The Manhattan Project

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Laura Koster kicks off the holiday season in her fourth grade class with a lesson on money. “What standard are we using today?” she asks her 30 students, all of them dressed in interpretations of Community Elementary School 35’s navy-blue uniforms. The morning’s exercise at the school, a few blocks east of Yankee Stadium, focuses on how to add and subtract coins to pay for gifts. But it’s about more than that, too. For these fourth graders, another occasion is fast approaching-their standardized state tests. English Language Arts is first, on January 31, followed by math in June.

“Me,” answers a girl with her hand raised, demonstrating her mastery of one of the lesson numbers outlined in a handbook on Koster’s shelf. The New Standards offers detailed explanations of the kind and quality of work a teacher should require of students, and they reflect the material that will be on the test. They will also decide whether Koster’s class, and 78,280 other fourth graders around the city, will move into the fifth grade in the fall.

Koster, who has taught in Bronx Community School District 9 for seven years, posts the standards on the classroom walls exactly as they are written in her city-issued handbook. “Read aloud fluently,” reads one. “Divide fractions,” exhorts another. Next to them are posted the unit numbers that correspond with them, and Koster asks her students to memorize all of the standards and their unit codes.

Koster isn’t the only teacher at C.E.S. 35 who has realigned her teaching with the new standards. Across the hall, fourth grade teacher Fran Guber has labeled construction paper turkeys and “What I am thankful for” statements hanging outside her classroom “ELA standards E2c and E4a,b.” That means Guber’s students have learned how to write a narrative, understand basic grammar and analyze and revise their work. “Students should know what is expected of them,” says Fran Lawlor, who coordinates District 9’s teacher training and curriculum in literacy. The district expects all teachers in District 9 to post standards for math and English wherever they can. “It’s hard to hold someone accountable for something they don’t understand,” says Lawlor.

For the three mornings following their math lesson, Koster’s students, along with the rest of the district’s fourth graders, will pore over a simulated reading and writing test in preparation for the English Language Arts test on January 31. It’s the second time C.E.S. 35’s kids have seen it. Principal Hilda Gutierrez and her staff are taking extra care to assure there are no surprises when the students sit down to take the exam, which will ask them to read and listen to fiction and non-fiction passages, write short essays on what they have heard and answer questions on what they’ve read. “It’s important so that when they get to that time, they’ll recognize it,” says Nathy Nixon, the school’s math staff developer, who shows other instructors how to teach the subject.

District 9’s obsession with the tests may seem unusually fierce, but it’s characteristic of the city’s 32 school districts these days. Starting last year, New York City began to use the scores on standardized tests to decide whether students in third through eighth grades will move up. The test scores are also examined as part of principals’ annual reviews, and determine whether a poorly performing school is placed on the state’s probation list. Last summer, the Board of Education voted to shut down 14 schools for long records of low scores.

The stakes are higher than ever. Yet when it comes to figuring out how to make the grade, schools and districts have been left to their own devices. Elsewhere in the Bronx, District 10 pays for low-scoring students to get professional test coaching specifically tailored to the city exams. In a $29 million, five-year initiative in Brooklyn districts 19 and 23, a private sponsor, the New York City Partnership, is giving staff cash bonuses at schools that improve performance-teachers get $2,000, principals $15,000, and district superintendents up to twice that. And in Manhattan’s District 2, whose students score higher on the tests than those in all but one other district in the city, administrators insist that the way to beat the tests is to provide creative instruction structured around a detailed curriculum-in other words, the exact opposite of the test drills the vast majority ofschools are relying on.

Yet with little guidance from the city or state on how to teach to the New Standards, the race to score well on the high-stakes tests is taking almost as many shapes as there are Pokémon characters. Many districts, worry teachers and parents, are resorting to hit-or-miss approaches. “We’re seeing our teachers working very hard without a clear understanding of what they’re supposed to be doing,” says Joseph Colletti, who taught special education for 10 years before going to the city teachers union. There, he’s developing a core curriculum to help teachers make sense of the standards.

District 9, which has a history of poorly performing schools and administrative corruption, has a long way to go to meet the city’s performance expectations. Last year, only 30 percent of fourth graders in this district met the new standards; at C.E.S. 35 alone, 13 of 152 fourth graders scored in the lowest quartile of the state test last year, sending them to summer school. And in December, teachers at five of the district’s elementary schools were accused of doctoring test answer sheets in an attempt to boost scores.

