In her third month leading the Columbia Public School District, Superintendent Phyllis Chase still has some empty bookcases and piles of papers and books on her desk. Busy as she is, she doesn’t have time to notice.
Fresh off two weeks of answering questions about newly released Missouri Assessment Program test results and less positive No Child Left Behind Act statistics, Chase stressed the importance of accountability.
“If students are not achieving, what happens next? Historically, not much,” she said. “We as adults control the conditions of success of schools, so we’re taking on more responsibility in terms of our student learning.”
This is the philosophy Chase has used throughout her career, especially when she implemented her accountability plan in Springfield, Mo., in 2000 as deputy superintendent.
“Good teaching does not happen in the absence of good learning,” Chase said.
At schools such as Benton Elementary — where more than 60 percent of students are eligible for reduced or free lunch — there were positives in the numbers as the school made huge jumps in most categories. This, Chase said, was the result of quality work by the Benton staff.
“They were very focused, reviewed their data (from past years), action-planned around it and incorporated those actions into a broad school-improvement plan,” she said.
Chase said she had concerns with the No Child Left Behind Act, which mandated annual testing of children in grades three through eight in reading and math. The law requires adequate yearly progress toward meeting the goal of 100 percent proficiency in reading, math and science.
“(The act) does not give credence or recognition to the number of increases in scores,” Chase said. “Any assessment that does not recognize growth, I would have concern with.”
Diversity — in student ethnicity, economic status, English proficiency, and physical and mental ability — is an asset in Columbia schools, she said.
“We believe our students are better as they move out into this world (as a result of a diverse student body) and that Columbia will be more reflective of the work force in which students will be a part,” Chase said.
She hopes the No Child Left Behind Act will not affect diversity in the city schools.
“I hope there are no unintended consequences from the act in terms of districts shying away from recruiting students from all over,” she said.
Known for her achievements in drastically reducing dropout rates and achievement gaps in Springfield, Mo., Chase has distinct district goals for the year.
“I not only want to bring up scores for those not doing well, I believe we can challenge our top students at a higher level,” she said. “It is an entire-system plan.”
One way to improve the scores of Columbia schools is to focus on those who are succeeding, Chase said.
“Finding pockets of excellence and replicating them in other schools — that has to be a part in our school improvement planning model,” she said.
Although there is concern that low test scores will limit education to simply “teaching for the test,” Chase thinks this is not possible.
“Even though the MAP has content area standards, it is not specific to the extent that you could teach to it,” she said. “Each year they change the emphasis to a particular strand, so there’s just no way. It is a broad academic standard — teaching for the test is really a misnomer.”
Chase, a former teacher, knows the importance of support for teachers in the district.
“There has to be support where the rubber hits the road — that is where the classroom teacher interacts with a group of students,” Chase said. “That is what this office has to be about.”
The Columbia Board of Education has clearly stated what it wants from Chase’s administration, as well, in terms of high achievement for all students and reducing disparities among and between groups of students, Chase said.
Chase said she also has a personal plan for her first school year with the district.
“My goal is to provide the leadership, as well as the support for us as a district, to achieve our goals,” she said. “I can’t do it alone, but I can certainly put programs and supports in place to assist our staff in making that happen.”
Missourian reporter Meryl Dillman contributed to this story.