The freshmen in Strategic Reading were on a chapter called "Going for It!" in Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul. That day's passage was "The Boy Who Talked With Dolphins," about a kid named Jeff who feels rejected by his peers.
Jeff finds his first friend in a dolphin named Sharky at Sea World, and for the first time in his life, Jeff's confidence soars.
Jackson felt stupid. Two students were staring at him blankly. The rest were looking down at their desks. He could tell the class would be wasted.
But Jackson, a young teacher who'd been recruited to the Kansas City, Missouri, School District (he asked that his real name not be used for this story), tried to keep an open mind. District administrators had decided to try these lessons at his school only two years ago, in an effort to help students who had fallen several grades behind. Something about the curriculum must be helping them, Jackson thought.
His school is in a rundown section of the city; gang members had recently spray-painted the name of their crew across one side of the building. Jackson knew most of his students lived close to the streets and didn't care about school. He wanted to inspire them.
A boy in the back pulled two chairs together and started to lie down. Jackson read on.
Sharky dived a foot or so below the surface, pulling Jeff's hand and arm underwater. He laughed and pulled back without letting go. The dolphin dived again, deeper. Jeff pulled back harder.... When Sharky surfaced to breathe, boy and dolphin faced each other for a minute, Jeff laughing and the dolphin open-mouthed and grinning.... Sharky circled back and put her tail back in Jeff's hand.
Jackson asked his students where they thought the story would go next (a question the lesson plan had scripted for him). He was supposed to pause frequently during a passage and ask questions to make sure his students were learning.
His class answered with silence.
Now all the students were staring down at their desks. He asked again what they thought would happen next. "They're going to die," someone blurted out.
"It's going to be good," another said.
Jackson continued reading, but now he felt even more stupid.
His biggest frustration was knowing there were books these students could relate to. Once, when he was leafing through the thick binder full of lesson plans that district administrators had put together for teachers, he saw a reference to the Langston Hughes poem "A Dream Deferred." But when he got to the page where it was supposed to be, he found a notice in block letters: "THIS PAGE INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK." The lesson planners hadn't secured the copyright to reproduce Hughes' work.
So he was left with Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul. But Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul is made for suburban mothers, Jackson points out. How does it relate to the kid who just taught his teacher a gang handshake?
Jackson knew that only two of the students in this particular class were likely to pursue college degrees. He estimated another eight or so had the potential to make it in college. They just needed to be inspired. If kids see some value in what they're learning, they'll be motivated to do well in school, Jackson says.
For instance, there was the girl in his class who was filled with rage. When something set her off, she was quick to yell at peers in the middle of class, "You fucking bitch! I'll fucking kill you!" She was 14. This girl was the one who probably wouldn't climb out of the hole life had put her in. But she could if she tried. And though she yelled at the other students in the class, she had always treated Jackson with respect. He had made it that far in connecting with her. Now the curriculum was rebuilding the wall between them.
"She is a smart girl," Jackson tells the Pitch. "There are things going on up there. But she doesn't see anything she does in the classroom as being of value because she doesn't see how it connects to her in any way."
Over the past few weeks, headlines have focused on parents' fury over Kansas City School District Superintendent Bernard Taylor's plan to consolidate schools in an effort to save $3.2 million from a budget that needs to be cut by as much as $20 million. Meanwhile, a school district that's desperate to show the progress required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act has spent millions on a reform effort that forces teachers to read dumbed-down literature to their students -- and be timed by stopwatches while they're doing it.
Long before January 2002, when President George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind, student performance overall had been declining in the Kansas City, Missouri, School District. That's partly because so many students at inner-city schools are falling behind.
In October 1999, the district lost its accreditation after failing state standards. (It has since achieved a provisional accreditation. Poor achievement at the schools continued to prevent the district from receiving full accreditation last year; its next chance for reinstatement is in 2007.) Kansas City administrators saw that something needed to be done to raise students' test scores. Dianne Cleaver, who is set to resign as the district's chief administrative officer on March 4, says the district reached a level of "urgency" three years ago.
The solution was to find a curriculum that would bring order to classrooms and better prepare students for the Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) tests.