Officially, District 9 merely orders teachers to hold two hours of literacy and one hour of math a day, and to give fourth graders two practice tests throughout the year. But Koster will sprinkle her daily lessons with test vocabulary until the school year is over. “A penny is a unit,” she explains in her money lesson. “Remember, on the math test they’re going to call it ‘units.'”

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Four miles away in mid-Manhattan, students in District 2 find themselves in a different world. Recently, a class of second graders toured neighborhood restaurants to study menus and then returned to the classroom to create their own, getting a lesson in reading, writing and math all at the same time. Throughout the district, kids are expected to read a variety of fiction and non-fiction-25 books a year in fourth grade, including Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume and C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In addition to writing stories, they draft descriptive essays about procedures, such as how to hook up a VCR.

They are not asked to memorize curriculum codes, or even the material they’re going to be tested on. And they certainly don’t take practice tests.

District administrators claim that’s precisely why District 2 has the second-highest test scores in the city: Last year, 80 percent of its fourth graders scored above standard in reading, and 76 percent above standard in math. “Our approach is completely aligned with what the assessment is looking to measure,” says school board President Karen Feuer. That “balanced literacy” approach to teaching kids to read and write-using repetitive lessons of sounding out letters and words, reading a variety of books, and writing stories and essays-is exactly what the standards and the tests are geared for.

It’s not entirely accidental that Feuer’s district is so far along: One author of the New Standards has been helping to shape the curriculum there as a literacy consultant. District 2 also has a teacher training program that’s been around for several years. Last year, the district invested $11.2 million-an unusually high 6 percent of its budget-in training, immersing teachers in balanced literacy.

Now a team of education scholars and reform advocates is trying to see whether District 2 has indeed come up with what every public educator in New York has been searching for: the secret to beating the standardized tests that have come to decide whether students, their teachers and those teachers’ bosses, will flourish or flounder.

“There are lots of different ways for schools and districts to meet the New Standards,” says Dr. Richard Elmore, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and a lead researcher in a series of District 2 studies commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education. Since 1994, Elmore has been deploying a small army of observers in the classrooms, interviewing teachers, analyzing data and test score patterns, and rating the quality of teacher performance and training.

Elmore stresses, however, that schools that teach directly to the test are not guaranteeing success. “They’re trying to out-guess the test, teaching kids test items,” he says. “That will get you small short-term gains, but it doesn’t hold up in the long-term, especially with a challenging test like the fourth-grade test.”

What makes District 2 work, Elmore believes his research will prove, is its focus on a clearly defined curriculum, constant teacher training geared to it, and a stable district leadership that keeps those priorities straight. Too often, that’s precisely what other districts are lacking, says Elmore. With weak guidance from both the state and the city, he says, principals and teachers frequently don’t know what to do to help kids reach the standards.

Other observers of the city’s elementary schools agree with his assessment. “In low-achieving schools, the planning is not very good” and is hindered by high teacher turnover, says Noreen Connell, executive director of the Educational Priorities Panel, a nonprofit school policy think tank. Last year, her organization published a study exploring how high-achieving schools succeed in low-income communities. Strong leadership and an alignment of curriculum, she says, are critical.

Without those elements in place, the pressure falls on teachers, Elmore points out, with results that shouldn’t be too surprising. “Teachers don’t cheat because they are inherently dishonest,” he says. “They cheat because they’re in a bind.”

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The authors of both the standards and the tests claim they do not advocate any specific approach to preparing for them. “We believe in accountability and measuring results,” says Joseph Garcia, a spokesman for the National Center on Education and the Economy, which created the New Standards in partnership with the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh. “If the tests are standards based and the standards are high, teaching to the test in and of itself is not evil,” says Garcia. “There are some schools that are going to be better prepared to take this on immediately, and others that are going to need time to work on that.”

New York was one of 26 states that collaborated on developing the standards. But although the New Standards-trademarked by NCEE-were designed to be tailored to each school district’s needs, and hundreds of school systems nationwide have made use of them, New York City’s is still the only system to have adopted the standards outright.

