burgeoning standards movement.

If any place seems like a perfect spawning ground for a revolution against the burgeoning standards and accountability movement, it is San Francisco Community School. Stubbornly iconoclastic since its founding in the fading counterculture of the early 1970s, the K-8 alternative public school feels more like an old college-town cooperative than a traditional public school. The building itself, like the surrounding neighborhood of California bungalows, is both shabby and charming: odd flourishes of aqua trim, scarred floors, and huge wood windows blazing with light. Many teachers on the mostly young faculty favor piercings, flowing shawls, and rope bracelets. They're warm, thoughtful idealists working hard to empower the school's 300 students, many of whom live in poverty.

Strongly anti-hierarchical, Community School has no principal. Teachers run the show, electing a colleague to a three-year term as "teacher-leader" and deciding together what they will teach and when they will teach it. In true Deweyian fashion, the curriculum is project-based, with nine weeks each spring and fall devoted to hands-on work and deep study of a single topic. Last semester, a 3rd through 5th grade teacher-mixed-aged groupings are standard practice at the school-launched a project called "Green Dreams"; with the assistance of an architect, students researched and designed a garden and outdoor learning center for the school. This semester, her students will shear sheep on their way to weaving a Navajo rug.

Believing that coercion invites frustration, teachers let students structure many of the projects. In a middle school class, students studying the American legal system staged a downtown protest against a juvenile-crime ballot initiative. A passerby told the students, who were chanting and waving placards, to go back to school and learn to read and write; the students countered that it was their reading that had persuaded them that the bill was unjust.

All this unabashed progressivism certainly runs contrary to the reforms being promoted nationwide under the guise of "standards and accountability." California is virtually seething with tough talk. In recent years, the state's education establishment has produced sprawling lists of what students must know and do. Today, it is building a testing system that will produce mountains of data to rank and compare schools according to an Academic Performance Index-a name that smacks of Big Brother. And beginning in 2003, high school students will have to pass an exam based on the state's imposing standards in order to graduate.

The teachers at San Francisco Community School aren't crazy about some aspects of the state's reforms. They find the academic standards maddeningly long. They abhor the tedious and anxiety-provoking cycles of testing. And they dislike the state's increasing tendency to reduce educational achievement to a series of scores.

Yet, surprisingly, the teachers aren't planning a sit-in at the state capitol. Unlike some progressives, they do not object to the core principles of the standards movement. In fact, many of them welcome it. "Standards are not the enemy," insists Yvonne Scott, a 10-year Community School teacher whose classroom is covered with photographs and illustrations from her students' mural-design and painting project. "We're using the state and district standards to plan our instruction, and it's paid off in terms of making us more focused on content. We're still as much of a progressive school as we ever were, but what we did before was much more intuitive. Now, we're thinking more carefully about how and what we teach."

Believing that coercion invites frustration, teachers let students structure many of the projects.

I first visited Community School on an Open House night in December. Students greeted visitors at each classroom door and guided them through projects from the fall semester. Displays were everywhere: pie chart polls on the city's recent mayoral election, model airplanes hovering over Styrofoam cable cars, Gothic game boards constructed from household items. Long paper scrolls tacked to the walls enumerated the goals of each project as well as the steps taken to reach them.

In one grade 3-5 classroom, a boy guided me through his class's project on animal ethics, expounding upon the plight of greyhounds recently retired from racing and asking me-after stuffing some literature into my hand-if I might be interested in adopting one. Then, after delineating the debates concerning puppy mills and the declawing of cats, he positioned me before a poster of a dog, with captions describing its anatomical features. Did I realize, he asked me, that a dog has 3 million cells in its nose?

Every project culminates in a "challenge," a task that incorporates the skills and knowledge students are to have acquired. The challenge in this class, the boy explained, had involved the production of a brochure, to be published by San Francisco's animal-control agency, that would explain to kids the importance of spaying and neutering pets. Preparation for the challenge had included intensive study that focused on pet overpopulation, the medical procedures of spaying and neutering, and the communication skills needed to compose a clear and informative brochure.