Principals at Central, Northeast, Southeast and Van Horn high schools spent about a year searching for a reform program that could help. Based on their recommendations, Taylor proposed that the high schools convert to a reform program called Achievement First. In an 8 to 1 vote in October 2002, the school board decided to shell out $11 million to convert the four high schools over four years.
Programs like Achievement First are for sale across the country, offering fixes for troubled school districts that long ago abandoned the idea of simply hiring good teachers and letting them teach.
Bruce Jones, a professor of urban leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City who has studied education reform, says nonprofits nationwide have created about 40 national reform packages in the same mode as Achievement First and First Things First (a similar, reportedly successful program used in the Kansas City, Kansas, School District). The problem with the reforms, Jones says, is that they tend to be one-size-fits-all.
"My issue with these reform packages is that every school is different, every district is different," he says. "You can't force-fit reform packages in school districts and expect them to be successful." And when school districts decide how to spend their reform money, he says, "there tends to be the tendency to invest in programs instead of people.
"What I argue for," Jones continues, "is there needs to be more investment in people so that they then can create the program from the school level."
The district bought the Achievement First package from the Institute for Research and Reform in Education, a New Jersey nonprofit created in 1989 to research environments and teaching methods that could help underachieving, low-income students learn. IRRE is now working to convert 70 schools in eight districts.
Two years ago, local "coordinators" -- Kansas City School District employees who were working at Central, Northeast, Southeast and Van Horn -- got new assignments: to work with staff from IRRE to set up Achievement First.
The IRRE employees helped coordinators and teachers draft a class schedule and assign students and teachers to four "Small Learning Communities" of about 250 kids, each with an academic theme, such as technology, business, or health and fitness; eventually, students would take elective classes in those areas, but that part of the curriculum wasn't ready for the ninth-graders coming into Achievement First. (Upperclassmen can take electives based on their community theme, such as accounting for students in the business community or first aid for students in the health and fitness community.)
Like First Things First, the reform program hailed as a cure-all by the Kansas City, Kansas, School District, Achievement First also touts its Family Advocate System, in which teachers are supposed to contact students' guardians at least once a month to update them on how well the kids are progressing.
For teachers, the IRRE lesson plans arrived in thick binders -- thousands of pages (some of them, like Jackson's Langston Hughes page, still blank) compiled by experts at yet another nonprofit, the Johns Hopkins Talent Development High Schools, based at the university in Baltimore, Maryland.
"It was just a tremendous amount of work and a tremendous amount of change for principals and teachers who already had a full plate," Cleaver says of the transition to Achievement First.
At the four high schools, incoming freshmen take tests to determine their strengths in math and language arts. If they score below a ninth-grade level, their first semester consists of four daily 90-minute classes (Strategic Reading, Transition to Advanced Math, a study-skills class called Freshman Seminar, and an elective) in which many of the lessons are broken down into 20-minute blocks -- a short reading exercise, a quick math problem or a brief discussion about a new concept. A buzzer sounds, and they shift into something new.
When second semester arrives, they join their peers in regular ninth-grade English and algebra classes -- even if they haven't yet tested up to ninth-grade level.
The other students -- the ones whose tests showed they were performing at grade level -- were supposed to take regular ninth-grade English and algebra classes their first semester. Instead, at the beginning of the 2003-04 school year the higher-performing kids wasted weeks sitting in classes designed for students who were grades behind them because the Achievement First planners and administrators hadn't set up the proper classes for them at the four high schools.
By the end of the 2003-04 school year, only 14 of the district's 71 schools met the standards set by No Child Left Behind.
The Kansas City School District paid $1.75 million of the program's $4 million price tag this year; the rest of the tab was covered by grants, mainly from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
And while Taylor enrages parents with his cost-cutting proposals, the district's failure to meet No Child Left Behind standards means it must shell out more cash: for tutoring and Saturday classes at the failing schools or for transferring students to better schools.
The district plans to convert all of its schools to education-reform programs such as Achievement First, Cleaver says. Though there will be flexibility on the designs for each school, the goal is to have the reform begin in elementary schools and build up through the high schools.
But first, the district needs to solve two major problems that Achievement First has created.
There's the problem for the kids who are behind: The curriculum, with its readings from Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul, seems designed to make them feel dumb.
