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Students Caught in Cycle
Of Classroom Failures

By Valerie Strauss and Sari Horwitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 20, 1997; Page A01

Cracks in the System
SAT scores have risen yearly in the District since 1990. But the city still trails the suburbs.
Anne Arundel1041
Prince William1014
U.S. average*1013
St. Mary's1004
Prince George's889
* U.S. average comprises public and private schools.
SOURCES: The College Board, school districts
Hal Coates, a rangy 14-year-old with cropped hair and coal-black eyes, opened a workbook to study two-syllable words. Asked to pick them out of a sentence, he spotted "mittens" and "jacket" but missed "before" and "seven." Ninth-graders should have known them, but Hal is years behind in vocabulary and comprehension.

Learning to read has long been a crucible for Hal, who entered third grade comprehending like a late first-grader. His reading test scores last fall, when he entered ninth grade, were on a third-grade level.

Ask a handful of his teachers why he was promoted year after year, and they say they did their best. "Maybe," said his third-grade teacher, Margie L. Brown, "there's nothing you can pinpoint as the reason. . . . He just fell through the cracks."

But the system's cracks are deep and wide. Tens of thousands of children trek through the D.C. school system without ever mastering reading and comprehension skills. Standardized test scores, which show that 70 percent of 11th-graders test below grade level, are among the worst of any U.S. city.

Hal may have been rescued; he is in a special reading program operated by Sylvan Learning Systems Inc. at his school, the Patricia Roberts Harris Education Center in Southeast Washington. But other students are trapped in a cycle in which they fall behind early and never catch up.

Breaking that cycle and reestablishing academic integrity in a system where at least 40 percent of students drop out or leave is a preeminent task facing the school system's new managers.

"It is absolutely essential," said D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), the new chairman of the council's Education Committee. "There is a real correlation between the kids who can't read and then the resulting problems in truancy and dropout rates, gang activity and eventually even Lorton [Correctional Complex]. Eighty percent of the people in Lorton are illiterate."

The new D.C. school chief executive and superintendent, Julius W. Becton Jr., has said he ultimately will be judged on whether he can transform classrooms.

"It's intolerable to have a school system perceived to be on a Third World standard," Becton said. But he acknowledged that it will be the next century before classroom changes are significant enough to raise test scores.

Hal Coates, 14, is tutored in a special private program at his school. (Post photo by Tyler Mallory)
Interviews with Hal, his mother and his teachers as far back as elementary school, as well as with dozens of other students and educators, reveal how difficult a challenge lies ahead.

Indeed, many problems are beyond the reach of educators. The breakdown of families plays a role, as do violence and drug use. Breakfasts of potato chips and lunches of candy bars have weakened young minds and bodies. In some neighborhoods, academic success is shunned.

But the D.C. school system has contributed to its own failures, many educators in the system concede. "You have to rate it on the outcome," said James R. Daugherty, head of personnel at D.C. schools for three years until he was fired in November by then-Superintendent Franklin L. Smith, "and the outcome is not to the standard we want."

A Problem Begins Early

Ask Hal how he fell so far behind, and he says he didn't, that his teachers are wrong. "I just didn't feel good that day I took the test" last fall, he said.

Ask his mother what happened, and she says she doesn't exactly know. "I always thought he did okay," Inga Coates said.

Hal's reading problems began early, according to Brown, his third-grade teacher at Anacostia's Wilkinson Elementary School, which has classes up to the third grade.

When Hal arrived in Brown's class, he was not attentive, hung out with troublemakers and read on the level of a late first-grader, Brown recalled. Hal doesn't like to talk about it now, but Brown said he knew he didn't read well and sat in the back of class quietly to avoid being called on -- and then laughed at.

Third grade is a pivotal year for a child's development, educators say, when youngsters make a big leap toward operating independently.

Hal's classroom at Wilkinson was in a vast open area that holds about a dozen classrooms separated by cardboard dividers. The school is one of more than three dozen in the city built several decades ago as an experiment that many educators now say was a mistake, in part because of noise.

Recognizing that Hal needed help concentrating on his studies, Brown said, she sought out Hal's mother.

Coates quickly injected herself into Hal's education, reading to him and making sure he did his homework, she said.

Coates, who dropped out of Anacostia Senior High School more than 15 years ago, is now, at 32, working on her general equivalency diploma, or GED.

