Program Improvement

Taking mediocrity to task

A few years ago, Congress decided its multibillion-dollar investment in Chapter 1 shuld be held to a higher standard. Fiscal compliance and taking care to “supplement, not supplant” were all well and good, but Congress was concerned by a study it mandated in 1984 showing that Chapter 1 had not had much luck in closing the performance gap between recipients of the compensatory services and their higher-achieving peers. Thus, with the 1988 reauthorization of Chapter 1, program improvement requirements were born.

School districts are now required to review their Chapter 1 programs annually and initiate a formal program improvement process if desired outcomes stated in an LEA’s application are not reached. For grades 2 – 12, at least one of the desired outcomes must be in the form of NCE (normal curve equivalent) scores, a standardized national measure of aggregate achievement. LEAs are also encouraged to use other criteria to determine program effectiveness, such as reduced dropout rates, improved grades, and performance on state competency tests.

Understandably, many administrators view the new regulations as a Pandora’s box of added responsibilities and red tape. The language and intent of the new law is characteristically both careful and convoluted. Numerous stipulations affect the criteria for identification and the requirements for planning and implementation. And since almost two-thirds of schools identified for program improvement rebound from that classification within a year, the paperwork and administrative activity the new rule initiates – at both the local and state levels – could be perceived as unnecessary.

On top of that unpleasantness is the stigma some associate with being identified as a “program improvement” school. It weighs on some administrators the way a report card that reads “Needs Improvement” does on the spirits of a young student.

“I am deeply concerned that some individuals may be more concerned about their own reputations than about the ability of the children in their charge to read and compute,” says Mary Jean LeTendre, director of Compensatory Education Programs at USED, in the April, 1991 issue of Phi Delta Kappan. Somewhere along the way, she observes, too many programs became more concerned with compliance than student learning. This fixation on the letter of the law comes at the expense of the spirit behind the law – that of enabling all children to succeed in the regular school program.

A quick trigger?

By instituting program improvement requirements, the “new” Chapter 1 law came equipped with an automatic reality check. If student performance slipped one year, a red flag went up. Program improvement time.

One year might seem a particularly unforgiving sampling period, but that’s intentional. says Bill Lobosco, deputy director of Compensatory Education Programs. The quick trigger is predicated on the “where-there’sĀ­smoke-there’s-fire” principle.

If there’s any likelihood that you’re not doing well. it should be incumbent on you to undertake change,” Lobosco says. “Any delay in taking action raises the potential for damaging a child’s chances of succeeding in the academic program.”

He adds: “It’s funny, but no one who hasn’t been identified for program improvement has complained that one year is too short a period to be judged by.” Still, Lobosco says, USED will be looking at the issue prior to reauthorization.

All aboard

Another aspect of program improvement that rankles some is the onus it places on the Chapter 1 program to correct what may actually be a symptom of a larger malady.

“The flaw in [the program improvement requirements] is the implication that the responsibility for gains in the Chapter 1 population falls exclusively on the Chapter 1 program,” says Donna Hartlage, education specialist at the state Department of Education. “The reality is that these children only spend a small part of their school day in Chapter 1. Chapter 1 is just one piece of the problem.”

To suggest that a failure among any segment of the school population might signal a systemic breakdown is a prickly proposition in a world where Chapter 1 and regular school personnel don’t always see eye to eye. But that’s one of the beauties of the program improvement law: it forces people together who have found ways to sidestep one another in the past.

The regulations state that, “for each school identified [as failing to sustain improved performance over a period of at least 12 months], the LEA shall develop and implement, in coordination with the school, a plan for program improvement … ” For some, that stipulation spells trouble; for others, it’s the sound of opportunity knocking.

Although she found the prospect “pretty scary at first,” Maria Sentance, Chapter 1 director in Malden, was able to make program improvement a chance to spread ownership of the Chapter 1 program.

“The non-Chapter 1 people can be very reluctant to get involved, but we let them know that this is a school undertaking and that we needed them. We can’t force them, but we do hand out little carrots, like the promise of inĀ­service training and new materials.”

The program improvement process had actually already begun in Malden before it was officially required. With the closing of all three junior high schools in 1988-89, middle school students were transferred to the high school. Sentance sought to implement an in-class instructional model in the newsetting, but a computer glitch
derailed much of the advance planning and scheduling that had been done. The result was a failure to meet the required gain of one NCE in the middle school reading component.

