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Tesseract's tough test After three years of EAI, time is running out on Baltimore's experiment

THE BALTIMORE SUN

To leaders of a city desperate for ways to reverse the decline of public schools, John T. Golle's promise proved irresistible: Let my company manage your schools, and it will dramatically improve student performance.

"Over the course of the next year, we will convert the existing schools into 'community sanctuaries' that will deliver world-class education," Mr. Golle, chief executive of Education Alternatives Inc., wrote in July 1992 to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "You can depend upon it."

So began a grand experiment, the nation's biggest test of whether private enterprise could save schools where government had failed. Now, three years after the for-profit Minnesota company brought the "Tesseract Way" to nine Baltimore schools, the project is in peril.

EAI brought computers and teddy bears, videocassette recorders and rocking chairs to the Tesseract schools. The company painted battered buildings and put up banners to boost self-esteem. It trained teachers in new methods and hired interns to help them.

But the reform seems more a face lift than a transformation; classrooms are cheerier, lessons more creative, but students have yet to demonstrate they're performing better.

At Edgewood Elementary, some fourth-graders struggle with addition and subtraction -- skills they should have mastered much earlier -- during a lesson on counting money.

At Dr. Rayner Browne, fourth-grade writing samples are riddled with grammatical, spelling or usage errors: "Then we saw the donkeys, and we wanted to pet them," reads one story displayed on a wall. "Then were chickens and got to go inside. And was the pigs, then the sweet chicks!" The teacher says eight of her students read at the first-grade level.

Standardized test scores for Tesseract students, already dismal, declined over the first two years -- more than comparable city schools and more than the district as a whole.

Mayor Schmoke, disappointed by the test scores and facing an election battle against one of Tesseract's most vocal critics, has threatened to end the program this summer unless an independent evaluation shows significant improvement. How much is unclear; EAI and the city have never set targets and time lines.

EAI may fall victim, in part, to its own bold promises. "Perhaps in our enthusiasm to win the contract," Mr. Golle says now, "we stated things that would allow people to believe that we were going to produce instant results.

"You don't sprinkle fairy dust around and all of a sudden have [achievement] grow. Perhaps if we had anything to do over again, we would have done a better job of lowering expectations."

Tesseract -- a term borrowed from the children's science-fiction book "A Wrinkle in Time" that conveys a faster, more efficient way to travel -- promised a new way to educate children, a way to revive struggling, inner-city schools. But the changes brought by EAI didn't go far enough, many teachers, company and school officials say.

Two Sun reporters spent three months visiting classes, reviewing documents and correspondence and interviewing EAI officials, students, parents and educators. Among their findings:

* Tesseract focuses primarily on how children learn; it puts less emphasis on what they learn. Tesseract uses as its foundation the city curriculum, criticized as weak on content and lacking specific requirements spelling out what students learn and when. The second-grade curriculum, running nearly 700 pages, includes endless lists of vague "competencies," but makes only passing reference to such basics as spelling and grammar.

* EAI inherited the principals and teachers who presided over the old, failed classrooms and lacks control over them. The city school system retains power over staffing, evaluating and setting standards. Principals, for example, rejected higher performance goals that EAI wanted.

* Tesseract, incubated in private schools in affluent suburbs in Minnesota and Arizona, provided remedies that underestimated the realities of urban schools. In computer labs at Harlem Park Middle School, students stole the "mouse" devices that operate the computers, and teachers at the school spend a good deal of their time simply trying to maintain order.

"Tesseract is a good program," says David Leimbach, a sixth-grade teacher at Harlem Park. "But I don't think the company realized that the problems here are bigger than all of us."

Successful school reform, some educators say, requires much more fundamental change than Tesseract has brought.

"If the principal is basically the same principal, if the group of teachers are the same ones that were there before, and the curriculum is the same, I don't see why on earth anybody would expect test scores to rise," says Samuel C. Stringfield, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who evaluates school reform efforts.

"Too little is happening differently in the schools because [EAI] doesn't control teachers and they're not on top of it as much as they should be," says Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the nonprofit Abell Foundation, which has monitored EAI's progress. They have the worst of both worlds. They're accused of privatization and yet they're not in control."

