In the state's view, Brookside Elementary School in Norwalk is a "failing school" and has been since No Child Left Behind, the federal law enacted in 2002 that evaluates schools based on students' performance on standardized tests.
In the eyes of Ron Berler, who spent an entire school year inside Brookside, the school isn't failing in the common sense of the word and he believes there are other factors behind students' performances on the Connecticut Mastery Test than what happens inside the school.
Berler, 63, of Stamford, is the author of "Raising the Curve: A Year Inside One of America's 45,000 Failing Public Schools," and his book is based on what he saw and heard at Brookside during the 2010-11 academic year. Berler attended classes and staff meetings and interviewed teachers, students and administrators.
"It's kind of a boots-on-the-ground look at how what we call a failing school functions, and, in Brookside's case, in my mind, it functions quite well," Berler said in an interview this week. "It doesn't deserve to be called a failing school, isn't a failing school in my mind."
Berler learned about the impact that a student's home life has on his or her ability to learn, how the state's measuring stick for judging a school can harm a student's education and that teachers have a more difficult job than he imagined.
Berler will discuss and read from his book at 3 p.m. March 23 at the South Norwalk library. A question-and-answer session will follow, and his book will be available for sale.
Berler, a longtime journalist and a mentor at Brookside for five years, said he was given "unfettered access" to the school in exchange only for agreeing to be a volunteer teacher's aide for a year. Berler said he didn't encounter resistance from Brookside or the school district's Central Office when he wanted to profile the elementary school and that no one got to see his book before it was published. He said David Hay, Brookside's principal, was "curious to see how an outsider viewed his school."
"He knew me from mentoring. He knew my heart was in the right place," Berler said. "Mr. Hay had no idea what I was going to write. Some teachers were surprised when they ended up being main characters."
Berler, a former columnist at the Chicago Tribune, said his wife, a speech pathologist at Brookside, suggested he might like to be a mentor at Brookside about five years ago due to his interest in kids and that the idea for his book grew out of his work as a mentor. He got to know the kids, teachers and principal and thought Brookside was a good school.
"I thought, `This is a good school, but it's failing. It's been failing since No Child Left Behind. Why is it failing? How do you define a failing school?' " Berler said.
"In my year there, I saw good teachers and bad -- not very many bad -- but I never saw a teacher quit on a kid. I found that to be very impressive, and I came to realize who our teachers are," he said.
In the 2010-11 academic year, nearly 60 percent of Brookside's students were impoverished to the point that they qualified for free or reduced-fee lunches, and a lot of students came from broken homes, had parents who didn't speak English and lived in neighborhoods where education wasn't respected, Berler said. He said many parents also are often so tired and busy when they get home from work that they don't have time to read to their kids or show them how to do their homework.
He said the Brookside child he mentors had never been to a zoo, ballgame or museum and that the child's parents don't have newspapers at home because they don't read English. "He's going to go through his entire academic career without ever saying, `Mom, can you help me with my homework?' " Berler said.
"Their knowledge of the outside world is really limited in a way I didn't know when I was growing up. Nobody ever thinks of these things or the importance of them, but they play a big role in how successful a child is in school," Berler said. "Schools have kids six hours a day. The rest of the time they're home. Parents have to understand if their kids are going to succeed, they have to do their bit. That's one of the realizations I found."
One of Brookside's real weaknesses, Berler said, is not performing well on the language arts part of the CMT that deals with writing nonfiction. But many Brookside students aren't exposed to enough of the outside world to know how to write nonfiction, he said.
"I grew up in Westport," Berler said. "In Westport, it was taken for granted you were going to college. In Brookside, their dreams don't go that far. Their dreams are to go to NCC (Norwalk Community College). There's nothing wrong with NCC, but it's not a four-year college. It's a great accomplishment for many of these kids because a lot of their parents haven't gone to college, but they're not dreaming of Harvard."