NCEE first got into the standards business as a national leader in “school-to-work,” an approach to education that strives to bridge the needs of students and the businesses that need to hire them. The idea was to develop skills that will get students high-paying and challenging jobs by having them reach standardized levels of proficiency from kindergarten on up. Both an anti-poverty effort for young people and an initiative to improve U.S. competitiveness in the global economy, school-to-work became an early favorite of the Clinton administration. It has since fallen out of favor among educators, particularly for its unrealistic expectation that schools and businesses would team up.

In a five-year process beginning in 1991, the standards team aimed to establish a clear set of academic expectations by asking, “How good is good enough?” Based on those standards, New York City’s Board of Education collected and compared school work from local students, determined which assignments demonstrated the widest range of skills, and then declared those to be samples of standard work. In 1996, the New York State Department of Education struck a $5.8 million contract with CTB-McGraw Hill, one of the nation’s largest publishers of standardized achievement tests, to design exams for reading and math based on the New Standards.

With the District 2 study, Elmore hopes to narrow in on why students there continue to test so well on the New Standards. One reason, inescapably, is that the district serves some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city. There are certainly poorly performing schools there-at the worst, P.S. 33 on West 28th Street, just 26 percent of fourth-graders passed the exams last year, compared with 96 percent at the Upper East Side’s P.S. 6. Ninety-nine percent of the students at P.S. 33 are poor enough to qualify for free school lunches. Still, the proportion of children in poverty who fail the standardized tests in the district is much lower than it is almost anywhere else in the country, says Dr. Lauren Resnick of the University of Pittsburgh, who is also co-director of the New Standards Project and is working with Elmore on the District 2 study.

Then again, these schools have had a significant head start. Ten years ago, under the leadership of former Schools Chancellor Anthony Alvarado, District 2 shifted the focus of its literacy instruction from storybooks with repetitive language for beginning readers to a balanced-literacy curriculum. Teachers are also pushed to continually identify students’ weaknesses, to use a clearly defined and consistent approach to teaching, and then to closely analyze how well children are learning the material, adjusting the curriculum accordingly all the while. Model classrooms serve as examples for teachers, as do coaches who have been teaching for years.

Resnick is quite possibly District 2’s number-one fan, calling its efforts to improve teaching and learning nothing short of “brilliant.” Resnick has also played no small part in that development, having worked with District 2 for several years on strengthening its literacy efforts.

And her stakes go deeper than that. As one of the architects of the city’s education initiative, she has a big chance with the success of District 2 to prove that the standards can work. Collaborating on the study with Elmore, Resnick wants to find out the secrets of District 2’s success, so that NCEE can encourage schools elsewhere to replicate what it does right. Giving more resources to poorer schools, she says, is key to bridging the performance gap. “That will make it much more attractive for the good teachers to teach there,” she says.

But though Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew brought in the New Standards with fanfare in 1998, the Board of Education has since remained quiet on how to bring teaching in line with them. Elmore has already circulated portions of his research on District 2 to districts around the city and the country, proposing that other districts adopt the best of what it does. But regrettably, he says, “I don’t see much evidence that the Board of Education is interested.” As long as there isn’t support and guidance from the top, he continues, “I think there’s a crisis.”

As hard as it has anywhere else in the city, standards fever has hit District 10 in the Bronx, which covers both upscale Riverdale and working-class Kingsbridge and Marble Hill. This year it is one of six New York City districts working with Resnick and District 2 to boost training for teachers in reading and writing.

Laura Kotch, the district’s director of educational initiatives for elementary schools, says she’s thankful her superintendent overhauled literacy teaching five years ago, which has meant that District 10’s reading and writing instruction have been in line with the New Standards from day one. Indeed, 66 percent of District 10 fourth graders scored above standard on the reading exam last January. In math, however, the district is in serious trouble, with only 35 percent of fourth graders scoring above standard. Eighth graders did far worse-just 13 percent passed.

So last year, District 10 took a desperate measure: It hired Stanley Kaplan, the test coaching company, to tutor about 300 eighth graders who did not meet the standards in math or reading, at about $200 a head. Deeming the program successful-every student scored well enough to move on to high school-the district has since invested another $15,000 for the company to provide materials and train 200 of its teachers and administrators in test-taking strategies. “At this point, we’re just going to make sure our kids are able to score well,” says Kotch. “Student achievement has to be our number one priority.”

Resnick says she sees nothing wrong with test-boosting measures like the Kaplan coaching as an interim measure. “It’s an obvious idea,” she says. It will take time, she believes, for the district’s teaching to catch up with the New Standards.