EAI took on a daunting challenge -- tough schools even by Baltimore standards, with records of poor performance and low attendance. All are in neighborhoods plagued by poverty, crime and drugs. And they suffered from what Superintendent Walter G. Amprey calls the school system's "culture of failure" -- low expectations and standards held by some teachers and principals who simply had given up.

EAI had managed only one public school -- in Miami Beach -- for a year when it brought Tesseract to about 4,800 students here. Mr. Golle is convinced his program will work and says it has laid the groundwork for reform.

He promises gains in academic performance over the next two years: "All the test scores will go up," he says. "We know that. We know that. . . . We will not rest until that is accomplished, and we have great confidence that will be achieved."

EAI says it expects at least modest gains on this spring's standardized tests, whose results will be available in the next few weeks.

If Tesseract is not yet a success, that does not mean it's a failure. Education experts say reform efforts often take at least three years to produce significant gains. But unless Tesseract produces soon, people may look elsewhere for answers.

Dr. Amprey, one of Tesseract's most ardent supporters, now admits some doubts about how much impact Tesseract will have.

"I think the jury still is out to some extent on how kids are actually educated and whether that's really making a difference," Dr. Amprey says. "It sounded good -- an awful lot of promise -- but I think it's too soon to see whether the delivery system of Tesseract has made a difference, although I believe that it will."

Some of those closest to the experiment, though, remain unconvinced. Says Danette Bland, a kindergarten teacher at Edgewood Elementary: "I think we were led to believe, 'Here it is. . . . Everything you used to use you could throw out the window.' We kept waiting. Where's the beef?"

Now, she adds, "We're saying, 'Is this it?' "

The Tesseract Way

Just outside Felicia Anderson's fourth-grade classroom at Edgewood Elementary hangs a colorful banner painted by students: "Every child has gifts and talents. We accept the challenge to nurture these qualities in ourselves."

It's a variation of the Tesseract motto, which is omnipresent at Edgewood, near the western end of North Avenue, and at the other eight Tesseract schools. Because self-esteem is viewed as a prerequisite to learning in the Tesseract program, kids are bombarded with can-do messages. The tone is set first thing every day at "morning meetings."

At Edgewood, children gather in the auditorium to sing the school song and "Happy Birthday" to a fellow student. At Mary E. Rodman Elementary in West Baltimore, nine students hold the letters "K-N-O-W-L-E-D-G-E," while other students sing, "Knowledge is power, I know what I know. The more you learn, the further you go." At Rayner Browne, the cafeteria reverberates with the sounds of 100 voices: "I'm able to do whatever I put my mind to. I like myself. . . I'm smart, I'm strong, I'm ready for whatever comes along."

Ms. Anderson says Tesseract made her a believer in reinforcing that message. "You have to feel safe," she says of her students. "You have to feel good about you."

Thanks to EAI, computers line newly furnished classrooms and labs at her school. Rows of desks have been replaced by horseshoe or trapezoidal tables. Books, supplies and "manipulatives" -- things like blocks, sponges, dice -- abound. Classrooms, complete with a phone for every teacher, sparkle. All 17 Edgewood teachers have college-educated interns; before Tesseract, five had aides.

Tesseract, Ms. Anderson says, has changed how she teaches and persuaded her that learning must be fun and fast-paced. Rarely does she stand in front, leading the class, as she once did.

During a math class, she sits with four children at a table. "We're going to experience doing division using these manipulatives, these beans," she tells them, handing each child a blue work sheet, red beans and three plastic cups. She tells the children to fill two cups with 10 beans each and divide the beans into six equal parts. "Now," she says, "how many times does that 6

divide into 20?"

As Ms. Anderson works in the back, another group of children does basic math drills on the four computers in the classroom.

Students in another group copy such math terms as "division," "divisor" and "quotient" from a yellow sheet on an easel, then copy the definitions from a dictionary and use the words in a sentence. Intern Nicole Peyton helps students solve division problems on computer printouts; each child has a different set. The computers generate drills for each child and track his progress in math and reading.

