What Good Schools Do When Their Students Don’t Do Well

Some students play by the rules, pass their courses, contribute to their schools and communities, and show important learning . . . but still may fail the all-important new standardized tests. What can Essential schools do to keep them on the road to success?

This story belongs to Eddie Santos, who showed up on the first day of Landmark High School’s July session because he hadn’t finished the math work he needed to move on after tenth grade. And it belongs to Keri Tielis, the young Landmark teacher who had already heard that Eddie was not, as Keri said, “an ideal student,” and who confessed she groaned inwardly when his name showed up on her summer roster.

In the New York City summer, the scenario doesn’t sound much like a mystery. After a year of habitual truancy, who would expect Eddie to change his ways? But something took hold, near the start of the long afternoon sessions during which Keri Tielis tried to identify some trait–anything–she could use to persuade each one of her summer students they were capable of success.

“It turned out Eddie wanted to be a professional baseball star,” she said. “As soon as I found that out, I tried to use it to help him realize he could set a goal and then get to that point. I knew he could do the work in math; I told him he was on a par with everyone else in the room.”

Her praise and confidence seemed to motivate Eddie, Tielis soon noticed. “He began to sit by himself on the side and crank out work; he did the extra-credit problems I gave him and kept asking for more.” By the end of the four-week session, Eddie was aceing all his quizzes and taking open-ended problems to the next level of generalization. “I see him in school every day now,” Tielis reported in October, “and he’s doing fine.”

Like many other Essential schools in New York, Landmark still fears for students like Eddie, whose high school diploma will hang on a single mandatory state assessment. The school’s extensive system in which students prepare and defend graduation portfolios in numerous subjects now risks eclipse by Regents exams in English language arts, math, science, global history, and American history.

As the stakes grow higher for students who do not fit the mold–special education students, English language learners, kids whose prowess doesn’t show up on standardized tests–Essential schools in New York and around the nation are fiercely seeking ways to support their learning in constructive, not destructive ways. And though they voice worries about losing the active, student-centered, “less-is-more” curriculum that the Coalition treasures, teachers realize that their strategies must include everything that works to help students achieve genuine progress.

From huge urban systems to small rural districts, that often means summer school. And summer sessions work best, Essential school teachers say, when they have the most direct links to students’ own school, teachers, and curriculum.

Filling in the Learning Gaps

In tiny Poland, Maine, where a new Essential regional high school opened last year, kids who hadn’t produced classwork that met the school’s explicit standards paid $50 each to attend a summer session in which they could make it up.

“Some kids may have just one standard to meet; they don’t have to retake a whole course in science, math, or the humanities,” said Derek Pierce, the principal. “They might need to show that they can ‘use common units of the metric systems for measurements and calculations’ for a science class. Or they might have to interpret and discuss a complex text for a literature class.” Some of the missing pieces require only a single assessment; others need multiple and varied assessments to demonstrate that students have met expectations.

“Your grade in a course could go from not having met all its standards to advanced standing,” said Pierce. “Some kids just need more time, to develop either the work or the motivation.”

In Poland, five teachers and a few support people worked with 50 students every morning for four to six weeks. “Each student made a contract to work on certain things,” Pierce explained. “They would check in, then get together with a teacher and work on it. They definitely benefited from the chance to focus on a few things, one-on-one.”

By the end of the summer, almost every student had made up the work they needed, Pierce said, and some made up several courses. “The atmosphere was positive,” he noted. “Some kids had that ‘aha’–that was all I needed to do?”

Many students needed intensive instruction before they could go on to fill in the gaps in their learning. “We worked on literacy in my room, but the kids could move to the rooms for science and for math when they needed to,” said Marie Rossiter, the summer session’s lead teacher. “A science teacher could send me a student to write up a lab report, or someone might need a mini-lesson on paragraph construction or developing their ideas. Four kids could be working on separate assignments.”

Stay Back, or Drop Out?

Poland Regional is unusual among schools these days, because at Poland those closest to the students have the most to say about whether they get promoted. Maine’s assessment system asks schools to present an array of evidence that students are meeting the state’s Learning Results, rather than relying on one test for high-stakes decisions.

But in other states, Essential school teachers often find themselves required to hold back students on the basis of a test score alone. And at certain key points like eighth grade, many believe, policies like this put students at great risk of dropping out of school altogether.

“So many of our eighth-grade students are already over-age for their class,” said Anne Wheelock, who has extensively documented grade retention patterns and interviewed students in urban Massa-chusetts schools. “At every stage they are weighing the possibility of dropping out. When they face a boring or repetitive ninth-grade transition program, and they think they won’t pass the tenth-grade state test required for graduation anyway, more and more of them choose to drop out and take jobs.”

The transition year model–two summer school sessions and the year between–can turn into a dumping ground with inferior curriculum, Wheelock cautioned. “It may center more on the tests than on engaging and motivating over-age students,” she said.

