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April 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 7

Not Made for Defeat

"Children come first." This core value sustained a school's policy of inclusion and diversity in the face of state-mandated standards and assessments.

I'll call it the Betsy Miller School. Its 400 kindergarten through 5th grade students are an ethnically and linguistically diverse mix of white, African American, Asian American, and non-U.S.–born children. Its teachers consistently articulate a commitment to progressive reform, diversity, and inclusion. Instructional practices and administrative structures at the school support the belief that "diversity is enriching; inclusion is central."
Although federal and state regulations continue to support these commitments, the practices that are central to the school's inclusive culture are threatened by new "reforms": state standards and high-stakes standardized testing.
Using a pseudonym reflects the vulnerability that teachers at Betsy Miller feel in the face of these new requirements. Their request for anonymity is not a paranoid response, but rather a carefully considered decision based on recent events in their community. Recounting their responses to these events illustrates how skilled collaboration has enabled them to sustain and improve reforms that began at their school in 1983.
I first learned about the Betsy Miller School in 1993, when five of its teachers participated in a graduate course I offered. The journal of one teacher, Karen, revealed a passionate and insightful struggle to empower children. When she invited me to visit her 2nd grade class, I jumped at the opportunity.
The visits began in fall 1994 and continued for four years. In the dual roles of researcher and supervisor of student teachers, I visited other classrooms and talked with teachers, administrators, parents, and children. I discovered that Karen's classroom resembled other classrooms at the school in significant ways. Every teacher used constructivist practices and shared a progressive approach to instruction. Ethnic, racial, linguistic, and social diversity typified every classroom. Students classified as eligible for special education were also included in every class, and every room had more than one teacher.

The Evolution of a Bias-Free Zone

The coteaching arrangements and instructional practices had evolved in response to events that began 10 years earlier when a districtwide consolidation plan closed three elementary schools. One hundred African American children from a low-income and working-class neighborhood were then bused to Betsy Miller. An additional 100 children of international graduate students at the nearby university were also transferred there. Many of these children did not speak English. These 200 students merged with 200 white students from the middle-class, professional community who were already attending the school. Although the school district's expressed intent was to promote equity, the immediate impact on all the children was devastating. Everyone I spoke with who had been at the school from 1983 to1987 described those years as chaotic.
Many of the students bused to Betsy Miller in 1983 were eligible to receive instruction in English as a second language (ESL) or remedial help for reading or mathematics or were classified for special education. Students identified as having significant management needs were placed in self-contained special education classrooms. Others were placed in general education classrooms, but were pulled out to receive a variety of support services. As they passed through the halls, some of these students disrupted classrooms by playing loudly or fighting. Others never arrived at their destination. The majority of these students and those placed in special education classes were African American.
The fifth principal in six years arrived in 1987. In the following year, he eliminated pullout services and separate special education and ESL classrooms. He believed that these practices re-inforced racist stereotypes among children, teachers, and families and interfered with the development of supportive classroom communities. This decision was the needed catalyst for change.
The principal was not, however, solely responsible for the school's evolution. Rather, he recruited new teachers and supported those already at the school who shared his beliefs. They would shape the school. His openness to debate and his support for their assertiveness and instructional initiatives helped develop a shared commitment. By supporting teachers and providing staff development opportunities to empower teachers, the principal helped create new organizational structures and encouraged collaboration and instructional innovation.
In 1992, the school's staff and parents made a commitment to assure every child that Betsy Miller was a bias-free zone. This declaration was directed specifically at improving the educational performance of African American children. The staff agreed that the high dropout rate of these children reflected racism in the city's public schools.
Teachers at Betsy Miller participated in race relations workshops designed to help them examine their own racism. They also began investigating how cultural biases were embedded in instructional and assessment practices. They set out to counteract racism by implementing instructional methods that strengthened the identity, pride, and performance of African American children. The teachers' discussions led to an understanding of how standardized assessments provided limited opportunities for children to demonstrate their strengths, interests, and talents.

The Narrative Reporting System

As teachers developed holistic approaches to literacy development, they incorporated anecdotal and running records into the assessment of children's work. They used mathematics assessments that determined the level of students' conceptual knowledge and competency. Teachers held conferences with students and introduced mathematics journals, self-assessments, and peer evaluations. These approaches came together when the school initiated a pilot project on assessment that teachers designed to develop a bias-free zone. Teachers built the schoolwide project on their reconceptualization of teaching and learning.
The project began with several days of intensive staff development, facilitated by consultants from the Prospect Center in Bennington, Vermont, and built on the work of Pat Carini (1986). After these workshops, teachers recorded their observations of children's work and behavior, focusing on children's strengths and potential. Teachers then met in small study groups to present their observations, using the descriptive review process developed by Carini (1982). This process helped teachers examine how their own values and assumptions shaped their understanding of children.
The pilot project eventually led to a narrative assessment process for monitoring the progress of every child. The compatibility of this system with the Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for children classified for special education supported the inclusion of these children in general education classrooms.
Each child's unique development became the standard for establishing individual educational goals. At a face-to-face goal-setting meeting at the beginning of each year, teachers met with every child and his or her parent or caregiver. They collaboratively decided on goals by aligning the child's strengths, interests, and experiences with parental concerns and curricular objectives. The teacher then wrote a narrative summary that documented the agreed-on goals. Parents, teachers, and children met again at midyear to evaluate progress and, sometimes, to establish new goals. Another written report documenting each child's progress followed an end-of-year assessment conference. Classroom instruction was closely linked to this process.