On the other side of the room, kids huddle around a cassette player, listening to a rap tape: "12 take away 4 equals 8, the very first subtraction on our plate. . . . 4 take away 4 equals 0, the third time and you're a hero," says the rapper. The students are supposed to use calculators and chalkboards and explain how repeated subtraction is similar to division.

The class typifies the Tesseract Way.

"Tesseract loves creativity," Ms. Anderson says. "Tesseract says, now, these kids know their tables and these kids don't.' So Tesseract says, 'Here's a little audiotape - a rap tape so they can learn their tables. So I'm going to turn them on. They got their little toes tapping, and you'll hear them, '3 times 3 . . .' "

"They think they're having fun," she says, "but they're really learning something."

None of the Tesseract methods is novel. You'll find cooperative learning, computer instruction, self-esteem-building activities and other Tesseract strategies in classrooms throughout America. EAI simply packaged widely accepted practices, with special emphasis on tailoring lessons to each child and encouraging group activities.

Says Kathryn Thomas, EAI's vice president for staff development: "Having kids sit in desks in straight rows and write and write is where we have been in education, and for a lot of children, that didn't work, especially when we start to understand how children learn."

To that end, Ms. Anderson's students, like all those in Tesseract schools, are tested to determine whether they are primarily "visual," "auditory" or "kinesthetic" learners. Ms. Anderson says she uses that information to plan lessons; some children learn more by listening, but others do better by reading or handling objects.

Corey Chapman, 9, is one of Ms. Anderson's "visual" learners. "I like math and art the best," he says. He loves drawing pictures, writing in his journal and watching karate demonstrations at morning meetings.

Instead of a report card with letter grades, Corey gets twice-yearly progress reports -- including attendance and standardized test scores and checklists of skills, along with strengths and "areas of development." (Not "weaknesses," notes Shirley Johnson, Edgewood's principal. "We're saying, 'All of you are good,' and we're finding something good about every child.")

The assessment is part of Corey's "Personal Education Plan," kept in a 2-inch-thick blue binder. Because Corey needed to improve his reading, Ms. Anderson gave him special attention that has paid off, says Corey's grandmother, Joyce Giddens. His progress is part of the reason she heads the Tesseract Parent Coalition, to counter EAI's critics.

"Most of these people have never been in the schools," she says, "but I'm in one every day and see how much better it is than it was before."

Ms. Anderson shares her enthusiasm. Whether it's singing or drawing or more traditional schoolwork, the teacher says: "It's a challenge to find every child's gift and make that sparkle."

Meeting demands

But tailoring education to each child, the Tesseract Way, demands a great deal of teachers. They participate in morning meetings and coordinate computer instruction. They review the daily schedule with the class and plan elaborate group lessons. They hold impromptu parent conferences and lead "feedback" sessions -- a time to hug stuffed animals and share feelings. They complete reams of paperwork for each child's education plan.

"It sounds good, but in actuality we're fighting an uphill battle just to get all the skills in," says DeVerne Coleman, a first-grade teacher.

The Tesseract teacher must serve as a ringmaster of sorts and sometimes, the learning gets lost. During an Edgewood math class, for example, Ms. Anderson and her inexperienced intern struggle to monitor five groups at once. Unattended, the children listening to the rap tape play with their calculators and argue over who should take the first turn. They never do their assignment.

At Harlem Park Middle School, as students work in groups on exercises to prepare for standardized tests, some wander about, paying no attention to the teacher's repeated threats of after-school detention. "If you don't want to participate, all you have to do is sit down and be quiet," she says.

Maintaining order proves a constant battle for teachers at the only Tesseract middle school, doubtless EAI's biggest challenge. Some teachers say they spend half their time disciplining youngsters.

"We had to get control of the school before we could start improving education," says Wyatt Coger, the principal. At a recent faculty meeting, he told his staff: "We're winning the war. We've got 'em in the classroom. Now you're going to have to reach back, use all the tricks at your disposal and make sure they're engaged."