But when over-age students get support in a focused program aimed at returning them to their peer age group in school, Wheelock said, they work hard to do that.

“In past years many Boston schools contracted with kids to meet a set of requirements concerning attendance, behavior, and academic progress,” she said. “They had someone closely monitoring them on an individual level, and they moved steadily up until they were back with their peer group.”

An Adult Who Cares

In an all-out push to keep from retaining students, Essential schools in the North Kansas City, Missouri district assign a special teacher team to support any student who falls behind. Teachers work with kids on both the academic and the personal level, calling on student tutors, childcare workers, parent volunteers, business partners, church groups, and retired people for additional help before and after school.

Often the crucial factor in building adolescents’ confidence and motivation to succeed in school comes from such interactions. “The two things middle and high school students tell us they want most are more adult role models and someone to listen to them,” said Pam Polson, who coordinates the district’s YouthFriends initiative. “That’s true no matter what kind of background they come from. Even upper-class white kids are at risk if nobody gives a hoot about them.”

Polson has watched Youth-Friends grow over six years to in-clude 75 districts in Kansas, Missouri, and Michigan. “It changes the adult volunteers’ lives as much as the kids’,” she said. “They can be lunch or recess buddies, reading partners, computer helpers, tutors – and 96 percent of them tell us they love it.”

Associate superintendent Kendra Johnson credits the partnership of school and community with the district’s rising student scores on the “very rigorous” state tests. “Our position is to look at other solutions than retention when kids don’t do well on tests,” she says. “We ask instead what we can do for individual kids.”

Academic Learning at Work

“Kids have to feel an adult is with them on their journey,” agrees Michele Blatt, an assistant principal at City As School, which enrolls about 1,000 juniors and seniors who have not succeeded elsewhere in its four New York City locations.

Like many other Essential schools in New York, City As School uses portfolios to demonstrate student learning; but it goes even further in personalizing the academic program. Some teachers act as full-time advisers, available to students as they interweave academic work with substantial nine-to-five internships in the workplace. Others teach regular subject-area courses, or coach students in writing and math at the school’s all-day drop-in centers.

In some areas (such as science or social studies), academic projects grow directly from the student’s work at the “external learning” site. “If a student is working in a council member’s office, for example, a teacher meets with the adult resource person at the site,” Blatt said. “For the student to earn social studies credit from the experience, we have to be able to create a project that closely reflects some part of New York’s curriculum standards.”

The push for rigor has made placements more interesting, Blatt said; once students might have spent more time stuffing envelopes than thinking through problems. And the benefits of working in the “real world” remain considerable. “Lateness isn’t just a demerit any more,” she noted. “It’s critical to the student’s success in the world.”

Founded in 1972, City As School sees nearly 60 percent of its students graduate each year. Dropout and truancy rates are 5 percent and 3 percent respectively, and daily attendance averages 86 percent. “When our students graduate, they go on to a wide range of other things–including college, but also including opening some of the best four-star restaurants in New York City,” said principal Bob Lubetsky.

But since New York began requiring Regents examinations for graduation, Lubetsky worries about a dramatic increase in the number of his students who have started leaving for “general educational development” (GED) programs rather than finishing high school.

“Their options have narrowed,” he said. “What’s fallen by the wayside are the experiences that enable kids to grow into productive future citizens, happy and healthy human beings.” The connection between academic and social growth is complicated, he added, “but they are intimately and inextricably bound together.”

Attitudes Are Important

Adam Seidel had the same insight when he found himself, the summer after his freshman year at Oberlin College, teaching math for four weeks in an intervention program for Boston middle-schoolers who had failed the city’s math test for promotion to eighth grade.

“Teaching just math was not the trick, I discovered,” he said afterward. “We needed to be helping the kids take personal responsibility for all their actions–so they know the consequences of behavior and choose to do the right thing.” The program put too little focus on such affective matters, he said; kids got praise for getting a right answer but a bad attitude often went unremarked. And he worries what will happen now that his summer students have entered eighth grade. “They can do the work now,” he said, “but they might just as easily choose not to.”

The Summerbridge program, which pairs high school and college students with younger students for intensive summer academics in 40 sites around the nation, deliberately focuses on rallying students’ spirits as a way of boosting academic motivation. And the approach seems to work. After teaching with the program this past summer, Reed College student Gregory Cluster recalled a frustrating day on which his morning students in language arts and math had been singularly resistant in class. “I felt my kids losing faith that I was taking them somewhere important,” he said.

Despondent, Cluster hurried off to an all-school assembly in which teachers and students vied for the title of “most spirited group” with cheers and dancing. When he called his class together afterward to give them an assignment, their mood was “ready and eager” to work, he said. “It had given us all a shared experience, forming us into more of a loving community.” For kids used to “the oh-so-lonely space of middle school,” he reflected, it may have been more effective than a whole afternoon of his laboring over class preparations.

