School progress may not be easy to measure

  • William Raspberry / Washington Post columnist
  • Sunday, December 16, 2001 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — Maybe the first thing to do, when it comes to school reform, is to disregard any statement, promise or expectation that the schools would be just fine — if only …

Reforming the schools — and in particular closing the academic gaps between black and white, rich and poor — is never as simple as doing one thing. And, no, I’m not talking about the legislation about to be delivered by Congress that would mandate lots of testing and lots of accountability — as though our major school problems are too little testing and too little fear in the hearts of teachers and principals.

I’m talking about two serious, long-term efforts to make a difference for disadvantaged children: Career Academies and Accelerated Schools. The Manpower Demonstration Research Corp. (MDRC) in New York has evaluated both, and while neither comes close to a failing mark, both are left to make what they can of rather faint praise.

Career Academies are small schools within schools, each focusing on a particular career area — health, finance, public service — and using the career goal as a way of integrating vocational and academic studies.

An earlier evaluation of the approach nearly two years ago came about as close to a ringing endorsement as the studiedly low-key MDRC ever comes. MDRC’s newest report says the Career Academy approach enhances the high school experience — a worthy short-term goal — but doesn’t seem to improve graduation and college-attendance rates. A subsequent study will examine whether the Career Academy experience enhances college and career success.

I’d been interested in the Accelerated Schools idea since a conversation with founder Henry Levin, then of Stanford, now at Columbia Teachers, in 1988.

Levin had been concerned about the way we deal with slow learners — putting them in slower-paced classes for remedial instruction. Meanwhile, their former classmates are moving ahead, which leaves the slow learners that much further behind.

His solution: Transform entire schools to validate and build on the strengths even the most underprivileged children bring with them, rather than offer them remediation based on their weaknesses. But if the approach was to move beyond the slogan stage, school staffs and administrators and parents would have to be a part of the transformation. Levin’s approach is now being used in more than 1,000 elementary and middle schools across America. MDRC looked at eight of them.

Among its findings: Little academic improvement during the first three years of implementation, when the focus tends to be on reforming school governance and culture; some evidence of slight academic decline in the third year, as instructional modifications are put in, and only then — in the fourth and fifth years — come statistically significant improvements in test scores.

But, ah, says Levin: "Their evaluations are based on test scores in reading and math, primarily. Our schools are trying to bring these youngsters (nearly all of them from troubled neighborhoods) into the 21st century. We want them to do reading and math, yes, but we try to embed those in meaningful activities: handling computers, engaging in intelligent debate, learning to advocate for causes they believe in.

"It works at least as well as reducing class sizes — and it costs a lot less."

Advocates of the Career Academy approach would offer similar demurrers. Not everything worthwhile can be measured in test scores and college-attendance rates. Sometimes it’s so obvious you’re seeing something positive going on that proof becomes almost an irrelevancy.

And no doubt the people — including President Bush — who are behind the forthcoming national school legislation will be prepared to defend it in similar fashion: on the basis of test scores, if test scores improve; on the basis of common sense, improved atmospherics and feeling, if they don’t.

The warning here is that they shouldn’t be too surprised if something as common-sensical as standardized tests for children and increased accountability for teachers and administrators doesn’t show up right away in improved test scores. Educational reform just isn’t that simple.

William Raspberry can be reached at The Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071-9200 or willrasp@washpost.com.

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