Teachers devote a considerable amount of potential instruction time just preparing the hands-on lessons Tesseract encourages. One fourth-grade teacher spent 15 minutes setting up "stores" where groups of children bought products with play money and were to determine the correct change. Preparation took almost as long as the lesson, and the teacher had to resort to turning the lights on and off a few times to restore order.

While EAI has distinct ideas about educating children, the classroom teachers don't always agree with them.

EAI, for example, believes that drilling children for 30 minutes a day on computers will significantly improve math and reading test scores. But the company concedes some teachers aren't convinced the computer drills work as well as traditional methods, and some children don't get the time.

Teachers also grumble about the paperwork required for the personal education plans and some question their value. Perhaps as a result, they often are neither specific nor ambitious. she will be able to keep her skills sharp, she should study her times tables and just keep up the good work she's doing," reads the "areas of development" section for a fourth-grader at ,, Rayner Browne.

In theory, parents are to help set goals for their children and attend four conferences a year. But the effort to boost parental involvement -- a key to school success -- has fallen short of expectations.

Like many other teachers, Danette Murrill figures only about half her students had parents show up for any conferences this year, much less the four EAI wanted. "It's kind of sad," Ms. Murrill, a first-grade teacher at Rayner Browne, says, "because we put a lot of effort into the [plans], and it takes away from instruction time."

Some teachers also resist EAI's direction, a tendency the company has tried to overcome through weekly training sessions. While some praise the teaching tips, there is little follow-through.

"There's no monitoring, there's no attempt to try the idea and to come back and report on how well it worked," says Maurice B. Howard, until last week assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

With no daily presence in the schools, the company has difficulty enforcing its program and insisting on high standards.

In Tesseract classrooms, teachers often allow subpar work -- assignments go uncompleted, mistakes are not corrected, essays consist of just two or three sentences strung together. Students are supposed to write in journals daily, but often don't bother.

Mr. Golle is frustrated about that.

"There is absolutely no reason," he said in a recent interview at Harlem Park Middle School, "that the kids who walk into this facility can't achieve what is standard in America. Half of the reason is the standards are so low."

What kids learn

While some other Baltimore school reform efforts gave up on the city's curriculum, Mr. Golle stuck with it. Now, he regrets that decision.

Three years into the experiment, Mr. Golle acknowledges Tesseract couldn't achieve the hoped-for results with the existing curriculum. EAI brought some supplemental materials - such as a phonics program - but Mr. Golle says he didn't insist on replacing the curriculum for fear of offending city educators.

"We made the assumption that has subsequently been proved erroneous," he says, "that if we applied the existing curriculum, we could expect the type of results we'd had in our private schools and at South Pointe," the Miami Beach public elementary that has used Tesseract for four years.

EAI is now discussing changing the curriculum with Dr. Amprey, though the superintendent defends it as "excellent."

In contrast to Tesseract, two other city reform efforts -- the "Core Knowledge" program at Lyndhurst and Roland Park elementaries and the Calvert School partnership with Barclay School -- adopted new curricula that put much more emphasis on what children learn, and when.

The Core program's second-grade curriculum, for example, runs 16 pages, listing exactly what will be learned -- by month. In September, second-graders study the War of 1812 and James Madison. They learn singular and plural nouns and verbs and read W.E.B. DuBois. This month, they're studying ancient Greece, the Greek gods and goddesses, and reading the poets Gwendolyn Brooks and Maya Angelou.

Compare that with the city's second-grade curriculum guide. In social studies, students are supposed to spend the entire year studying the concept of "neighborhood," with such learning objectives as "define recreation," "identify unpleasant emotions that cause one to react to others" and "describe the characteristics of an urban community."

In language arts, the curriculum hardly mentions such basics as grammar, spelling or cursive writing but introduces students to "holidays around the world" and the plotting of novels.

The Barclay School, which joined the private Calvert School in a 5-year-old experiment, abandoned the city curriculum. Barclay Principal Gertrude Williams says, "It's flawed at the core. They do not have 'musts' for what must be learned at each level."