With it, she hopes to get a job and raise her income beyond the government assistance she receives to help support Hal and his older sister. Like 60 percent of the students in D.C. public schools, they're eligible for free lunches, considered an indicator of poverty.

Brown said she worked with Hal by stressing phonics, employing reading resource teachers and persuading him to make different friends. By the end of third grade, she said, Hal was reading on the level of someone just entering that grade. But instead of keeping him in the class for another year, Brown promoted him.

"When I feel that child has done the best they can, keeping them back is more of a negative motive," she said. "They will be a discipline problem," and "it makes them feel they haven't done [accomplished] anything."

Promoting children who have not succeeded in their current grade has been a longtime practice in D.C. and other public schools.

"With a lot of students, if they are not a serious problem, you give them the benefit of the doubt and you give them a D so they can go on," said Otis Reynolds, Hal's eighth-grade English teacher.

D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous heads the Education Committee.
(Post photo by Reginald A. Pearman Jr.)
The D.C. Board of Education passed a resolution in the late 1980s barring "social promotion," but several teachers said the practice is still alive informally. It is formally in place in at least 50 schools that have a "continuous progress" program for grades 1 through 3.

Under the program, students are promoted -- no matter how they have progressed -- and teachers must gear studies to the level at which they find the youngsters. Some teachers complain that the practice increases their workload impossibly; others say it is a smart approach because children develop skills at different stages and ultimately catch up.

Brown said that when she recalls Hal's time in elementary school, she believes he should have repeated first grade. But that is no longer an option at her school, which now has the continuous progress track.

That approach is one of many experiments D.C. schools tried in recent years to raise test scores. The experiments include emphasizing self-esteem, in which teachers do not correct grammatical and other mistakes to encourage writing; thematic learning, in which instruction is related to students' everyday lives; and whole-language learning, which diminishes phonics and concentrates on literature.

Test scores during this decade have worsened.

Since 1991, there has been a net decline in reading skills as measured on scores on the standardized Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, given each spring to students in third and sixth and ninth through 11th grades.

What makes the plunge even more alarming is that many teachers -- hoping to raise test scores -- give students an advance look at the test before the official testing day, according to Dale Kenney, a teacher in the D.C. public schools for 28 years until she retired last year, and to several other teachers and school officials, who asked not to be identified.

Another, more rigorous standardized test, the National Assessment of Education Progress, given every two years to students in different grades, reveals similar results. The D.C. average was lower than that of any school system across the nation.

The consequences of slowed early learning follow students, showing up with them at the University of the District of Columbia and in the military, for example. In the late 1970s at UDC, it took one year of remediation on average to bring D.C. public school students up to speed; today, the average is about two years, according to sources at UDC and in the city government. Likewise, a majority of D.C. public school graduates who took the U.S. Armed Forces Qualification Test -- a vocational aptitude exam -- got a failing grade in 1994, the most recent results available.

"It's so much worse than people think or could even begin to imagine," said Dennis Goodman, a former substitute teacher who directs a tutoring program in D.C. schools.

D.C. School Facts

  • From 1991 to 1996, reading scores for the standardized Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS) declined by 13.5 percent in grade six and remained below national norms in grades eight and 11.
  • 65 percent of all the children tested systemwide in 1996 scored below their grade levels for reading in the CTBS.
  • 72 percent of fourth-graders in D.C. schools tested below "basic proficiency" on the National Assessment of Education Progress in 1994, a standardized test given to students in different grades every two years. The D.C. average for the latest reported scores was lower than that of any school system across the country.
  • 85 percent of D.C. public school graduates who enter the University of the District of Columbia need remedial education before beginning their course work toward degrees.
  • 56 percent of D.C. public school graduates who took the U.S. Armed Forces Qualification Test -- a vocational aptitude exam -- in 1994 to join the military scored below 50 percent, a failing grade. Results are the most recent provided by military officials.
  • A D.C. financial control board survey found that 12 percent of classrooms did not have textbooks when school began this year and that 20 percent did not have adequate instructional supplies.
  • 55 percent of all high school students in Washington who took the Scholastic Aptitude Test in 1996 attended public schools, while, nationally, 83 percent of test-takers attended public high schools.