The project had also attempted, in true progressive fashion, to bridge the traditional separation between the school and its surrounding community. The students, for instance, visited an animal shelter and surveyed owners at a nearby dog park. And a veterinarian came to the school to discuss, among other things, the solemn task of euthanizing an old pet.

I moved on to another classroom across the hall, where a 9-year-old boy named Jonah escorted a group of parents through the "Green Dreams" garden project. He was knowledgeable and irrepressible-"totally into this project," as his mother told me later. Like a docent eager to explain the entire history of Western art in an hour, he expatiated upon the gardens he and his classmates had visited, the flora they had photographed and categorized, and the watering systems that might best suit their garden's needs. Then he told us of how they had surveyed fellow students about what to include in the garden and talked over the results with the consulting architect. They had learned a lot, including the complexities of working with scale to make a model of the garden.

"Do you want to see the surveys we took?" Jonah asked me at the end of the tour.

"That's OK," I said, exhausted.

The projects were all impressive, but I didn't see how they meshed with the school's commitment to standards until I talked to several teachers a few days later. Jonah's teacher, Kristin Bijur, told me that Community School's work on standards had given her teaching some much-needed focus. "My first couple years teaching here, I felt like I could do pretty much what I wanted to in the classroom-there were no real guidelines," she said while her students worked on a math assignment. "So having standards to think about has helped shape what I do, though I feel they are set too high and not always achievable."

Bijur, a soft-spoken young woman in bell-bottoms and sandals who pondered questions for a second of two before answering, had come to Community School in large part because of her enthusiasm for project-based learning. She wasn't about to sacrifice this teaching strategy upon the altar of standards-based education. Still, she worried that students often get sucked too deeply into a single topic, leaving "gaps" in their knowledge.

Hearing Bijur and other Community School teachers talk about gaps in knowledge is deliciously ironic-it is precisely the phrase E.D. Hirsch and his cultural literacy crowd used a decade ago to promote the standards movement and justify detailed lists of facts that all students should know. In his books Cultural Literacy and The Schools We Deserve, Hirsch loves to complain about how children might study the rain forest for several years and never touch upon North American geography, or learn about the ills of racism without ever studying the Bill of Rights. Giving students and teachers free rein is, as far as Hirsch is concerned, a recipe for disaster.

Though the Community School teachers argue that Hirsch overstates his case, the ones I spoke to did not dispute his general thesis. Too much classroom freedom, they concede, means there's no way to ensure students learn everything they need to. "The projects are so intensive that you could easily skip from one to the next and miss some important kinds of knowledge," says Tawnya Dudash, who developed the animal-ethics unit. "We have to strive for consistency in what we teach, which isn't always easy to do with this kind of approach."

How has an alternative public school made peace with the standards movement?

How has an alternative public school such as Community made peace with a standards movement perceived by some as the deathblow to progressive education? This evolution has not been easy, nor has it taken place overnight. During the 1970s and '80s, Community teachers had almost total freedom regarding what and how they taught. The curriculum was student-centered, but in no coherent, articulated manner. Planned activities, whether they were teacher-fashioned projects or writing workshops, might last a day, two days, or several weeks, with no tie-in to work in other classrooms. What teachers decided to teach depended upon a confluence of factors: their own passion for a subject, a perceived shift in student interests, an intuitive sense that it was time to move on, or sheer happenstance.

The laissez-faire climate began to change in 1992, when the school implemented Project 2061-a curriculum created by the American Association of Science. The project-oriented program features benchmarks that the school tried to embed in its curriculum, and the work sparked discussion among the teachers about the value of adding structure to their freewheeling style. These discussions grew more pointed when problems cropped up with the school's decision-made about the same time as the adoption of Project 2061-to abandon self-contained classrooms. Previously, the children had been taught in mixed- age groupings, with kids remaining with the same teacher and "family" for three consecutive years. The mixed-age grouping and family concept had been retained, but the school for the first time was letting students move to other classrooms to take on the nine-week projects of their choice. This new freedom didn't go over well with some teachers, who argued that kids often returned to their family classrooms lacking essential skills. Jane Risk, the middle school's math teacher, was particularly disturbed by serious gaps-that word again!-in her kids' knowledge of math. She agreed to go along with the shuffling of students only when her colleagues pledged to cover certain math topics, regardless of the project.

