If you want to know whether whole-school reform is taking hold in a school, don't wait for the test scores. Just talk to the kids and take a look at the walls.
At Thomson Estates Elementary School in Elkton, Md., the walls are papered with student work. Nearby - always - there's a neatly lettered "rubric" or list of requirements for earning the top grade. There's a rubric for every project, and any kid in the class can tell you what it is from the earliest grades on up.
The school is in its second year working with the Modern Red Schoolhouse design that emphasizes high academic standards in English, geography, history, math, and science.
The first-graders are writing about spiders. If they get their name, a title, a topic sentence, and three pieces of data on their paper, the ice cream cone (grade) has three scoops. A kid could be the Charles Dickens of spiders, but if the paper isn't neat or if he can come up with only two spidery facts, he'll drop down a scoop.
But a bad grade doesn't mean you're a dumb student.
"It means you need to think about what you did the first time and do better the next time," explains Jakara Garentt, a second-grader.
The projects are more sophisticated by the fifth grade, but the principle is the same: All students can learn to high standards.
"We've banished the cult of the ditto. We try to fill the school with good student work and lots of visual clues as to how you do it," says Principal Carroll Ayres. What he likes best about the Modern Red Schoolhouse model is its rich, integrated curriculum. "It gave our school a shot of momentum," he says.