    SOURCES: D.C. public schools, University of the District of Columbia officials, U.S. military officials, D.C. financial control board and the College Board

  • Abundance of Obstacles

    Though Brown said Hal was not reading on grade level when he entered fourth grade, his teacher for that year, Noreta Gwynn, said she believed that he was.

    Hal had moved to Moten Elementary School (which has grades 4 through 6) in Southeast Washington, near where he lives with his mother. It is a tough neighborhood, his mother said, and she worries about whether the violence will catch up to her boy.

    Inside the schools, violence has caught up to teachers. In the District, teachers are subjected to levels of violence at twice the national average, according to a 1995 report by the quasi-governmental National Education Goals Panel.

    Gwynn remembers Hal as "a sweet child" who gave her no trouble and made average grades. Academically, he was on target, she said, and she did nothing out of the ordinary to help him improve his reading. Gwynn also recalled how supportive his mother was.

    Not every student is as lucky in that regard. With nearly 60 percent of District families headed by a single parent, according to statistics from the nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation, it is becoming more typical for parents to be too busy working -- or simply uninterested -- to be involved in schoolwork, numerous teachers said.

    Atop that problem, at more than a dozen elementary schools there no longer is a trained librarian or a library. At middle and high schools, they are required for accreditation, but some elementary school principals decided they cannot afford them.

    That happened this year at Adams Elementary School in Northwest Washington, where the librarian lost her job and the library was closed. "The library was just starved," said Kathleen Wills, an Adams activist. "We had something like 200 books in it, and they were so beat up, you could open the books and see smashed-up roaches in them." The school opened a family literacy center for adult education instead.

    Beyond a lack of resources, there are growing concerns that some District teachers do not perform at a basic level, according to former personnel director Daugherty and others. Although many teachers perform miracles every day, others have either insufficient training or motivation.

    That is why school officials have begun a program at 23 schools to retrain teachers in more effective and modern instructional methods, primarily for reading, and then monitor them. "They don't like it, but they are doing it," said a high-ranking school official. Hal's current school is one of those involved in the program.

    A fall survey by the D.C. financial control board of nearly 300 classes found that 32 percent of teachers do not have the certification the D.C. system demands they have within a year of their hiring. Though certification does not guarantee that a teacher is more effective, Washington Teachers' Union President Barbara Bullock said that in some cases in the District, it is a valid measure.

    "We have teachers not certified to teach math, social studies and English, but they are. It's awful," she said, accusing school officials of laying off experienced, certified teachers last year to hire less expensive, untrained teachers.

    Daugherty denied there was an effort to force out certified teachers. But he acknowledged that the system often takes uncertified ones.

    "Why do we hire those people?" he asked. "Because we can't get fully certified people. . . . I mean, when they read in the papers every day that the system is failing, who wants to go to a failing system?"

    Yet most teachers receive high ratings from their superiors. The last scores made public, in 1992, show that seven of 4,516 teachers were marked unsatisfactory. The rest were rated satisfactory, very good or outstanding. Several principals said nothing has changed since then. A key reason, they said, is the time-consuming process required under the teachers union contract before a principal can deliver an unsatisfactory rating.

    Bullock said she is not a fan of the complicated evaluation but wants fairness. "A lot of these evaluations are a lot of window dressing for principals to use at their own discretion," she said.

    Daugherty said that of the estimated 5,200 teachers in the system for the last few years, approximately 400 must be replaced each year because of retirements and other reasons. Principals sometimes must accept as replacements teachers already in the system who may have lost their positions at other schools.

    Sometimes, though, recruiting from the outside can be done. For example, Patricia McCrimmon, principal at Neval Thomas Elementary School in Northeast Washington, said she found a few teachers this year "through the grace of God." One, she said, was a friend of a friend's daughter.

    Ask Chavous about teachers, and he talks about principals. "A school is only as good as its principals," he said, adding that he wants to improve the city's principal corps by instituting a training program.

    When Daugherty entered the system in 1993, he said, there were 35 acting principals, meaning they were in those positions without any formal selection process. Becton's new assistants are reviewing the status of acting principals.

    Going Through the Grades

    Donna West was Hal's sixth-grade teacher, and she said he was "a very good student," though better at math than reading. "I had to push him a bit" to improve his reading, but she said she thought he was on grade level.

    West said she never thought about retaining Hal -- and in fact, she said, has not held back any student for several years.