A final crucial event in the transformation of the school occurred three years ago at a summer retreat sponsored by the area affiliate of the Coalition of Essential Schools, of which Community became a member in 1999. The Coalition, which has more than 1,000 member schools across the nation, has long been known for its progressive agenda. Ted Sizer, a famous school reformer and former dean of Harvard's graduate school of education, founded the group in the early 1980s upon nine principles, which coalesced around the idea of "teacher as coach" and "student as leader." But at the urging of the Bay Area Coalition of Essential Schools and its charismatic leader, Steve Jubb, Sizer's group added a 10th principle centered on diversity in 1997.

Jubb, meanwhile, insisted that his own group's member schools focus on reducing the achievement gap between white students and minorities. Schools hoping to join Jubb's group had to begin reform not by designing new and clever projects but by looking long and hard at achievement data from standardized tests-data that Coalition schools had traditionally ignored and even scorned as unreliable.

Community's teacher-leader, a former Teach for America recruit named Tanya Friedman, remembers the retreat as a turning point. "For the first time, we looked intensely at the achievement data from our school, and we were dismayed by what we found," she recalls. "I was just taken aback by the gaps between our white kids and our African American and Latino kids. The writing assessment showed an enormous discrepancy in skills, as did scores from the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills. It became clear to me that we were this groovy school working for some kids but not for all. I knew then that we had to address the equity issue."

The new focus on equity, combined with the growing concern about gaps in the kids' learning, led to a number of moves. The teachers created rubrics in many subjects-including writing-to convey expectations to parents and students alike. They also worked harder to teach discrete skills that the faculty had collectively agreed to emphasize.

Much of this instruction takes place during the weeks that the children spend with their home classroom. During one of my visits to the school, Bijur's students had just returned to her for "family time" after their fall project. They were working on old-fashioned basic skills. Like students do in schools across America, they ran through the multiplication tables, singing out the 7's and 8's. They then took a factoring test. Following that was a language arts lesson in which students identified nouns and adjectives and corrected sentences like: "This peace of pizza is too hot to eat."

Instruction in specific skills has infiltrated the projects, too. This

The school has also added some structure to the projects while requiring more scrutiny of their value.

year, all the Community School teachers agreed to devote time each day to specific strands of the California mathematics standards. Grade 3-5 teachers, for example, are teaching fractions, while grade 6-8 teachers are covering decimal percentages.

The school has also added some structure to the projects while requiring more scrutiny of their value. Proposals are often turned down or altered if they don't cover certain benchmarks, if they're too iterative of other projects, or if they don't introduce enough "high level" concepts. The staff recently rejected a proposed time-capsule project because, as one teacher put it, "there was no meat to it."

As a result of these changes, teachers at Community have less autonomy now than they once had. A few chafe at this, but most have resigned themselves to a new way of doing things. Some even see it as a good thing. "There's always a tension between what we want to do and what we must do," says Tawnya Dudash. "But we must be accountable and be held in check."

Of course, just because Community School teachers embrace the principals of the standards movement doesn't mean they're happy with the details. In fact, when they speak about the benefits of standards, they often use the word "standards" in a generic sense. Or they speak of the Project 2061 benchmarks, the San Francisco district's standards, or the internal standards they've set for themselves.

Just because Community School teachers embrace the principals of the standards movement doesn't mean they're happy with the details.