Central High School at 32nd Street and Indiana has a reputation as one of the worst high schools in Missouri.
One recent afternoon, more than a dozen police cars were parked around the school. A windowless van with a KCPD emblem on its side idled in the parking lot with a clear view of the front of the building. The final bell rang, and hundreds of teens made a slow exodus, strolling past the police. Students who live within a mile and a half of the school must walk or get a ride when classes are over; the district doesn't have funds to bus them home.
So they walk down some of the worst streets in the city. They wear blue or white shirts and khaki pants -- the school's dress code to discourage fights over gang colors. Police canvass the neighborhood side streets, getting out of their cars to talk to older kids and shooing away younger teens loitering in parking lots and on street corners adjacent to the school.
Michelle Honeycutt says it's difficult to inspire students in this environment. But over approximately 12 years of teaching in the district, she has learned techniques to get some of them to care. She says breaking her class into teams and playing games is one way to motivate them -- anything hands-on is better than a simple lecture.
Now she's been told to abandon her methods for Achievement First.
Honeycutt wants to protest the curriculum and tell school administrators that her sophomore students aren't responding to Reading, Writing and Careers. She stays silent, afraid that she will be punished.
"If you say anything bad about it, it's just suicide," says Honeycutt (who also asked that her real name not be used for this story). "They [district administrators] love this program. Nobody has appeared to care very much that the teachers are not happy. It's just like, if you don't like it, you can find another job. That has been said at meetings."
None of the students in Achievement First classrooms are being prepared for college, she says. "We lie to them and tell them they will [be ready for college]. They're just being set up for a lot of real frustration."
"It's completely unacceptable," says Marilyn Simmons, the only Kansas City School Board member to vote against Achievement First in 2002. "It's not challenging. Achievement First is not helping the children. The curriculum is watered down, so they are not keeping the students' attention."
The program is lowering students' expectations for themselves, Simmons says. "The kids know it. It's going to be hard later when they get out and find out the things they did not get."
Roy Fox, chairman of the Learning, Teaching and Curriculum Department at the University of Missouri in Columbia -- who has no involvement in the Kansas City School District -- says good teachers present lessons that are relevant to students' lives. Students take the ideas they learn in class and think about them based on their own experiences, Fox says. If they are personally involved, they will begin to participate. And it's teachers, he says, who are best able to gauge what material will involve their students.
"It's an absolutely terrible idea," Fox says of the one-size-fits-all curriculum movement. "Teachers are not robots. That's not why they went into teaching. And it doesn't represent authentic human communication. How personal do you take it when you get on a plane and the stewardess gives you the canned speech on life jackets?"
Some elements of Achievement First work, Honeycutt says -- for many of her lower-level students, the repetition is good.
But she says she has told struggling students to consider enrolling in a trade school. "The kids say, 'Are you trying to dis me?'"
But trade school makes more sense than the material she's teaching.
Then there's the problem for the kids who don't need the extra help. Many of them have been trapped in the remedial classes, even though they're not supposed to be there.
Not all of the district's schools are troubled. Lincoln College Prep High School, the highest-achieving high school in the district (which admits only selected students), offers international studies programs. Each high school in the district offers different electives and areas of study, but all of them have the same basic curriculum, Cleaver says.
At Central High School, Honeycutt says, 32 incoming freshmen tested out of Reading Strategies this year, but there weren't electives in place to allow them to take a different class. "As far as I know, all 32 are still sitting there [in the equivalent of middle school classes]. It made me physically ill this year," Honeycutt says.
Some students who tested out of the Achievement First classes have nowhere else to go and are forced to listen to sappy passages from Taste Berries for Teens, a collection of short stories its cover promises will inspire "life, love, friendship and tough issues."
Doug Elmer, the Kansas City field manager for Johns Hopkins Talent Development High Schools, says out of 1,200 incoming freshmen districtwide last year, about 17.5 percent tested out of Strategic Reading and 11 percent tested out of Transition to Advanced Math.
"What we had were students who weren't moved [out of those classes] quickly enough," Elmer says.
He says many of the students sat in Strategic Reading and Transition to Advanced Math for three weeks or a month before they were moved to more advanced classes.
