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Effective school reform that doesn't fit the formula

ONE of the knottiest problems of American school reform in the next decade will be educating disadvantaged youth. What happens when new ways of reaching these children are at odds with old policy? Consider the case of La Vaun Dennett, a school principal. Ms. Dennett doesn't need any more blue-ribbon school reform recommendations. She's been reforming Montlake Elementary school in inner-city Seattle with outstanding results since 1983.

``We've talked about education data for years. The fact is, we already know enough to make the changes schools need,'' Dennett said. But she didn't know enough about the rigidity and intransigence of the education bureaucracy. Her story is a case study in the possibilities and ironies of school reform today, experts say.

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Montlake is a typical urban school in the United States. The 230 children are racially mixed; half come from single-parent homes, half are bused in. Many children are ``at risk'' of one day failing or dropping out.

Dennett looked for a new approach that would not just help individual children, but would create a powerful learning environment throughout the school. She found the equation when she began to challenge conventional notions about how to teach disadvantaged children. She didn't label them as needing special help, nor did she pull them out of class for remedial work. Instead, she engineered simple but ingenious staff changes that reduced overall class size from 28 to 20 per teacher.

Next, the school day was redesigned so that the entire morning was devoted to two classes - math and reading. The librarian, physical education teacher, and science teacher also taught these subjects, reducing the pupil-teacher ratio even further. The neediest students were in groups of 10. The students were grouped by ability rather than grade, allowing them to work at their own pace.

This made each teacher responsible for more than one set of children. As a result, they worked more closely and were more innovative. Morale hit an all-time high. ``Dead time'' - periods of no academic learning - decreased. Discipline problems lessened because, said one teacher, ``the kids were receiving enough attention.''

Furthermore, test scores, even among ``special needs'' students, rose dramatically - from well below the national mean to well above. Parents, such as Susan Adler, were enthusiastic. Mrs. Adler's third-grade son had been labeled ``learning disabled'' in Virginia the year before. At Montlake, he jumped from a second-grade reading level to a seventh-grade one.

And the reforms had been achieved without spending an extra dollar.

But Montlake Elementary did not live happily ever after. In 1985, Dennett's reforms were found to be out of compliance with federal rules: She had not labeled the special-needs students. In spite of her success, Dennett lost $100,000 in federal and local aid.

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She could easily have made a couple of minor changes to restore the funding, but she and her staff decided to take a stand. ``Today you generate federal money by identifying your kids `at risk,''' Dennett said in an interview at the annual Education Commission of the States (ECS) that met here. ``That's scary. And what do you think it does to the kids?''

The Montlake case was discovered by Washington Gov. Booth Gardner, who had Dennett testify before the Legislature. The state earmarked $2 million for a program allowing 21 districts to ``restructure'' schools free of bureaucratic control. But it would not restore the three teachers Montlake lost. Last year, Dennett got state and local matching funds that partially compensated for the loss of federal aid. But her district can no longer afford the cost.

The irony, experts say, is that Dennett's system has proved more educationally effective than methods tying teachers and needy children to a funding formula. The policy works against the very children it is supposed to help, they say. ``It's a federal straitjacket on reform,'' says Robert Palaich, and ECS policy analyst.

Since the $4.1 billion Chapter 1 remedial program is up for reauthorization in Congress this year, the issue may heat up further.

Mr. Palaich adds, ``The important thing about Montlake is that the teachers are saying, `We don't want to go back to the old way.'''

``I feel like a crusader,'' says math teacher Irene Gunnette. ``You want the best for kids, and we've worked out the best system I've seen in years.'' Not one reform worked out at Montlake is new, says Dennett. But she changed the whole system by focusing on ``what is best for kids, not what is convenient.'' Montlake teachers believe the important change is in class size and new methods of teaching this size makes possible.

Dennett believes it is the issue of ``labeling,'' which she has come to see as a subtle form of injustice. ``Kids who are put into special education more often than not stay there,'' she says. A climate of low expectation is set up, and the negative effect of this mental reinforcement from parent and teacher is ``something we are still too ignorant about.'' Also, the children tend to be pulled from activities that might spark their interest - films, art, hands-on learning - Dennett says, and put on what seems to them ``an endless treadmill of remediation.''

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