Kathy Wallentine teaches overflow classes in a deteriorating high-school building in suburban Seattle, where residents are wary of raising taxes to support schools. That's why she says she was surprised to learn that the Education Department had named her school as "exemplary."
"We're -- I don't want to say mediocre, but -- we're an average school in an average city," said Wallentine, a teacher at Mt. Rainier High School in Des Moines, Wash. "I don't think we're something the world should come and study."
Wallentine said she found the "exemplary school" award a rather dubious distinction; she worries that it will persuade local residents that her school is in fine shape at precisely the time school officials are lobbying for higher taxes. When she came to Washington this week for the National Education Association's (NEA) annual meeting, Wallentine discovered that she was not alone.
Other schools with similar problems had also received the department's accolades. So last week, the teachers passed a resolution asking the NEA leadership to survey Education Secretary William J. Bennett's 277 "exemplary schools" to determine how the schools were chosen. It also asked the NEA to bring any problems in the selection process to the attention of Bennett and the tax-paying public.
Ultimately, she said, she would like to involve teachers more in the process of choosing the exemplary schools.
A department spokesman said he had not seen the NEA resolution, and added, "We may need to talk to the NEA." Bennett, at a news conference Tuesday, said that he had no problem with being monitored, but that the NEA should allow itself to also be monitored.
Wallentine said her resolution was meant only to give teachers a better idea of how the schools were chosen. "It's neat to have it said that we're so wonderful," she said. "But it's not clear to the teachers, and it's not clear to the kids."
One who agrees is Nick Leon, a veteran instructor at a San Jose high school that has had a consistent 60 percent dropout rate for the past 16 years. Like Wallentine, Leon said he was shocked to find Bennett praising his school as one of the most "outstanding" in the nation.
"A lot of our faculty questioned how you can get an exemplary award when you have such a high dropout rate," Leon said. "Everybody likes a pat on the back; everybody likes to be rewarded. But we're sitting here with the same problems, and people are saying we're exemplary."
The department announced the names of the schools June 21 as part of its "Secondary School Recognition Program and Exemplary Private School Recognition Project." The list included 212 public schools selected from a list of 509 senior, middle and junior high schools nominated by the chief school officers in their states. An 18-member panel of parents and educators then picked the winning public schools.
The 65 private schools were selected by the Council for American Private Education, which received an Education Department grant to carry out the program.
At the time, Bennett said, "Each of these schools has worked very hard to overcome difficulties and to sustain a high level of achievement, and each deserves credit for a job well done."
The schools were chosen through detailed applications, visits to the schools, and interviews with school officials, conducted by private education specialists.
The examiners looked for 14 "attributes of success" for the public schools. They included clear academic goals; high expectations for students; discipline; rewards for students; regular monitoring of student progress; opportunities for student participation; teacher leadership; rewards for teachers; positive climate; academic learning time; administrative leadership; well-articulated curriculum; evaluation for instructional improvement, and community support.