Back to Basics?

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On Sept. 21, School Board President Gery Chico walked into a tripwire on the battlefield of education policy, setting off alarms in schools throughout the city. Some are still ringing.

During a taping of a public affairs radio program with three City Hall reporters—Bill Cameron of WMAQ-AM, Fran Spielman of the Sun-Times and John Kass of the Tribune—Chico talked mainly about plans that already had been made public: Alternative schools for disruptive students. Putting pressure on parents of chronic truants. Getting out of a desegregation consent decree requirement for racial balance on school faculties.

After the allotted 25 minutes had passed, however, Chico edged toward new territory, mentioning a “fundamental change” in direction. Spielman pressed him: “What kind of fundamental change are you talking about?” He demurred, saying he wasn’t ready to talk about it.

“Give us a hint,” she persisted.

And with everyone’s tape recorders still rolling, he gave more than a hint. There would be a new, “basic approach to education” and more standardized testing, he said. Both were needed because there had been “too much emphasis on going your own way, making the kid feel good about him or herself.” And he derided people “who don’t think tests are worth very much. They’d rather worry about the whole child. Can they sing? Can they dance?”

Summing up what she had heard, Spielman suggested: “So you’re basically saying, an end to all the baloney and back to the old 3Rs.”

“No baloney, no baloney,” Chico agreed, updating the 3Rs to include spelling, science, geography and history, as well as reading, writing and math.

The next day, both the Tribune and Sun-Times had “no baloney” headlines, the Trib’s on page 1.

“My staff was so upset,” recalls Madeleine Maraldi, principal of a West Side school that doesn’t test children until 3rd grade nor grade them until 4th. “We composed a letter in my office that morning.”

Maraldi, whose Washington Irving School is a standout among those devoted to “whole language” and experiential instruction, signed up to read the statement at the next School Board meeting, but time ran out before her turn came up.

Hearing an anti-arts bias in Chico’s remarks, Arnold Aprill, executive director of Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education, says his first response also was to write a letter. Substantive arts experiences contribute to cognitive learning, he says, adding that arts advocates are all for academic rigor.

Like many teachers, Linda Foley-Acevedo of Salazar Bilingual Center heard about Chico’s remarks “through the grapevine.” Acevedo says that she and her mother, a parochial school teacher, “had a lot of discussion. My mother totally agreed with what he said. My answer was, we never left the basics; it’s just that some of the children need more than the basics. We do have to nurture them. In my mother’s situation, she doesn’t. They get that from home. To criticize and say we are not teaching what we’re supposed to be teaching is unfair and not true.”

Basics get the bucks

Basic skills, traditional standardized testing and direct instruction—a pedagogical approach that typically involves scripted lessons and drills on discrete skills, such as letter sounds—were early themes in Chicago’s new school administration. Mayor Richard M. Daley, who was educated in Catholic schools, is known to favor them, and the School Board quickly began spending money on programs that use them.

The School Achievement Structure program of Barbara Sizemore, dean of the School of Education at DePaul University, got the first contract. By the time the board has finished lining up help for schools on its education “watch list,” she could be working in 30 schools, according to Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas. She’s now in 20; at current rates, the tab for 30 could top $2.5 million. (For more on SAS, see stories on Barbara Sizemore, costs and participants and Gregory Elementary.)

The Personalized Curriculum Institute of Malcolm X College, a direct instruction program that uses scripted lessons, got the second contract, $924,000 to work with watch-list schools and set up models for other schools to emulate.

When Larry Braskamp, dean of the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, discovered the board had begun treating colleges as vendors and paying for their services—a departure from past practice— he wrote Vallas, suggesting the board look at what others have to offer.

Previously under reform, universities, non-profit groups and even the Chicago Teachers Union had gone out and gotten their own money, principally from philanthropic foundations, to work with receptive schools. Over-whelmingly, that work has taken a very different pedagogical tack from the one favored by the new administration. For example, instead of doing skill drills, kindergartners and 1st-graders were encouraged to write stories, using drawings and “invented” spelling. Youngsters learned math by working with objects. And arts were integrated into academic areas. In all, children were to construct knowledge, with the guidance of a teacher, rather than receive it from the teacher.

School reform, with its emphasis on local control, had let these progressive curriculum reformers into schools, and Argie Johnson had let them into the central office. But now the mayor’s men seemed to be pushing them out. “The progressive education people thought they had a foot in the door, a way to make things happen,” observes Fred Hess, executive director of the Chicago Panel on School Policy. “They all think their ‘in’ is disappearing.”

Vallas cites practical reasons for embracing Sizemore’s SAS program. “Barbara has shown improvement wherever she’s gone, and Barbara takes some of the toughest schools,” he says. “She’s willing to take on what a lot of groups aren’t willing to take on, and that’s high schools.”

Vallas concedes he doesn’t know what to make of the other outside groups working with Chicago schools— a number can show test-score gains— and has asked board researchers to compile data on them.

More than most school-improvement programs, both Sizemore’s SAS and Malcolm X College’s Personalized Curriculum Institute also have political appeal.

“Everything they have to say resonates with the mayor’s political realities,” says one advocate, who asked not to be identified. “It’s simple. You get back to basics. You don’t have to get involved in all this complicated jazz about higher-order thinking skills. And how will you know you’re successful? Test scores. And you can do it in one year.”