When conversation turns to the standards developed by California officials, the teachers' enthusiasm fades some. Like many states, California spent the late 1990s fashioning an extensive standards and accountability system that set learning goals and then promised to reward and punish schools based on students' performance. Controversy plagued the drafting of these standards, and groups representing teachers in math and science raised strenuous objections to the final versions, arguing that they emphasize knowledge-acquisition over critical thinking.

Teachers at Community School see deep flaws in the standards, particularly their forbidding length. "Remember all that talk about how less is more?" says Friedman. "Well, you can throw that out of the window. For me, learning is transformative when deep-that's at the core of this school's philosophy. But it's virtually impossible to have deep learning when there's so much to cover." Community School staff also worry that a kind of educational machismo has invaded the state standards. With policymakers pounding their chests and declaring that California's education system should be "world class" and "second to none," the standards were set too high in some cases, they contend. Risk, who has taught middle school math at Community for 17 years, says she gears her teaching to the state's curriculum frameworks, not to the standards. "The standards are useful only to a point because there are aspects of them that are completely unrealistic," she says. "For instance, 8th grade is now supposed to have an intense focus on algebra. Well, I'm sorry, but that just doesn't make sense for a lot of students."

The faculty at Community School saves its most pointed barbs for the state's testing system and the Academic Performance Index.

The faculty at Community School saves its most pointed barbs for the state's testing system and the Academic Performance Index. Though California is creating a new test aligned with its reforms, it currently administers an off-the-shelf exam, the Stanford 9, and sprinkles in some questions based on the standards. "Altogether," Friedman says, "it takes two weeks to administer the Stanford 9 and other required tests, which distorts the curriculum-all this bundling of knowledge into bits and pieces. And the people who require these tests don't see their effect on the kids who have to take them. It puts a mark on them. Some are plainly tense and disturbed when they take the tests. We play soft music and do lots of reassuring, but it's still scary for them. These tests are completely contrary to all we know about how children should be learning."

"It's disappointing that assessment is not moving along with the other changes in education," says Yvonne Scott. "The colleges are partially to blame because they don't use portfolios for college admission, which could change everything. So we're stuck with these standardized tests that I don't believe are geared toward the population of my state and the kids sitting in these seats. Even the story samples in the tests are uninteresting and irrelevant for these children. And it's frustrating because we know there are better ways to assess-to give students more opportunities to explain, to show what they've done."

These criticisms echo the criticisms of standards aired in other states. But unlike progressives elsewhere, the faculty at Community School has largely adopted a go-along, get-along attitude. Some even embrace the standards, warts and all. "I like the standards-the push to have them on the state level is good," says Robin Sharp, who has worn the hats of teacher, teacher-leader, and reform coordinator in her 15 years at Community School. "Now, I also think that there are too many of them, and that it's not possible for any school to do everything well. But the idea that you must have clear and high outcomes is very important. It gives teachers an understanding of what we're all working toward. It also forces us to pay attention to those kids who are behind."

Teachers will never teach to the test, but neither will they stand by and let it victimize their kids.

Others at Community School acknowledge a grudging acceptance of the reality of the standards and accountability era: Tests now determine children's futures, and that's not likely to change soon. So the teachers have begun to do more to familiarize students with California's test. They'll never teach to the test, they say, but neither will they stand by and let it victimize their kids-particularly the African Americans and Hispanics. "The test score gap is a big deal-I worry about it a lot," Friedman says. "Whether we like it or not, the test is a gatekeeper, and tests like the SAT are even greater gatekeepers. So we have to do whatever we can not to let these tests set them back."

Friedman takes her cue on some of these issues from Jubb, her self-described mentor and the head of the Bay Area Coalition of Essential Schools. After my conversations with Community School teachers, I visited him in the Oakland headquarters of the group. A hulking middle-aged man who once taught at a rough-and-tumble high school planted among the oil refineries of Richmond, California, he somehow manages to be both avuncular and extremely intense. When I asked him how Coalition schools were faring on the Academic Performance Index, he said some had done well, others poorly. Then, without so much as blinking, he announced, "We're not going to take a hard line on these things [standards, testing, etc.]. In fact, we almost invite them. Progressive educators have to work in an API environment. We can't be running off and fighting standardized testing. We can't waste our energies on border skirmishes."