Collaboration and Compromise

In 1996, a new district superintendent challenged the narrative assessment process. She directed every elementary school to use a uniform, skills-based, developmental checklist as the report card for all 1st and 2nd graders. The requirement reflected the shift of state and national educational reforms away from ensuring equity and toward measuring student performance. The superintendent believed that requiring students to demonstrate their progress toward a uniform set of external standards would improve academic achievement.
In 1996, composite scores on statewide standardized reading tests had placed Betsy Miller's students below expected levels on several subtests. In interpreting these results, the superintendent did not consider the disproportionate numbers of children from non-English-speaking and low-income families at the school and the smaller percentage of children classified for special education than at other elementary schools. Teachers at Betsy Miller rarely referred children for special education because their coteaching arrangements and individualized, learner-centered instructional practices supported student diversity within their classrooms. They were also sensitive to the overrepresentation of African American boys among special education students in this school district.
The relationship between scores on state tests and the number of students classified for special education was significant because the test scores of those special education children were not used to calculate a school's composite scores. By excluding the scores of special education students, a school could raise its composite score. Because Betsy Miller's philosophy of inclusion led to few students being officially classified as special education students, the scores of some children that another school might have excluded were averaged into Betsy Miller's composite score.
The superintendent saw the students' relatively poor performance on parts of the state tests as evidence that the narrative assessment process was inadequate. Using individual children's abilities as a reference point for establishing goals and determining progress might be appropriate for children classified for special education. However, she did not believe that this kind of individualized assessment was appropriate for typical children.
The dramatic response of Betsy Miller's staff and families was not surprising. Because the district report card was not directed at reporting children's strengths, interests, and goals and compared children in ways that ultimately identified some children as failing, the majority of teachers at Betsy Miller perceived its imposition, and the standardized approach to assessment that it represented, as a "violation of our culture." The initial response of some teachers was open resistance to, and defiance of, the superintendent's directive to use the report card for all 1st and 2nd grade students. A small group of parents, some of whom taught at the school, held public demonstrations and a sit-in at the district office. Although they appreciated parental support, other teachers realized that the superintendent could define direct opposition to her directive as an act of insubordination that might lead to dismissal or reassignment.
Teachers debated among themselves and with others to develop strategies and to critique the narrative reporting system at weekly staff meetings, the site-based decision-making council, and two town meetings open to the entire community. Their primary concern was maintaining the narrative assessment process and other practices that supported their belief in the value of inclusion and diversity. In spite of this commitment, they realized that the school's relative powerlessness within a bureaucratic system required strategically developed compromises that would accommodate the superintendent's demands.
By calling on the collaborative processes developed during their participation in the school's evolution, teachers were able to sustain practices that were central to supporting student diversity. Their shared commitment to combat racism and to serve all children in general education classrooms also supported their resolve to work with the school district to sustain the narrative assessment process.
Although some teachers and parents believed that imposing external performance standards was inconsistent with the school's values, others did not see this practice as a contradiction of basic beliefs, but rather as an improvement. These parents and teachers focused on the political and social realities facing the school and its children. Not acknowledging statewide standards could jeopardize the school and fail to prepare students to meet the expectations of the dominant culture (Delpit, 1986). That, they argued, would violate the core value of the school: Children come first.

Sustaining Fundamental Values

By using their knowledge of the sociopolitical nature of schooling and their skills at collaboration, staff members secured a three-year waiver from the superintendent—if they would modify the narrative assessment system. The superintendent required the parents, teachers, and administrators to work together to develop performance standards consistent with both state standards and the school's constructivist curriculum. Goal-setting meetings could continue, but teachers would have to align parent and student goals with these standards. To meet this requirement, the teachers had to compromise their belief that children's interests, parental concerns, and their own assessment of children's abilities, talents, and development should be the only criteria for assessing student performance, while sustaining a practice that supported their fundamental beliefs.
By 1998, composite scores on statewide reading tests placed students at Betsy Miller within the average range expected by the state. It is impossible to determine whether the improvement on test scores reflected adaptations made by teachers in response to pressure from the school district, instructional changes that were already evolving within the school, or major revisions in the tests themselves. For example, that year, the process and content of new state tests reflected the whole-language and writing-process approaches used at Betsy Miller.
Regardless of which combination of factors might account for student performance, the external validation provided by these statewide assessments supported the school's efforts to sustain the narrative reporting system and other practices central to its culture.

Sustaining Change

  • The goals established at the goal-setting conference became tied to state standards.
  • Teachers refined the written narrative reports sent to parents during the year.
These alterations had minimal impact on curriculum or instruction.
Currently, surveys are asking parents about their satisfaction with the process and asking teachers to examine its manageability and to suggest additional revisions. Teachers are developing a method for ensuring that the assessment process has a reliable continuum as children move from the developmental approach of the primary grades to the more academic focus of an intermediate curriculum.
Researchers have linked the failure to sustain progressive school reforms to the absence of a historical perspective among U.S. educators (Tyack & Cuban, 1995). Perhaps teachers at Betsy Miller were able to keep the narrative assessment process, a practice central to their school's culture, because they were aware of their own history.
The chaos at Betsy Miller in the1980s reflected the struggle to change a school culture to support and celebrate student diversity. Norms and traditions evolved over 10 years to support that new culture. They have, however, been difficult to sustain during the current historical period, when the focus of school reform has shifted from social justice to accountability.
Sustaining practices that keep children at the center of educational decisions will require teachers to develop an understanding of the political nature of school reform, the skills of effective negotiators, and the habit of critical reflection.

Carini, P. F. (1982). The school lives of seven children. Grand Forks, ND: North Dakota Study Group on Evaluation.

Carini, P. F. (1986). The Prospect Center documentary process: In progress. North Bennington, VT: Prospect Archive and Center for Educational Research.

Delpit, L. D. (1986). Skills and other dilemmas of a progressive black educator. Harvard Educational Review, 56(4), 379–385.

Tyack, D., & Cuban, L. (1995). Tinkering toward utopia: A century of public school reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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