Research backs up that hunch. At the Consortium on Chicago School Research, researchers Valerie Lee, Julia Smith, Tamara Perry, and Mark Smylie analyzed citywide survey data and achievement test scores to find that sixth and eighth grade students learned most when they experienced both a strong press for academic achievement in their schools and strong social support from people in and out of school. If one of these conditions was strong and the other weak, students learned less; if both were weak, so was academic achievement.

Learning Outside the Lines

Sometimes such social support grows from a situation in which adults hand over responsibility for a serious project to the students and coach them to its completion. When older students at the West Hollywood Opportunity Center decided that the lack of a school library posed a significant obstacle to their learning success, the CES regional Center in Los Angeles worked with them to resolve the problem.

With the support of the faculty, CES helped the students to design the library they desired, create a budget, write and present a grant application, acquire the funding, select and order books, and design a system for themselves to maintain and staff the library.

“Students learned leadership and organizing skills,” said Hannah MacLaren, who directs the Los Angeles Center. “They also learned to present themselves in writing and in person to an adult audience, and they applied their skills in math and language for a real-world outcome.” Faculty at WHOC, which serves disadvantaged students who have not succeeded in other schools, were also struck anew, MacLaren said, by “the tremendous motivation and ability students can summon when they contribute work of real value.”

To Prep or Not to Prep?

Will emphasizing high quality in all academic tasks result in high scores regardless of the curriculum? Or must teachers “teach to the test” in order for students to do well?

In Federal Way, Washington, a diverse district south of Seattle, teacher Jessie Towbin has noticed how many of her colleagues at Illahee Junior High School now orient their teaching toward the state’s new high-stakes tests. “It’s not enough just to have biology before the tenth-grade test in the spring,” she said. “You have to cram a lot more high school curriculum into that time.”

The Washington tests contain extensive writing and reading, though Towbin worries about the temptation to design classroom writing prompts that mimic test questions. Still, the test’s emphasis on has provoked more Illahee teachers to use Socratic Seminars, even in courses like math, she has noticed.

And even drills can prompt Essential school pedagogy, points out veteran Coalition history teacher Bil Johnson, now a clinical professor of education at Brown University. For years he asked heterogeneous classes of high school students to drill for the content-heavy Advanced Placement history test in a weekly exercise that made them think critically as well.

“I would put them in small groups with various history textbooks,” he said. “Assuming the test is reasonable, I told them, they should decide which facts they’d have to know to do well on it, and then teach those to each other.” Every Friday all year the class did the exercise for a different historical period; and every May, said John-son, “they all did fine on the test.”

Worrying about Students

The story is not so rosy in most parts, though, as testing fever escalates the anxiety among the nation’s parents, students, and teachers that poor test results will imperil children’s futures. At his suburban New York middle school’s back-to-school night this fall, social studies teacher Rick Casey said, “I spent my meaningful twelve-minute presentation talking primarily about the state assessments that current eighth graders will endure over the next few years.”

And everywhere Coalition teachers are facing the clash between their conviction that all students can succeed and the new push to measure student success solely through standardized tests. They worry that good students will lose heart and drop out, and evidence backs up their concern. Nine of the ten states with the highest dropout rates in the country tie decisions about graduation to test scores; none of the ten states with the lowest dropout rates do so.

“In small schools maybe there are solutions–kid by kid–to these issues,” said Deborah Meier, co-principal of Boston’s Mission Hill School and vice-chair of CES. This year’s Massachusetts tenth graders must pass state exit exams to graduate, and urban schools in particular are worried that this will slam the door in the face of students whom they know could otherwise thrive in college and life.

Such schools are exploring all the alternatives, Meier said, “including students leaving the state and getting a diploma elsewhere for their thirteenth year.” Private colleges and universities may well accept students on the basis of work demonstrated in high school even without the state’s seal of approval. But it is not yet clear whether state-subsidized colleges could substitute such evidence or the GED diploma for success on the state’s tests.

Educating the Community

So what else can schools do to keep learning alive for all their students, including those whose genuine merit is not reflected in the mirror of these tests? Most research suggests an answer that sounds a great deal like Essential schooling:

An intensive and personalized program to engage students in well-crafted curriculum connecting to their own lives and interests as well as to academics.

Cooperative learning and additional coaching in heterogeneous groups, without pulling out or labeling some as “problem students.”

Summer programs that reinforce academic learning and also open up new opportunities for students to explore their communities and themselves. Research shows that 80 percent of the difference between advantaged and disadvantaged children in year-to-year learning occurs during the summer.

The first big wave is cresting now, as many thousands of students begin to suffer under policies put in place over the past few years. And whereas policymakers believe that failure will wake up schools to the need for higher standards, Essential school people are speaking privately of how to hold on to the standards they already cherish through the coming storm.

More than ever, they realize, their case will hang on public documentation and demonstration of student accomplishment. Educating the community will take on equal importance to educating its children–and the closer they can draw their community in to the schools, the more likely they are to survive the current crisis.