Warm applause greets Barbara A. Sizemore as she moves to a Wendell Phillips High School podium. Speaking extemporaneously to 1400-plus educators at a day-long October conference, she asks urgently: “What can you and I do about eliminating racism from our society?”
For Sizemore, Afro-coifed dean of DePaul University’s School of Education and a public school reformer for most of her 68 years, the question is far from rhetorical. Her response is for schools to neutralize what she calls “the new lynching tool” for the aspirations of African Americans. Namely, standardized tests.
“Many African-American educators have spent large portions of their professional lives protesting the cultural biases of tests and protesting their nearly universal use to no avail,” she writes in the 1989 book Effective Schools: Critical Issues in the Education of Black Children. “Today, it seems that the way to eliminate tests is to help minorities to pass them. … Effective, high achieving, African-American elementary schools are now doing this. … Perhaps in a decade SATs, CATs, MATs, ITBS, and all the other ‘T’ tests will be extinct. … Tests can then become the diagnostic tools they were meant to be instead of the mechanism for separating winners and losers.”
At the October conference at Phillips High, Sizemore recalls that as school superintendent in Washington, D.C. in the early 1970s, she was fired for abolishing standardized tests. Now convinced that these tests aren’t going to disappear anytime soon, she urges fellow educators to teach students the analysis, synthesis and inference skills that they presumably measure.
And the way to nurture this process in Chicago’s underachieving schools, Sizemore believes, is through a well-structured program of school management and classroom monitoring, all tied to the curriculum of standardized tests. See where children come up short on the tests, she says, and fine-tune your instruction to match.
“You cannot teach a child whose mother is a junkie and whose father is in prison the same way that you teach a child who has two PhD parents,” the educator declares. “You can have the same expectations but you cannot use the same pedagogy.”
Sizemore’s speech is informed by 15 years of research as a University of Pittsburgh faculty member. In 1979, she and two colleagues began studying three of Pittsburgh’s predominantly black public elementary schools. Why, they wanted to know, had the standardized test scores of most of their black students matched both national and local norms in reading and mathematics?
Among other factors, they found that each had a strong, aggressive, “take charge” principal, an instructional leader who developed a consensus among teachers, parents and students around high achievement as their school’s highest priority.
That generally describes Essie Lucas, Tilden High School’s principal, who spends between 70 and 90 percent of regular school hours monitoring her teachers. “To make gains,” she says, “you must closely monitor student progress. Also, you must come early and stay late to do whatever else you have to do.”
In 20 schools
Tilden is one of 20 elementary and high schools in Chicago that are testing Sizemore’s School Achievement Structure, an approach to change she has been developing since her return to Chicago three years ago. (Before going to Washington D.C., Sizemore had been director of the Woodlawn Experimental Schools Project in Chicago.)
“It’s a process,” Sizemore says of her SAS. “It does not present a packaged program for teachers and principals to follow. Instead, each school selects instructional strategies compatible with student needs.”
These strategies are shaped by 10 routines, which she sees as the minimum goal-oriented activities needed to promote a school’s transition from low to high achievement. Growing out of Sizemore’s Pittsburgh research, they involve: assessment of students’ strengths and weaknesses, student placement, pacing and acceleration, measuring progress, monitoring progress, discipline, instruction, program evaluation, staff development and decision making.
Any school joining “the SAS family,” as Sizemore calls it, first selects a school coordinator who facilitates the creation and building of the school’s instructional team. The coordinator observes classrooms, monitors implementation of the 10 routines, models strategies learned through staff development and helps distribute resources. Once a week, the school coordinator with SAS staff for debriefing and problem solving within the framework of the 10 routines:
1 ASSESSMENT What do students need to know?
SAS schools first take data from the state IGAP test and the national, standardized ITBS and TAP tests to assess where students are and where they need to go. They then determine what skills and concepts need to be reinforced for students to reach grade level and above. “When kids come to Tilden with very low achievement levels, we have to work with what we have,” Lucas explains. “Most of our kids operate at 6th grade in reading and math, and many are far below that. Regardless, we must show progress in their achievement levels.”
2 PLACEMENT How do we group students for instruction?
“Every teacher at Tilden must have performance charts on the board,” reports the principal. “When students complete whatever concepts they’re supposed to learn, the teacher puts a star or a check next to their identification numbers. Teachers go through the semester knowing how students are progressing and whether they should be moved to more advanced groups.”
3 PACING, ACCELERATION How do we accelerate learning?
To accelerate skill development, SAS schools group and regroup students according to skills they have or have not mastered. While most SAS schools emphasize group instruction, teachers look closely at each individual student’s performance. As they learn faster, they graduate to higher performing groups. But if they have difficulties, they’re assigned to slower groups.
4 MONITORING How do we assure implementation of the routines?
“We encourage principals to set up monitoring teams in the schools,” reports Chase, “so that teachers monitor one another, an administrative team monitors the overall structure, and the principal monitors everything so that he/she has adequate feedback about whether the 10 routines are being implemented.” Both teachers and students monitor the performance charts posted for placement decisions.
5 MEASURING How do we know what the student has learned?
“We ask teachers not to give the old pencil-and-paper tests, but to develop various ways for students to show what they know through performance,” says Lucas.
But in the end, it’s standardized tests that count. Students practice taking tests, and the school makes clear that tests are important.
Periodic assemblies, brightly colored banners and huge signs warn Tilden students that they have x-number of days before taking the ACT or IGAP. “They really campaign and make test-taking a big deal for students,” reports SAS Director Kymara Chase. “Students, in turn, rise to the challenge. Before SAS, many didn’t even show up for the tests. They had no idea of the impact on their education. It’s part of our strategy that teachers let students know what all this testing means.”