An impassioned speaker, Sizemore herself adds to the appeal. “To her credit, she’s a very effective communicator,” notes John Ayers, president of the business group Leadership for Quality Education. “She makes the case for her approach very eloquently. Educators had better wake up that this hits a chord with the public and with business people.”

After hearing Sizemore present her program to the Austin community, Leola Spann, president of the Northwest Austin Council, de-scribed her as the “first breath of fresh air we’ve had around here. … She knows African-American children … and she understands some of the problems the school has.”

Asked later whether she was attracted by Sizemore’s sense of urgency and moral authority or by her approach to curriculum and instruction, Spann said it was the former. “I was really impressed with her concern that our children are behind as it is, and they really need to learn the basics of what education is all about,” said Spann.

Over the last month or so, though, the central administration has warmed somewhat to the progressives. For one, as Braskamp suggested, the board issued requests for proposals (RFPs) for the watch-list schools, as well as several other new initiatives.

“Do we think direct instruction works? Absolutely,” Vallas says. “But we don’t think it’s the only approach. We’re going to be supporting a lot of approaches.”

Also, Chico made clear that if a school is getting results, he doesn’t care what approach it takes. “If there are no results, then they need to evaluate the direction they’re going,” he says. Chico even has added the arts “to an extent” to his list of basics.

Further, after talking with a number of national experts, including Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, Vallas has found common ground with proponents of a new testing system that would go beyond basic skills.

How to teach

Speaking for the record, representatives of just about every point of view voice agreement on some fundamentals: Children need basic skills and analytical skills; there is no one right way to teach; different children respond to different approaches.

And both the direct instruction and progressive camps share a disdain for what goes on in most classrooms. According to teacher surveys conducted by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, the average Chicago teacher emphasizes facts over discourse, and relies heavily on worksheets, textbooks and short-answer questions.

“If I see a real problem with basic skills and learning in schools, it’s that teachers don’t spend enough time teaching,” says Barbara Bowman, president of the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development. “And by that, I don’t mean teachers telling children things. Rather, I mean setting up things for children to learn from.”

Teachers might assign an essay on “your summer vacation” but not help children learn how to write a good topic sentence and then check to see whether they actually learned how to do it. “The amount of wasted time in schools is absolutely horrendous,” says Bowman.

The two pedagogical camps also share an acute concern about expectations.

“Parents tend to accept the word of authorities,” says Joseph Layng, director of academic support services at Malcolm X. “When they’re told that their child appears to be a little slower than the others and that’s why they’re not reading, they don’t come back and say, ‘Well, maybe that’s true, but your job is to teach them to read anyhow.'”

Maraldi says this tendency to label children is why her school doesn’t administer standardized tests until 3rd grade. “Teachers will say, ‘You’re slow, and you’re fast.’ They talk to the parents. The parents verbalize it, and the children internalize it.”

“Children have spurts and plateaus and regressions,” she adds. “Some need more time to develop and grow.”

The two camps also agree on where they disagree. “A lot of people argue about what to do,” says Jerry Silbert of the Personalized Curriculum Institute. “It’s not what to do; it’s when to do it. Of course, we want kids to be inventive, creative and do the Socratic method, but there’s no evidence that’s the way you should start. In fact, by trying to start with some of those ways, you may never get there.”

In contrast, Bowman argues that basic skills have to be taught in the context of activities that are meaningful to children and engage their interest. “Little children are forming a framework to hold knowledge in,” she says. “Before you make [reading and math skills] automatic, you want to have constructed a framework of meaning for them.” Children are encouraged to write stories even before they can read or spell, for example, so that they learn what letters and words are used for.

But even the most ardent believers in progressive techniques concede that not all teachers, principals and schools may be up to the challenge.

“I’m on the Algebra Project board and work very hard for progressive instructional methods,” says Charles Payne, a professor of African-American studies at North-western University. “In terms of what gives you the biggest bang, if you can get kids engaged, if you can get a hook into them and make them take an active part in the learning process, that takes them farther than anything else I’ve seen. But I have a sense of how hard it is to make that stuff work.”

“If you’re a principal with a very inexperienced staff,” he says, “you don’t want to jump too quickly into whole language and other open approaches. And some principals don’t know anything about instruction, which is a real issue in this city.”

“The appeal of direct instruction is an appeal to rigor,” says Aprill of the Arts Partnerships. “People feel it is a protection from sloppy teaching. But I don’t think you protect children through scripted responses but rather through challenging interactions.”

But he, too, says that creating excellence and rigor require more time for teachers to think, talk with colleagues and plan. And even when that time has been made available, as it has at Washington Irving School, it takes time for the faculty to change. Maraldi says that 90 percent of Irving’s teachers now teach as though they were coaches instead of lecturers and drill masters, but that it took seven years to get to that point.

Diane Cooper, a mentor teacher at Von Humboldt School, was among the whole language pioneers in the city, and she argues passionately for the concept. “When I read ‘back to basics,’ I’m infuriated because it sounds like all we do is expose children to literature all day and read, read, read to them and not expect them to read back to us.”

But in the end, she says, “It all comes down to the commitment level of the teacher and what she believes in. If she believes children can do well, they will.”

Alex Poinsett contributed to this article.