March 5, 2007

The Counter Example

More people should visit inner city schools to see these educational horror stories first-hand. These are the places that demoralize teachers. Where teachers develop their pernicious beliefs that children like this can't or won't learn. These schools are badly broken. In these schools, traditional education techniques barely stand a chance. You can forget about the faddish child-centered techniques. Education apologists would have you believe that schools like this don't exist or that they can be turned around with lots of money and a generous application of the latest ed-school fad.

The following is the condensed story of how the National Institute for Direct Instruction turned around the worst school in the inner city of Baltimore, a seemingly impossible task. The percentile scores given in the story are from the CTBS, a legitimate test similar to the Iowa Basic Skills test. The entire story appears on pages 17-24 of Chapter 7 of The Outrage of Project Follow Through: 5 Million Failed Kids Later. Lots of gory details are provided. Almost all of the excuses given by educators were present at City Springs and then some:

Possibly the most notorious school in the district at the time was City Springs. It was in a high-crime black neighborhood and had the lowest achievement scores of the 119 elementary schools in the district. The average performance of the students in City Springs when we started was below the 10th percentile in all grades and all subjects. 98 percent of the students were on free-and-reduced lunch schedule, which is used as an indicator of the poverty level of schools.

Two of our trainers visited City Springs in the spring before the implementation began. Their summary statement was, “It’s a zoo; totally out of control.” Children were running through the halls when they were supposed to be in classrooms. In many classrooms, kids were fighting and throwing things. Most teachers had no control over the children. During recess, the behavior of children on the playground could be conservatively described as rowdy and dangerous for the
younger children.

City Springs proved to be as challenging as any school we’ve ever implemented. The students had been reinforced for their behavior. They knew they could get away with it, so when we robbed them of their “freedom,” they would try harder to reinstate it.

Substitutes always refused to go to City Springs, which made the job of turning the school around even more difficult during the winter, when several teachers were absent, and the logistics made it problematic to put two classrooms of children in a single room.

Progress in turning the school around was slow, and if the school had weak leadership, it never would have happened. When I visited City Springs during the second year of the implementation, the principal first took me to three classrooms that looked okay, but certainly not outstanding. Then she said, “Those are my best teachers. They give us something to build on, but I don’t know what to do about some of the others.” She took me on a tour of possibly six teachers she judged to be her worst. I had suggestions for half of them. After we observed the rest, she asked, “What do I do about those teachers?” I told her that I didn’t know, short of getting rid of them. She responded, “That won’t happen soon. What do I do in the meantime?” I didn’t have any answers except for us to do the best we could by using aides or other school personnel to work in those classrooms.

Replacing teachers is not a routine assignment for a school as notorious as City Springs. The only teacher the district sends to replace a failed teacher is either a first-year rookie, a misfit, or a reject from other schools. Teachers not in these groups typically have other options, and they won’t go to schools like City Springs. After the first year, 19 new teachers were installed. The new population of teachers was not much better than the teachers they replaced. So the second year was like starting over—rolling a rock up a hill one more time.

The misfits often had good potential and became high performers. Some of the rejects were as bad as the teachers they replaced. For first-year teachers, the City Springs experience went beyond culture shock—more like undiluted horror.

Nothing in their college work had prepared rookies for the students. Most of them came in with expectations of teaching and interacting with students that were shattered within the first hour in the classroom. Even those who had studied “behavioral principles” were quickly traumatized by the rude realities of City Springs.

The county presented another barrier to improving City Springs and our other Baltimore schools. Salaries for teachers in Baltimore were significantly lower than in the three counties that surround the city of Baltimore. These counties wanted good teachers because the population of the counties was growing while that of Baltimore had been shrinking. So there was a market for our better teachers. As their skills increased, the probability that they would defect to one of the counties increased. A rough guess is that we lost 15 percent of our teachers every year to the counties. A pattern for the younger teachers was to work two years in a DI school and then defect to a county school. I couldn’t blame these teachers. Some actually lived a lot closer to their new county school than they did to their former city school.

Of the second–year teachers, at least one couldn’t even read the script and another seemed to be insane; however, some of the teachers and aides got a lot better. The coordinator worked patiently with one first-grade teacher who could scarcely read and who could not produce the sounds for the letters and combinations that she was trying to teach to the children. She wanted to learn; she worked hard; and she became much better. After one practice session with the coordinator, she gently put her hand on the coordinator's forearm and said tearfully, “Thank you so much. Nobody has ever worked with me before.” She was a certified teacher, however.

