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|NUMBER 179||THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS||DECEMBER 2000|
'Smart Start' - Or Is It? |
OBE gets new name in Arkansas
LITTLE ROCK, AR - Hallmarks of Arkansas' "new" education program, Smart Start, are report cards with no letter or number grades, few or no textbooks, no competition, no memorization or drills for teaching basic skills, and criterion-referenced tests that include portfolios. Official Smart Start literature praises school districts for innovative report cards while claiming to support traditional grading systems.
Although obscured by "feel-good" phrases and promotional fluff, the Smart Start program fosters rewards and sanctions, state intervention, five-year plans, block scheduling, cooperative learning, integrated learning, and of course, performance-based assessments - all stuff of Outcome-Based Education (OBE). In other words, says the American Family Association of Arkansas (AFA), "OBE is alive and well in the state; nothing has changed but the terms."
The Bentonville School District in northwest Arkansas and the Weiner School District in northeast Arkansas piloted Smart Start in the elementary grades last year, triggering immediate parent and teacher complaints. Parents objected to the new grading system, consisting of "report cards" up to 14 pages long, filled with rubrics (sets of criteria) instead of subject titles. Students are evaluated and assigned a "performance level"of "below basic," "basic," "proficient" or "advanced" on each of the rubrics.
Parents charge that the new "report cards" are too complicated and that they fail to indicate which subjects need improvement. One parent told the Jonesboro Sun (2-28-00): "I've gone to school for eight years past high school and I don't understand this." Others complained that the subjective grading system gives teachers "too much discretion" in assigning performance levels.
Many teachers object to Smart Start's proposed system of cash incentives, which is modeled on Kentucky's failed KERA system that rewards schools and teachers for pupil performance. (See Education Reporter, June 1998.) They claim that the content standards - the very basis of Smart Start - are extremely vague and fail to include basic skills such as the elements of grammar. This view is supported by the Fordham Foundation, which rated the standards for all 50 states and gave Arkansas's standards an F on its 1997 and 1999 reports.
Teachers also complain that they are forced to devote too much time to testing and to Smart Start's complicated system of criterion check lists. A survey of teachers in northeast Arkansas by State Sen. Peggy Jeffries indicates that as many as 90% of teachers disapprove of educational trends in the state.
Concerns over OBE practices and the new grading techniques were two critical factors that led to the firing of Bentonville Superintendent Lewis Holloway, but his departure did not derail Smart Start. Last March, Governor Mike Huckabee announced, during a joint meeting of the Arkansas State Board of Education and the State Board of Workforce and Career Opportunities, that Smart Start would be expanded to include "Smart Step" for grades 5-8. He promised that Smart Step would "use the same strategies as Smart Start." "Thanks to Smart Start," the Governor said, "we've seen an increase in student achievement."
According to published reports, those achievement gains came under suspicion earlier this year after it was discovered that the scores of one of every five Arkansas students had been excluded. The Arkansas Democrat Gazette (2-20-00) reported that, in addition to exclusions for students with disabilities, a new rule requiring school districts to identify students who hadn't completed a whole academic year in the district resulted in the exclusion of those students' scores, too. Of the 94,000 Arkansas children tested, the scores of 18,000 were excluded.
"There's a move in the nation to do away with norm-referenced tests," notes AFA. We hear about accountability, but when one state's test scores can't be compared to others', there will be no accountability; everything will be subjective."
In his 1998 book, Making Standards Work, Reeves states: "Competition is not part of the human spirit, but part of modern-day psychosis," and that competition perpetuates "the caste system as it presently exists." His book contends that homework assignments, classroom activities, worksheets, and every course and instructional device should revolve around state standards (pp. 49, 68, 92, 103).
Reeves is also the author of an article entitled "Responding to the Rhetoric of the Radical Right," published in School Administrator, March 1998 (p. 37), which suggests that school personnel "fight them [the radical right] at every turn." Nonetheless, Reeves continues to head the state's educational accountability system under Governor Huckabee. The Smart Start website notes that "Dr. Doug Reeves will provide a consistent thread connecting the past years' accomplishments to the work ahead. He will also provide a connection between character-centered teaching and academics."