"The kids who test out are just sitting there bored because Achievement First is not formatted the way it's supposed to be. They're stuck," Simmons says. Because electives are not in place, she says, some students who test out of math take algebra first semester, then don't have math until the following year. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard of. You've lost those skills. It's a hindrance."
Simmons says the district rushed Achievement First to gain favor with state and federal standards, not to help students.
Albert Mauro was the president of the school board when it adopted Achievement First. He tells the Pitch that the students going into the four high schools were at a critical age, and the district needed a program to help get them on track. The principals wanted to introduce a reform that would help strengthen the relationships between teachers and students and create higher attendance, a higher graduation rate and a better overall learning experience for the students. If the curriculum appears to be too easy early on, Mauro says, "That's a matter of fine-tuning."
Simmons says she has seen nothing in progress reports to make her believe the program will work. But she says district officials will stand behind the program at whatever cost.
Phyllis Budesheim, the district's executive director of school leadership, is responsible for making Achievement First work. She says it normally takes a full school year to convert a school to the curriculum, but the district was so eager to get the program introduced that Central, Southeast, Northeast and Van Horn high schools spent only nine months changing over; the district is still reworking the four high schools. The program might be enjoying greater success if the implementation had been better, she allows. She says the district is making slow progress, which should improve as teachers get more comfortable with the materials. And the schools are trying to rework their schedules so that advanced students can take consecutive math courses their freshman year.
"We're not where we want to be by a long shot," Budesheim says. "But where we are today is worlds apart from where we were this time last year. I'm not going to say that it's always perfect, because change is hard for people. We still have people who are having difficulty with change."
This year, 25.1 percent of incoming freshmen tested out of Strategic Reading, and 17.6 percent tested out of Transition to Advanced Math. Elmer says the schools were better prepared for the advanced students, because the test was given at the end of eighth grade instead of the beginning of ninth grade.
And the students who actually belonged in the Achievement First classes made marginal improvement overall.
Based on the first year's test for incoming freshmen, students in the four schools who were placed in Strategic Reading had an average reading level of 5.6 -- meaning the average incoming freshman was reading at the same level as students in their sixth month of fifth grade. At the end of the first semester in those schools, the average ninth-grader in Strategic Reading tested at a 6.3 reading level, marking a nine-month improvement in reading.
This year, freshmen went from a 5.7 reading level at the beginning of the year to a 6.3 after the first semester.
Some teachers have resisted the change, says one of Achievement First's champions, Rhonda Fenner, the "improvement facilitator" at Central High School (who oversees the curriculum and structure of Achievement First at her school). She says these teachers complain about the curriculum's quick, choppy lessons.
"I don't want to pick on the older teachers, but the more seasoned teachers who have done business as a teacher the same way for 20 years, it is very hard to change their habits," Fenner says. "All of a sudden it's, 'Oh, my God, I've got to change every 20 minutes.'"
Teachers who have adapted best are young teachers, Fenner says. They are still learning how to shape relationships with students in a live classroom, and the curriculum offers good strategies for them. "They soak it up like a sponge," she says. "They take it, and they run with it and they see that it works. They are some of our best implementers."
That would be news to Ernest Jackson.
But Fenner says teachers are encouraged to personalize the thousands of pages of curriculum designed for Achievement First. "They don't necessarily have to follow it word for word," Fenner says. "But if they weren't given stuff [the curriculum], they'd complain because they didn't have materials."
Fenner contends that Achievement First is restoring the school district's image. She says that, in her 18 years of working at Central High School, she has never seen so much improvement so fast. Students are relating to their teachers better. And they are going to class. "It's going to bring up the test scores to make the state and the federal government happy, but most of us doing all this could care less about that," Fenner says.
But one problem with Achievement First is that it's evaluated by the people who created it, Honeycutt points out. Johns Hopkins Talent Development High Schools oversee the people who help teachers with the new curriculum and work with Elmer evaluate the program and its test results. She doesn't think the program will ever get a fair assessment.
"They have a vested interest in it," she says.
