Midcourse correction needed

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It remains to be seen how successful Chicago’s transition centers will be in boosting the high school graduation rate for the students who attend them. Although the program was launched two years ago, the School Board only now is beginning to track the participants. The transition center concept is a good one. Catalyst Associate Editor Elizabeth Duffrin heard that repeatedly as she visited all nine centers. Given the large size and still struggling state of most Chicago high schools, older 8th-graders with severe reading problems likely are better off going first to a small school where their needs are the center of attention. For that matter, low-achieving 8th-graders who are “young” enough, under current policy, to be retained in elementary school for another year probably would benefit more by going to a transition center. That would give them an introduction to high school and a sense of progress to keep them going.

As a number of transition teachers also say, Chicago’s transition centers have yet to live up to the ideal. They cite two problems. One is the unrelenting focus on multiple-choice, standardized tests, which drives instruction toward endless practice on test-like questions and tells students that nothing else matters. America is a test-crazed society, so schools do need to teach kids how to tackle standardized tests. But test practice isn’t going to equip students to handle high school level assignments.

The other problem teachers cite is a board mandate to teach at the 8th-grade level. The intent, to set high expectations, is laudable. But the practice has left many students in the dark. One teacher told Duffrin, “I know a kid who’s at the 3rd-grade level and has been sitting there with an 8th-grade textbook for two years and can’t pass. He’s not the only one.” The Boys Town Reading Center in Nebraska, which serves troubled youth, offers a compelling alternative that is grounded in identifying and meeting the specific needs of individual children. The center puts its 8th-graders with exceptionally low reading ability into a three-semester sequence of courses stressing phonics, fluency and vocabulary. In Chicago, such a sequence could begin in the summer Bridge Program and continue during one of the two reading classes that transition students have each day. The other class could be used to make reading interesting and meaningful. Teachers and administrators with transition experience may have suggestions. In any case, somewhere along the line, schools need to identify, child by child, where reading breaks down.

The School Reform Board and administration deserve enormous credit for taking low achievers seriously, which means spending serious money on them. Few, if any, new programs get it right from the start. As the board has made clear to schools, though, it’s results, not good intentions, that count. For the transition center program, results can be legitimately measured only by students’ success in high school, not by their exit scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills.

ABOUT US Carolyn Nordstrom, executive director of Chicago United, has been elected to the Catalyst Editorial Board. Also, our What Matters Most series, which examined the essential elements of elementary school improvement, has won another award. It received an honorable mention in the 1998 Benjamin Fine Awards for Outstanding Education Reporting, a national contest sponsored by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.