The Barclay second-grade curriculum focuses heavily on phonics, spelling, reading, writing and math. Children learn 20 new spelling words a week, memorize poems, write weekly, study paintings by Vincent Van Gogh. They learn the state capitals, how sound travels, how to read a map. They begin multiplying and dividing and learning about fractions, sets and probability.

Barclay's students, like those at the Tesseract schools, live in neighborhoods beset by poverty. But the school's back-to-basics approach, which insists students repeatedly correct their work until perfect, has produced dramatic gains on standardized tests for both public and private schools.

Changing curriculum alone, however, would not necessarily improve what Tesseract students are taught, because Baltimore teachers often stray from the official lesson plan.

Educators call it the "barnacle effect" - as new superintendents and educational fads wash over their classrooms, teachers cling to the familiar.

"What we have in Baltimore City," says Dr. Howard, "is site-based anarchy."

From the beginning, both EAI and the city described the company's role as "management." Today, Mr. Golle complains bitterly that EAI "manages" the nine schools in name only.

It has no say over staffing and no authority to evaluate or replace principals or teachers. The company had sought such control but the city refused.

With little oversight, EAI officials say ensuring results is a constant frustration. "It's like nailing jelly to the wall," Mr. Golle says.

As it prepares to renegotiate its five-year contract on orders of Mayor Schmoke, who requested academic performance standards for the first time, EAI says the city, must give the company more authority to guarantee results.

To succeed, Mr. Golle is determined to take on some teachers -- those, he says, who aren't equipped to teach and those who don't share his view that all children can learn. "We have to purge the system of those people," he says.

The company also wants the power to transfer principals and teachers. Half the Tesseract teachers don't believe the program has improved education, according to Baltimore Teachers Union and EAI surveys. The union has led a nationwide campaign against EAI since the company replaced aides with nonunion interns in 1992.

Mr. Golle says principals should get merit pay based on achieving EAI's goals, and each school should have a "lead teacher" reporting to the company.

"If you're going to have me build a house," Mr. Golle says, "then I got to get my own brick masons, my own carpenters, my own electricians. You can't have me use the ones you already have there if you want to hold me responsible for building the house."

Dr. Amprey agrees the company should have more oversight. "We were never really fair to EAI," he says. "We really should have given them greater ability to hold individual people more accountable."

For now, the school's chief, like EAI, bears the burden of unfulfilled expectations.

Bronwen Unthank, a teacher at Graceland Park-O'Donnell Heights, a Tesseract school, expresses an am-bivalence about Tesseract common in the schools, at North Avenue headquarters, in City Hall.

"It's done a lot of good things, but I think it's promised too many things that are impossible to deliver. It promised the world," she says. "I think its biggest failing was that it just promised too much."

EAI'S TRACK RECORD

Eagan, Minn.: In 1987, EAI founded a private school, the first to use its Tesseract method, in this affluent suburb of Minneapolis. Enrollment; 283; prekindergarten through eighth grade.

Paradise Valley, Ariz.: In 1988, the company founded a second private Tesseract school in this prosperous Phoenix suburb. Enrollment: 313, pre-K-8. Standardized test scores for this and the Minnesota school have consistently exceeded national norms.

Miami Beach, Fla.: In 1991, EAI brought its Tesseract method and classroom materials to South Pointe Elementary, a new public school. Enrollment: about 700. The company's role will end after this school year. Scores on standardized tests increased at about the same rate as those of a nearby comparison school.

Granite City, Utah: In June 1991, EAI entered into a five-year consulting contract to introduce the Tesseract Way to two elementary schools in this suburb of Salt Lake City. The school board canceled the contract in December 1992.

Duluth, Minn.: EAI was hired as the district's interim superintendent on a four-month $40,000 contract in March 1992. The relationship was rocky, the Baltimore contract was in sight, and EAI did not propose to stay in Duluth when the contract expired.

Hartford, Conn.: In September 1994, EAI began managing the entire 32-school district, which has an enrollment of about 24,000 pupils and a $171 million budget. The company has begun repairing schools and installing computers, and has only begun to deal with academics at a few schools.

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