The high schools using Achievement First hired "school-improvement facilitators" like Fenner to work with staff at IRRE to make sure the reform is running effectively. The facilitators walk into classrooms unannounced, carrying a checklist designed by Johns Hopkins Talent Development High Schools. The checklist asks questions about how students and teachers are responding to the curriculum. Directions tell the facilitators to make a quick scan of the classroom. "Estimate the percentage of students who appear to be on task: thinking, speaking, writing, making, listening," it reads.
Based on their observations, facilitators make reports on how well the curriculum is working and where there could be improvement.
In addition to the school-improvement facilitators, a team of "instructional coordinators" -- people who have worked in or near the Kansas City School District -- are on-site to assist teachers with questions and model lesson plans, and to help out any way they can. Sometimes they even run errands, such as buying a new light bulb for the overhead projector, says Mary Maushard, communications director for the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University.
Maushard says it takes at least two years for students to show academic improvement from the Johns Hopkins Talent Development High Schools curriculum. For some schools, it can take up to five years. Maushard says good results will come if everyone is patient and remains open-minded.
"As soon as they start, obviously, everyone would like to see results," Maushard says. "I think that sometimes the immediate differences might be a school that has an atmosphere that encourages learning more."
Honeycutt says she has not noticed fewer students skipping class. And she has not seen any change in student respect for the school or its teachers. If anything, many students are losing respect because the lesson plans are better suited to children.
She says the idea of the "Small Learning Communities" seems sensible to keep students focused.
"But I don't think it takes millions of dollars to add up your kids and divide them by four," Honeycutt says.
The more Jackson thinks it over, the more he wonders whether the real motivation behind Achievement First is greed. The cost of supplies, consultants and the curriculum is all money in the pockets of the people who designed and carry out the program.
"It's kind of the same thing as the sweet-talking phone salesman who's milking someone's retirement fund," he says. "It's coming into these vulnerable situations where somebody desperately needs help and offering them the magic solution. Then they've got this Band-Aid that they can slap on the bullet wound and say, 'Yeah, we fixed it. Miracle cure.'"
He sees why his class is so frustrated. The curriculum is dull, and every day is the same. The key to learning English is reading something and relating it to real life in some way.
But in those rare moments when the class shows interest in a lesson, Jackson's stopwatch ticks down and he has to move on. "I'm flying through something just so I can fit it into the time frame," he says. "I've seen times when I've got to cut stuff off when kids are really working on it."
Jackson says he wants the curriculum to work, but he hates knowing that instead of getting them ready for college, he's teaching them how to pass an assessment test.
"The district wants the status quo," Jackson says. "The district wants to keep money coming in. It cares more about the kids' MAP test scores than their ACT scores.... It's not about these kids' success. It's about the district's ability to keep money coming in. The kids are simply a commodity."
Jackson opens the lesson plan for his next class. The passage he has to read is written by Jennie Garth, the former Beverly Hills 90210 actress.
Garth opens her memoir by describing what it was like being a little girl growing up on a ranch:
There was lots of love, lots of space and lots to do.... Peer pressure was non-existent, since the only "gang" I ran around with was the gang of animals on the ranch.
Jackson remembers the kid showing him his gang handshake. Since most of his students feel pressure from gangs when they leave school, Jackson wonders if reading this passage will be mocking them. He reads on.
After supper, my brothers and sisters and I would play games or tell stories, laughing and having fun until it was time to go to bed. Falling asleep was never a problem for me. I just listened to the sounds of chirping crickets and dreamed of another day on the farm.
Supper? Most of his students get their lunches thanks to the state. And many don't sleep in the same bed week after week. Jackson scans the next few paragraphs, in which Garth goes to Los Angeles to find fame and fortune.
I truly loved my job, and my success was more than I could have ever dreamed of. And yet ... something was missing. Slowly a dark void found its way into my heart and began to eat away at my happiness.
At the end of Garth's memoir, she buys her parents a home in California so they can all be together again. But it must have a garden so her folks can pick fresh vegetables for dinner every night.
Then one day we found it: the perfect ranch, nestled in a warm and sunny valley.... The dark void that gnawed inside me began to fade, and a sense of balance returned to my soul. I was home.
Jackson thought he went to college to learn how to be a teacher. Don't all students have that one high school teacher they think back on and smile about? He wants to be that teacher. He's been reduced to a boring hack his students will think back on and laugh at. If they remember him at all.