A serious problem in the upper grades was that some teachers did not know the content of what they were trying to teach. They needed to go through the program as students before trying to teach it.

By the spring of 2000, City Springs’ neighborhood hadn’t changed. Nor had the middle school across the street, which was still loud, disorderly, and had regular visits from the police. City Springs, however, had changed. It was far from the lowest school in the district. First-grade performance had improved from below the 10th percentile to the 75th percentile in reading. The school had order. Children had bought into the role of being good students. There was a lot of positive reinforcement and greatly improved teaching.

With K and 1 in place and getting better, the scene was set for the subsequent grades to inherit higher performers and achieve better results. If the performance of children remained at around the 75th percentile, the improvement would be spectacular. Over the next three years, however, the teachers in K and 1 continued to improve and the performance of their students reflected this improvement.

In 2001, first graders achieved at the 80th percentile in reading.
In 2002, first graders achieved at the 91st percentile in reading.
In 2003, first graders achieved at the 99th percentile.

City Springs first graders had gone from the lowest in the district to the highest. The fifth graders did not achieve as high as the first graders, largely because of more than 20 percent annual turnover of students; however, by 2003, the fifth grade performance was one of the highest in the district, well above average: the 87th percentile in reading and the 79th percentile in math. One classroom had finished the 6th level of the DI programs and completed a middle-school textbook on U.S. history. When these students visited Monticello, the tour
guide indicated that their group was the most intelligent the guide had conducted.

In 2004, NIFDI had a falling-out with City Springs. The school wanted to go in a different direction than the one that brought it to where it was. The school believed that it should place more emphasis on test preparation. We indicated that we would not work with the school if it chose that direction. It chose that direction, and NIFDI dropped it in the spring of 2004.

The improvement in the academic performance of the fifth graders in City Springs represents an effect size of about 2.5 standard deviations in reading and about 2.0 in math. It took seven years to turn City Springs around. That's a little over half the time we've given schools to turn around under NCLB. Don't let it be said that it's impossible for most schools to meet the mandates of NCLB.


Catherine Johnson said...

We have a friendly acquaintance who's on the board of one of the successful charter schools in NYC (I have NOT been able to remember it's name!)

He says the kids come in at very young ages already filled with attitude and hardness.

Within a few weeks that's gone. They're nice kids, paying attention, working, etc.

The staff has to tough it out during the transition, but the transition always happens. (Haven't read your post yet - must get to bed! - but I wanted to drop that in.)

Tracy W said...

Reading the chapter I get the impression that the basic problem is that the district leaders pay no price if children fail to learn to read, so they don't have the motivator to put in the hard effort of ensuring they do.

On the other hand, any direct accountability structure would create an excellent motivation to warp the tests.

TurbineGuy said...

Take a look at City Springs test scores.

There is a trend of the scores slowly decreasing from 2003 when NIFDI stopped sponsoring the school, except 6th graders and 7th graders who would of been taught to read during their critical K-3 years during the DI period, have relatively high scores.

I suspect that each consecutive cohort of students progressing through the system will have lower and lower scores.

Anonymous said...

How can people in power seem to make such systematicaly bad descisions? The following link is an interview that deals not with education, but with political decision making, and in particular touchs on the question of why foreign aid has had such poor outcomes. I think there is a lot of parallels in the story of foreign aid to the politics of education.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of NYU and Stanford University's Hoover Institution talks about the incentives facing dictators and democratic leaders. ...

allen said...

rws1st wrote:

How can people in power seem to make such systematically bad decisions?

Because they don't have any reason not to? Because it's largely immaterial whether they make good decisions or bad decisions?

Take the school in the post.

The worst school in the district takes just four years to become the best school in the district.

You'd think that would result in quite a bit of interest from principals of other schools and the district putting the school in a glass museum display to be protected for the hoards of eager public school officials who'd want to tour the school.

But why should that happen? Who, other then the kids, and the self-respect of the teachers, stands to gain? No one and that's the problem.

Anonymous said...


Did your acquaintance get specific as to how the students lose their "sttitude and hardness"? I ask because, though I teach in a regular NYC public school, I would like to hear if there are any methods used that I might be able to use with my extremely disruptive students. Of course, there is no threat of getting kicked out as there is in charter schools, but perhaps there are other useful nuggets.

KDeRosa said...

Try Managing Cycle Acting Out Behavior Classroom