I had anticipated Jubb would be provocative. He is not a typical Coalition leader-he has challenged cherished progressive views and taken on Deborah Meier and some of the more "pure" progressives on the East Coast. Still, I was stunned by his comments. I had never heard a progressive defend the accountability schemes of the education establishment. Perhaps sensing my incredulity, Jubb patiently set out his position.

"We progressives have marginalized ourselves by becoming too comfortable with our critique of the establishment," he proclaimed. "It's time for us to get real. As far as I'm concerned, standards and standardized tests are not the villains. The truth is that we need some quick and common measures to ensure equity. So we're checking the data, and we're not going to be satisfied until outcomes are no longer predictable by race and class."

As if this weren't enough, Jubb attacked portfolios, the sacred cow of progressive education. "Portfolios have exacerbated the achievement gap. Yet we've imbued them with a mystique."

Jubb made it clear that he is neither "for" standardized tests nor "against" portfolios. Standardized tests are valuable measures to check equity, he told me, but they do great harm when used as the basis for instruction. Portfolios, meanwhile, are meaningful if they embody high expectations but are dangerous if they do not ensure that essential skills are learned.

"Standards are only a threat when there are too many of them," he continued, "and standardized tests are only a threat when used as the sole measure of student achievement. What we need is a balanced system of assessment."

The peace that Community School has forged with California's standards might be impossible in other places. Massachusetts, Texas, and a few other states rank schools and mete out punishments based solely on test scores-something Jubb and Friedman would stridently object to. California's accountability law, meanwhile, requires that 40 percent of a school's API rating will eventually be based on graduation rates, attendance figures, and other data unrelated to testing.

The peace is also fragile. Because California's accountability scheme has not yet kicked in to the fullest, teachers can pretty much pick and choose what they want to use from the standards and ignore the rest. "As it is, we're able to approach the standards as valuable information, a guide," explains Friedman. "We're choosing the standards we think it's most important to respond to."

Indeed, with some exceptions, Community teachers don't refer to the state standards much at all. They have perhaps all seen the documents, but few seem to have studied them in-depth-if anyone could, considering that there are 250 standards at each grade level. In this, they are no different from most teachers in California. As they exist today, the standards have little connection with the state's testing system or its approved textbooks. While plans are in the works to change this, it sometimes seems as if the standards are almost hopelessly remote from the classroom lives of teachers. According to a survey by the California Teachers Association, only 51 percent of member teachers are familiar with the content of the state's two-year-old standards. And the union posits that the actual percentage is almost certainly lower. Its publication, The California Educator, sums up the relationships between teachers and standards this way: "While some teachers have incorporated the standards into their curriculum, others have never seen the standards-nor understand what they are all about."

Eventually, the state may toughen its accountability system to force teachers to use the standards. Such a move would undoubtedly threaten the goodwill that standards enjoy at Community School, Friedman says. "If someone from the state were to come in and say, 'Show us your lesson plans; I want to see how you're teaching standard 6.5 and 3.2,' it would be a real problem."

But for now, there is calm. Community School did remarkably well on the API this year, scoring a seven on the 10-point scale. It also scored a nine on the all-important "Similar Schools Rank," outperforming the majority of schools serving a similar ethnic and socioeconomic demographic. To Friedman, this demonstrates a critical point: Progressive schools with a "less is more" philosophy can survive in the current test-and-rank-them environment.

Indeed, the high API score affords the school something progressives generally say is hard to come by in standards and accountability systems: freedom. "The best thing about doing well on the API," Friedman says without a trace of irony, "is that the state will leave us alone."

Vol. 11, Issue 7, Pages 32-37

Published in Print: April 1, 2000, as Let It Be
Related Stories
Web Resources
Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on edweek.org, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories