With the windows open to cool a stuffy third-floor choir room, about 70 teachers in jeans and T-shirts sat at student desks at Eastern Senior High School in Northeast, giggling and trying to pick up gummy bears with chopsticks.
Attention, students: This is what your dignified, no-nonsense teachers do when you're not around. They laugh, poke fun at each other and act silly.
The exercise, though, had a serious purpose. It was part of a summertime crash course to prepare teachers at Eastern and about 145 other schools in the D.C. system for Monday's launch of new learning standards in language arts and math. School system leaders envision that the rigorous new standards and accompanying new curricula and textbooks will transform classrooms, offering higher-quality instruction across-the-board for students in pre-kindergarten to 12th grade.
The new standards, imported from Massachusetts, are designed to boost dismal achievement in the system, where 81 schools failed to meet academic benchmarks for two years and are subject to intervention, according to recently released data. At the same time, the system is developing a new achievement test for spring, to replace the Stanford 9, that will gauge whether the standards and curricula are working.
By offering training for some 5,000 teachers over the summer, the school system has attempted to do in three months what states typically take several years to accomplish. School Superintendent Clifford B. Janey is in a hurry to get the system into compliance with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires districts to assess student achievement based on the district's specific standards. School districts that fail to do so face losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funds.
When Janey "gave us this challenge, people thought: How will we do this?" said Jacqueline Williams, Eastern's acting principal. "Just like we expect a lot from our students, we expect a lot from ourselves. Teachers will rise to the occasion."
C. Maurice Porter, principal of Ferebee-Hope Elementary School in Southeast, said teachers feel invigorated by the new standards.
"We've never had alignment between the standards, curricula and assessment in the 11 years I've been in the system," Porter said. "It caused a lot of frustration for teachers. Now, we feel a huge weight is being lifted off our shoulders. It's a new day."
Nevertheless, leaders of the Washington Teachers' Union, while supporting the need for new standards, expressed dismay that the school system has yet to approve a new contract offering teachers higher compensation commensurate with the added responsibility in carrying out the new learning goals.
"Many of the teachers are taking advantage of the training and are excited about the opportunity to improve," said Nathan Saunders, the union's vice president. "However, there are concerns about the time frame of the training and resources. Teachers want to make sure there are textbooks . . . and other resources to fully support the standards."
Learning standards state what students should know and be able to do in specific subjects and grades. The goal is for all schools to be on the same page, as opposed to the previous practice of schools largely acting on their own, education experts say.
A January 2004 report by the Council of the Great City Schools, an organization that represents large urban districts, said that the D.C. school system had no coherent academic standards and that the central office had largely delegated its role in overseeing instruction to principals.
Janey said the old standards, established in 1998, were not specific enough. For example, reading standards required third-graders to accurately read multicultural fiction and nonfiction, apply vocabulary-building strategies and demonstrate the basic rules of the English language in written and oral work.
In contrast, the new standards require third-graders to know the rules of words that change the final y to i, such as baby to babies; read aloud with fluency and "appropriate rhythm, pacing, expression" relevant to the text; identify the meaning of common prefixes and suffixes, including un-, re-, -ly and -less; identify roots of words, such as in "autograph" and "biography"; work with tongue twisters and riddles; and recognize that words can have literal and nonliteral usages, such as in "take steps."
"The difference between the old standards and the new standards is like night and day," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools.
"The fact that they are explicit will make it easier for teachers at schools to implement. They'll have a clear direction on what the district is aiming for," he said. "The trick now is to make sure the professional development is focused and that there is adequate follow-up."
Indeed, school officials said the training will continue for two years.
Leaders of Janey's academic team said they are attempting to use a bottom-up approach in introducing the standards.
Principals are responsible for training in their buildings, unlike the last rollout of standards in which, they said, they played a much lesser role. Moreover, they said, worksheets teachers filled out during the training sessions will be used to develop curricula.
"For the first time we are allowed input in the creation of the standards. That was empowering for teachers and me as an administrator," said Porter of Ferebee-Hope. In the past, he said, the "standards were just handed to us."
Using education buzzwords, principals at one recent session directed teachers through several exercises with the standards. Teachers were told to "unpack" and "deconstruct" the standards and to do "backward mapping."
In layman's terms, the teachers were required to examine a standard for seniors, such as congruence in geometry. They were to go back to pre-kindergarten and through the grades to determine when the concept was introduced and when the skill was developed and mastered.
Moreover, they were asked to write brief lesson plans on some of the standards.
Teachers were "learning the skill of how to break down a standard into teaching points," said Meria J. Carstarphen, the system's chief accountability officer, who is leading the systemwide effort.
"The heart of systemic reform is born out of your standards," Carstarphen said.
During the chopstick/gummy bears session, teachers were asked to fill out a worksheet describing key vocabulary words associated with the exercise and teaching points they'd use to convey a lesson about it.
Lillian Roane, a math teacher at Eastern, read her worksheet to other teachers. She listed "chopsticks," "culture," "China," "eating utensil" and "manual dexterity" as her vocabulary words. Among her teaching points were to discuss with students the various eating utensils used by several cultures.
"After students master use of chopsticks, then we'll have Chinese food for lunch," Roane said, drawing laughter and applause.
Later, Roane, a 16-year veteran of the school system, said: "I'm optimistic about the standards. I think they're good. The training should help us feel comfortable with them so we can implant them properly and effectively."
Nathaniel A. Ogunniyi, who also teaches math at Eastern, said he was unimpressed. "I don't see any difference in the old and new standards. It's like putting new wine in old skin," Ogunniyi said.
"If kids are not ready to embrace it, [the standards] will not work," he said. "The old standards would have worked if the students were ready to embrace them."
Asked whether he thought the chopstick and gummy bears exercise was hokey, Porter said: "As an elementary school, we are partial to that kind of thing. The teachers enjoyed it."
At the end of the day, teachers got a fortune cookie. The fortune inside said, "You will help D.C. students reach high standards!"