6 DISCIPLINE How do we create and maintain a climate conducive for learning?
“We ask our schools to set up discipline routines and post rules and the consequences for breaking them,” Chase reports. “We want them to be consistent and fair in following through because we’ve found that inconsistencies in meting out punishments is what causes many discipline problems in the schools.”
Teachers deal with behavior problems not only to ensure proper school conduct but to guarantee a school climate conducive to learning and high achievement. As a last resort, they send disruptive students to in-house suspension rooms.
7 INSTRUCTION How do we teach what students must learn?
“SAS schools use a variety of instructional methodologies,” Chase reports. “You name it, they’re using it. We have three schools that have the Coalition of Essential Schools program. Others have the Comer Project and New Directions. Most of our teachers are trained in whole language. We ask everyone to analyze what they have and determine: What is it that we really want these methodologies to do for student achievement?
“Then we align these with state goals and curriculum outcomes. We have to make sure some kind of cohesive curriculum is going in one direction to enhance student progress. I call it ‘defusing’ as opposed to ‘confusing.’ There is so much information, so many mandates, so many directions to go that professionals are literally confused. Even so, they must discard programs and approaches that do not work.”
Teachers also are to institute programs that maintain and develop positive self-images and self-esteem. Sizemore also stresses developing a curriculum that relates to students’ history and culture. For example, in Pittsburgh, she raised a red flag about a 6th-grade textbook on Latin America that had no index listing for the Olmec culture in Mexico nor any mention of the Nubian transatlantic explorations, which some scientists now say took place between 700-800 B.C., thus accounting for large African stone heads found in Mexico. While the book acknowledged the participation of Africans in Latin American explorations, it omitted the horrors of slavery and the Catholic Church’s participation in it, and it softened the African holocaust, she said.
8 EVALUATION How do we know how well teachers are teaching?
A school’s SAS coordinator, its principal and assistant principals and, in high schools, its department heads regularly observe classroom activities to determine whether the 10 routines are being implemented.
“We look at the tests being used,” adds Edward Spikes, a lead teacher at Tilden. “If you’re going to have kids studying to take tests, you have to give them something that is similar.”
9 STAFF DEVELOPMENT How do we help teachers become better at teaching and implementing the routine?
“Staff development is the responsibility of the principal, assisted by an administrative team of assistant principals, directors of programs or academies, selected leadership teachers and department heads,” says Spikes. “When we have a meeting, the principal doesn’t dictate. Instead, she asks: What kind of staff development would you like? Our input helps her decide. Not everyone needs the same staff development. “
10 DECISION MAKING How do we make decisions?
Before SAS came to Tilden, the principal and department heads made decisions about the school, according to Spikes. Now, SAS committees have a say.
While principals, teachers, students and parents are all accountable for achievement, the buck stops with principals, who oversee the whole process.
Sizemore suggests that to succeed with these routines, principals, teachers and parents must (1) believe that all students can learn and can succeed on standardized tests, (2) understand that the obstacles of poverty, family instability and community disorganization can be overcome by the human spirit and will, (3) know students’ needs and value their culture, language and heritage and (4) entertain high expectations for students, faculty, the principal and parents.
“If these beliefs and understandings are held by a majority of the school’s staff … a strong and active instructional team will develop, and implementation of the routines will occur,” Sizemore contends.
Meanwhile, she and Chase quietly applaud the latest IGAP scores at the nine original schools. CATALYST found that, in general, elementary schools posted gains in the percentage of students who meet or exceed state learning goals in math, and declines in the percentage of students who meet or exceed state goals for reading. High schools, however, posted across-the-board gains, bucking the citywide decline.
Even though SAS allows schools to select their own instructional methods, other educators working in Chicago schools worry that the SAS process will shortchange children in the long run. Instead of focusing on the component parts of reading and math, schools should engage children in comprehensive reading, speaking, writing and mathematical activities and coach them along the way, argue progressive theorists.
For example, Harvey Daniels, a professor at National-Louis University, says the schools he works with expect children to read much harder material, longer books and a wider range of genres than schools that peg their curricula to tests. “We expect them to spend far more time on writing, and write much longer and more original pieces.”
Daniels calls the SAS focus on test scores “tragic,” but concedes that standardized tests are in fact gatekeepers to the American mainstream. “The question is: How much of the curriculum do we have to give over to preparation? You can take two to three weeks preparing for IGAP. Anything more than that is a waste of time.”
Similar criticisms of SAS come from Alan Bearden, director of the Chicago Teachers Union Quest Center, which is pushing alternative forms of assessment. “Standardized testing only gives you one view of what a child knows,” he says. “He has knowledge, but the only way you can show a child really understands something is to have him replicate it.”
“I can’t say that Dr. Sizemore’s approach is wrong,” Bearden says, “but while we’re teaching our children to do standardized testing, we somehow have to get them attuned to other kinds of assessment.”
“Gosh knows, Barbara Sizemore is putting tremendous energy into school reform for kids,” says Daniels’ colleague Steve Zemelman. “She obviously cares a lot about them. Advocates for one program criticizing another is maybe not the most productive activity. She should be encouraged, and so should we.”
For more information, contact SAS Director Kymara Chase at (312) 325-7000, ext. 1694.
Alex Poinsett is a Chicago writer and author of a forthcoming biography Godfather of Black Politics: The Louis E. Martin Story.