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HARD LESSONS: A YEAR IN SCHOOL : SPECIAL REPORT / EDUCATION : PART 5: THE MISSION : The Center of Transition and Discontent

September 19, 1993|JOHN JOHNSON

One spring day, Beryl Ward sat down with a group of visiting teachers who were learning the new teaching methods in the Practitioner Center. It had not been a smooth transition to the new way of doing things at Northridge, but the payoffs were now being seen, she said. Twice as many teachers this year were using pods. "We've seen our grade distribution go up tremendously." There were impressed sighs. "Wow," exhaled one teacher.

"You mention grades going up," interrupted teacher Tom Maddux. "Has there been standardized testing to compare before and after on achievement?"

"Not really," Ward said.

This was not true. Some weeks earlier, just before the Christmas break, the CAP--California Assessment Program--test results for Los Angeles County schools were published in the newspaper.

The smile gauge and the learning gauge, it seemed, were going in opposite directions. Northridge's 1992 score plunged 21 points when compared to 1990, when the reforms were introduced. It was the fifth-worst showing in the district.

The day the scores came out, Ronn Yablun came sailing into the teachers lounge at lunch waving the newspaper page with the scores on it like the head of an enemy.

"They'll smile all the way to the welfare office," he sang out.

There were several other ways to look at the performance of the students at Northridge, and in most every way the news was not good.

Linda Lownes, a specialist for the Information Technology Division at L. A. Unified, converted a second set of test scores, those on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, into a set of grade equivalents in an attempt to discover whether the students were on grade level.

The results showed that, by the end of the sixth grade, the students were reading and writing at the level of beginning fifth-graders--almost two years behind. In math, they were better, about half a year behind.

By the end of seventh grade, they had made up some ground. They were only two months behind in math.

But in the eighth grade, almost no progress was made. Students had fallen two years behind in reading and writing. They were a year behind in math. In essence, said Lownes, students lost ground during their time at Northridge.

A final way to look at student performance was to analyze the school's relative rank when measured against schools with a similar population in terms of poverty level, education levels of their parents as supplied by students, student mobility and the number of students with language problems. A school doing a good job, said Lownes, would have a figure above 50% in this category.

In 1989-90, before the reforms, Northridge ranked as high as 61% in math, 37% in reading and 18% in writing. In 1992, Northridge scored 35% in math, 15% in reading and 18% in writing.

"As low as these are, we're basically looking at a school in trouble," said Lownes.

Ward tried to find a silver lining in the results. The results may have been skewed, she thought, by the fact that Northridge is testing more children because the school's attendance is so high. Also, the test was geared to the old "drill and kill" type of learning, rather than the new kind of education going on at Northridge.

However the test results may be interpreted, they did not cause Ward to lose faith in her reform philosophy. She was convinced things would turn around eventually.

The kind of tug-of-war being played out at Northridge between members of the old school and the reformers has been a part of the educational landscape for generations.

"To the casual observer, American education is a confusing and not altogether edifying spectacle. It is productive of endless fads and panaceas. It is pretentiously scientific and at the same time pathetically conventional. It is scornful of the past, yet painfully inarticulate when it speaks of the future," said educational philosopher Boyd Bode.

The year was 1930.

Since then, schools have tumbled from one crisis to another. In the '50s, said author Diane Ravitch, there was the progressive, anti-intellectual life adjustment education fad and vigilantes who wanted to cleanse schools of subversives.

The launch of Sputnik by the former Soviet Union in 1957 brought a new crisis. American schools found themselves under attack for failing to graduate the scientists and engineers necessary to keep up with the Soviets in space. The space race triggered a parallel race for excellence in the classroom.

That tide abated in the late '60s and led to a new concern for students' well-being. This triggered experimental educational ideas geared to making students feel better about school, Ravitch said.

Ravitch said an alarming drop in test scores was accompanied by changes in school philosophy that condoned absenteeism, made promotion to the next grade automatic and de-emphasized homework so that half as much was being given out.

The 1983 publication of the landmark report on education, "A Nation at Risk," by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, fueled a new back-to-basics movement.

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