“Many of the regular classroom teachers were unfamiliar with Chapter 1 and weren’t sure what their roles were,” recalls Sentance. “Basically, we didn’t have enough time to talk about things. Program improvement told us that we had to find the time.”

Last spring and summer, with the school principal and several classroom teachers on board, Malden Chapter 1 got its act together, defining roles, involving parents, providing teacher training, and creating a handbook. Now an in-class model is fully put into place (supplemented by pullout when necessary), parent meetings and workshops occur more frequently, and a sense of joint responsibility has spread.

“As soon as you establish that little nucleus, the whole school seems to perk up,” reports Sentance.

Gluttons for change

In the Easthampton Public Schools, program improve ment is a way of life. Chapter 1 Director and Schools Superintendent Kathy Kussy has her schools engaged in some of the most talked- about school – and curriculum-reform movements of the day: Reading Recovery, HOTS, Comer’s School Development Project, and Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools.

Such an ambitious agenda can be expected to produce more thorns than flowers in the short-term. Says Kathy, “It’s unrealistic to expect an immediate impact on student learning. The effects of these changes won’t show up in six months. It’ll be 3-5 years before we see real gains in student learning.”

Kussy is obviously unfazed by the “program improvement” label. Instead, the regulatory mechanism has served to redouble her program’s reform efforts and focus attention on the lagging components – reading at the elementary level and higher-order thinking skills in the middle school.

Collaborative planning as required by program improvement was a fait accompli; a School Planning and Management team and a Building Support team already existed, with Chapter 1 staff and parent representation. In fact, says Kathy, “Chapter 1 people led the way in program planning and change.”

Strike one, strike two …

Massachusetts is one of 18 states that sets a higher standard for aggregate student performance than the federally required minimum of 0 NCE. Failure to achieve an aggregate gain of at least 1 NCE triggers the local program improvement process; two years below the benchmark necessitates a joint plan developed in conjunction with the state Department of Education. Few schools reach the joint plan stage. Of 179 schools under local program improvement last year, 20 were in their second year and only 12 failed to meet the state standard for a third time. At the time this article was written, 213 components in 165 schools were in program improvement, 45 of which were in full implementation, or year Two.

If being under local program improvement leaves a bad taste in the mouth, then joint program improvement is positively repugnant. To some, state intervention is tantamount to running up the white flag.

“It’s an issue of credibility,” says Sentance. “I would hope that a school would be able to identify its problems and work them out on its own, as a group of responsible professionals.” An insider/ outsider mentality causes reluctance to seek state help. “What are [state education specialists] going to see that we don’t see?” wonders Sentance. “We live it. We already know the kids, the parents. I’m glad the state is there for guidance, but I preferred to tap our own strength to improve our program. And I’ve found that we have all the talent and the knowledge we need.”

Easthampton, on the other hand, chose to bring in an outside consultant last spring to help the elementary school introduce an integrated, thematic curriculum. Although the two school districts made different decisions about how they were going to upgrade their programs, the road both took to reach that point was aggressively participatory. “It gave peope a say in what’s happening, which they’re not always used to,” relates Kussy. “The initial reaction of some of them was, ‘Why are you asking me?'”

Accountability and broader responsibility are not the temporary symptoms of a desperate education institution, but the permanent outgrowths of research and public sentiment. So, while the feds promise to review the sticking points of Chapter 1 policy prior to the 1993 reauthorization, local administrators are going to have to learn to live with the pesky demands of program improvement.

There are ways to fend off the regulatory pressure, from the legitimate – extenuating local conditions, or a population of less than 11 Chapter 1 students at a school – to the sneaky, such as changing the “primary focus” of a Chapter 1 program away from a struggling component, or simply neglecting to self-identify on grant applications as required by law.

Some aspects of the law are bound to change. Lobosco notes that “research has shown that it takes more than six months to make lasting change,” and that at least one state is instituting a three-year cycle of program improvement, an approach Kussy supports. Such a modification would reduce the aggravation and redundancy of going in and out of program improvement And then there is the issue of student program improvement, an area both Lobosco and Hartlage believe receives short shrift with all the fuss about overall program improvement. When all is said and done, however, it appears the bottom line will be served, and educationally disadvantaged students dealt a better chance to catch up with their peers.