"Obviously, I'm not talking about all kids. It's my sense of where many of the kids were at," Berler said.
Berler said his book is structured by time and takes the reader from the beginning of the 2010-11 school year through the end. His book also has a prologue and epilogue, he said.
He said he sat in on curriculum planning sessions, one-on-one reading sessions, music and gym classes and even interviewed former superintendent of schools Susan Marks, who was new to the Norwalk school district at the time. He said Marks was "very cooperative" and that he interviewed her for a total of four hours.
Berler said he also interviewed Gerald Tirozzi, former commissioner of the state Department of Education who he said was responsible for developing the Connecticut Mastery Test, several former staff members in Tirozzi's office, and U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn.
Brookside was like two different schools from August to Christmas break and then from January to the end of the school year, Berler said. In January, the text books would be put away, along with much of the individual literature that Berler said defines a teacher's style, and, in their place, a study guide would appear to prepare students for standardized tests. "That's antithetical to creativity in our teachers and antithetical to a broad-based liberal arts education," he said.
One teacher who particularly impressed Berler was Keith Morey, who teaches a fifth-grade class at Brookside. Morey is well regarded in the school and had a couple of boys who would "mildly act out" in his class, Berler said.
One day, Morey asked Berler whether he would be considered a good teacher if he taught in "a true urban school" and had eight kids who really acted out. "He's the same guy. The only difference is the makeup of his student body," Berler said. "A lot of it is external forces you have no control over. What is a good teacher? How do you judge a good teacher?"
Berler said Morey and other teachers not only have to educate their students but lead and direct their classes. "When one kid acted out, he would turn it into a lesson for the entire class," he said of Morey. "He treated the kids as more mature than they were, and they responded to that because he respected them."
Another insight Berler said he gained from his time at Brookside was No Child Left Behind's all-or-nothing approach to judging a school. If a fifth-grade teacher has a child who reads at a high second-grade level and brings that child up to a mid fourth-grade level, the child has improved, but the CMT tests the child at a fifth-grade level. "So the kid gets no credit and teachers get no credit," he said. That changed after Connecticut was granted a waiver to No Child Left Behind, but that happened after the 2010-11 school year, Berler said.
The state is now implementing a federal program known as the "Common Core" curriculum, which seeks to standardize what students are learning nationwide. "I think it's a good idea. The whole point of the standardized test is the test itself is supposed to be aligned to a state's curriculum. It's a test to see that you've mastered the curriculum. Through now that test hasn't been aligned."
"Where I fear there won't be an improvement is there will still be a crazy amount of testing," Berler said. He said too much testing forces teachers to spend less time on subjects that aren't tested, such as history, social studies, science and other subjects.
If Berler had his way, standardized tests would cover all core subjects but only be given in fifth grade, when students are graduating from elementary school, and in eighth grade, when they're graduating from middle school. "If the goal of the test as it was originally conceived is to judge not individual students but how well a school in a district is doing ... shouldn't we be testing the finished product?" he said. "You would have a lot less testing and no incentive to dump subjects, which schools routinely do."
"Schools are forced to do things they wouldn't naturally want to do," he added.
Berler said he also learned that teaching today is more of a calling and passion than it was when he was growing up. Back then, he said, professions for women were largely limited to teaching, nursing and secretarial work. "There are teachers at Brookside who dreamed of being a teacher since they were 8," he said.
Morey, like many male teachers, had an eye on becoming an administrator but abandoned the idea when he "realized his love was in teaching, not administrating," Berler said.
"This was his passion. This is what he wanted to do and he understood that," Berler said.
The structure of Berler's book evolved from highlighting two fifth-grade classrooms, two teachers and two kids from each classroom to highlighting one fifth-grade class, one teacher and two kids from that class. He said the book was too cumbersome when he began writing about two fifth-grade classrooms. "For a while, I had written myself into a corner when I was using two teachers and two classrooms. After I moved to one, everything fell into place," he said.