    When Hal was in her class, she said, sixth-graders were divided into two reading groups, and he was at the top of the lower group. His biggest problem -- like most students who have trouble reading -- was comprehension.

    Hal moved to seventh grade at Douglass Junior High School in Anacostia, where his English teacher, Winfred Lynch, said he doesn't remember him. "I've had so many kids."

    Sylvan instructor Agnes Robinson illustrates a point. (Post photo- Dayna Smith)
    During this decade, teachers had been responsible for a steady number of children. But in the current school year, the number went up an average of two students in each elementary and junior high class, to 27, and up four students in senior high classrooms, to 29.

    "Quite a few of my seventh-graders are behind," said Lynch, adding that he tries to get them to read as much as they can. "But you can't bring them up to seventh-grade level in one year."

    Lynch tests incoming students by, among other things, showing them a paragraph with incomplete sentences on the same page as a list of the omitted words. The challenge is to insert the words properly. Some students can't do it, and some write so badly "you can barely understand" them, Lynch said. Infrequently, Lynch said, he will force a student to repeat the grade. Hal was not one.

    When Hal left Lynch's class, he went to Patricia Roberts Harris for eighth grade last year, and that is when his mother said she noticed his grades dropping. The decline was so steep that after making the football team, he was kicked off.

    "I don't think his teachers were helping him improve," his mother said. "Last year, he just skated through." Now, she wishes he had been held back last year -- and in years past.

    Coates said she considered calling an organization such as Big Brothers to find a mentor for him, but she did not. "I think he has low self-esteem," she said. "He really tries hard to do his best, but sometimes he won't ask a lot of questions. I'm working on him to speak up a lot. The teachers can't read his mind."

    Otis Reynolds, Hal's eighth-grade English teacher, said he could not recall what Hal's reading level was then, but he was sure it was lower than it should have been. What he remembers most about Hal, he said, was that he was an average student who was not disruptive. Reynolds said it did not occur to him to hold Hal back. Hal said he did all right in eighth grade, earning a C in history, a D-plus in math and a C in English.

    Making Progress

    When Hal reached ninth grade in the fall, his counselor and teachers realized he was behind in reading. High school teachers say it is extremely difficult for them to teach basic reading because they haven't been trained in those fundamental skills.

    To help Hall progress, he was placed in the Sylvan Reading Program, introduced into the District in 1994 by Smith, the former D.C. school superintendent.

    The program is now at four middle schools, four high schools and an elementary school, helping 1,500 students at a cost of $2 million a year for the next two years. Sylvan officials guarantee that they will raise test scores by two percentile points after 64 hours of instruction or give free added help to a child. At Patricia Roberts Harris, 150 of the school's 1,000 students attend -- with hundreds more eligible based on overall academic performance and low reading scores, Sylvan officials said.

    The program operated by the private company groups three or four children with one teacher for several hours a week and has frequent tests for comprehension, story analysis, vocabulary and other skills.

    Kevin Green, education director for the Sylvan Reading Program at Patricia Roberts Harris Education Center, works with a student. (Post photo by Tyler Mallory)
    When students make errors, they are immediately challenged to fix them, said Kevin Green, who worked as registrar for a D.C. public high school before leaving the public system and becoming education director at Harris's Sylvan program. Students who perform well are given tokens, which they can use to buy items at a store in the classroom. They get no homework -- "We give enough work here," teacher Derrick Eaglin said.

    When Hal entered the Sylvan class, he took the California Achievement Test and scored on a third-grade level. "Some things I knew, some things I forgot," Hal said.

    Working one day with Green, Hal said he felt he was learning. He said he is doing better in school this year, too, earning B's and a couple of C's, and he got back on the football team.

    Hal comes to class regularly, although, he said, "sometimes you are tired and don't feel like coming. . . . Growing up is a little bit hard sometimes."

    But Green said Hal is trying to learn -- perhaps to go to college one day, Hal said. His teachers said they believe he can continue to progress if he keeps coming to class.

    Hal proved that one day, as he divided words into syllables. After making errors on an exercise about two-syllable words, he studied them and tried again. This time, he properly divided "seven" and "before," along with eight other words.

    As Green handed back his test with a "100 percent" on it, the taciturn Hal smiled, ever so slightly.

    At 14, Hal now reads at a fifth-grade level.

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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