Kaplan is taking full advantage of the New Standards market. Inspired by numerous calls from concerned parents looking for help for their fourth graders, in November the company released its first study guide for elementary school students. The Parent’s Guide to the New York State 4th Grade Tests lays out test-taking skills and strategies, from pacing oneself to guessing answers. A similar book for eighth graders is expected out in the spring. And next fall Princeton Review plans to sell in-school and retail versions of practice tests designed for the New York State test. Now testing the materials in a pilot program in Texas, where Governor George W. Bush has made standardized testing a virtual state religion, the company plans this spring to propose them for use at the New York City Board of Ed.

While unsure if commercial test prep is the long-term answer to prevailing on the tests, Kotch agrees with Resnick that whatever the ultimate solution, “it’s going to take us time.” Meanwhile, her office has mandated that every fourth grader take three practice tests before the official state exam is given.

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Too often when Susan Rust inherits a class of third graders at Bronx P.S. 109, she says, they arrive unprepared for the lesson plans she’s expected to follow. Rust reports that the second-grade math textbooks her school has been using for years never get to crucial material students need to know before they can be ready for the third grade standards.

The fourth grade teachers at her District 9 school run into the same problems, because the amount of teaching needed to meet the standards is so intensive that the third-grade teachers are unable to get through more than half of them by year’s end. And with a weighty focus on literacy and math, Rust does not have much time for science and social studies lessons. By the time she gets through the required morning literacy lesson, and just gets started on the math, it’s time for lunch, she says. Getting the kids settled back into their seats after an hour in the cafeteria takes 15 minutes or so, and they then delve into finishing up and reviewing the morning’s math problems.

But for fear of falling behind, the directive from the district is to push on. “A lot of it is time management, and it’s not easy,” says Lawlor, Rust’s district literacy director. Declaring her faith in the New Standards, Lawlor says that “we’re simply following a standard and good instructional practice with a strong basis in research.”

In Rust’s experience, though, educational standards alone can’t do the job for students who live in poverty. She’s particularly concerned for children who do not have books at home, whose parents are often not around and who are often left to take care of younger siblings. “They’re fighting an uphill battle,” she says. “There’s no parent involvement.” As for the standards themselves, she doesn’t believe that the two days of training she and other District 9 teachers received were enough to help them implement the guidelines effectively.

Teachers have become the last line of defense in the school testing crisis, and the pressure on them is intense. With its members’ jobs and morale both vulnerable, the city’s teachers union is investing $2 million to design a core curriculum for every school in the city. While the union cannot mandate the curriculum, it will act as a guide, outlining lesson plans and core concepts.

“As teachers, we must know not only where we’re going, but how we’re going to get there,” Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, told her union’s conference last year. She lamented the passing of the city’s core curriculum, gone in the days after the city’s school system was decentralized in the 1970s. With the shift in power and the creation of school boards 30 years ago, the responsibility of creating curriculum fell to the local boards and superintendents. The shift in responsibility to the local level intensified 10 years ago when the state and then the city eliminated curriculum development departments.

Districts have to take their own initiative. Last summer, Lawlor worked with teachers and administrators in District 9 to develop a guide for instruction in writing. As for professional development, the district runs some programs, but schools are expected to do a lot on their own. Lawlor knows from her own experience, both in District 9 and developing a literacy program called Project Read for the Board of Ed, that districts too often lack administrators with experience in curriculum development. “Whether these changes are good depends on the district office,” says Lawlor. “Our district had seasoned people. But we’re a dying breed.”

Of course, lack of experienced leaders is just one of the many resources schools don’t have. The Board of Education has allocated $109 million to reduce class sizes this year as part of a two-year, $653 million package for meeting the New Standards; the rest is going to test-boosting measures like summer school and intervention for students who are at risk of failing the exams. But that money doesn’t begin to cover many schools’ basic needs.

“I hope with the media frenzy we can get new buildings,” says C.E.S. 35 Principal Gutierrez, quite earnestly. In her building built for 600 kids, she has 752. Some students attend class in converted closets, and 56 kindergardeners are bused daily to a neighboring school for lack of space.

“I don’t have any problems with high standards,” says Guttierez. “But class sizes, space, resources, new teachers…consider those things before you make standards the panacea.”

Jill Grossman is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer.