Published Online:

Foundation Outlines Plan To Rescue 'Imperiled' Urban Schools

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

WASHINGTON--Arguing that the reform movement has bypassed America's "most deeply troubled schools,'' the trustees of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching last week called for a comprehensive initiative to rescue urban education.

In a 38-page report released here March 15, the board paints a bleak picture of urban schools as institutions weighted down by bureaucratic control, decaying facilities, powerless teachers and principals, and low aspirations for students.

Excerpts from report on page 18.

"America continues to face the very real possibility of the two separate societies envisioned by the Kerner Commission two decades ago,'' warns the report, An Imperiled Generation--Saving Urban Schools.

"This nation must see the urban school crisis for what it is: a major failure of social policy, a piecemeal approach to a problem that requires a unified response.''

In the 81-year history of the foundation, its 24-member board of educators, politicians, and business leaders has rarely issued a report of its own. But the board's chairman, Stanley O. Ikenberry, said the trustees were driven to do so by the sense of "urgency'' underlying the plight of schools in the nation's major cities.

To combat the problem, the trustees propose the equivalent of a "Manhattan Project'' for urban school districts.

Their sweeping agenda calls for a new affirmation that all children can learn; greater accountability at the school site; a strategy for intervening in ineffective schools; and a wide range of school-based reforms, including reducing the size of urban schools and giving more authority to teachers and principals.

Federal Support

In addition, the board advocates an eight-point federal policy to help save urban school districts. The proposed National Urban Schools Program would, among other functions, provide full funding for Head Start and Chapter 1 compensatory education by the year 2000.

It would also make available low-interest loans for districts to renovate or replace old school buildings, if they agree to create smaller schools or smaller units within schools.

At a press conference here, Ernest L. Boyer, president of the foundation, estimated that the program--excluding the proposed loans--would cost some $800 million a year at first, and eventually taper off to approximately $500 million annually.

Most of those funds would be spent on school districts that serve the nation's 100 largest cities, he said. However, 15 percent of the federal dollars would be set aside for disadvantaged students in states without big urban areas.

Mr. Boyer also called for the creation of a National Forum on Urban Schools, perhaps convened by the President, that would bring together the nation's most influential leaders on an ongoing basis to lead the crusade for urban-school renewal.

"Once America was challenged to land a man on the moon within a decade. And we did,'' Mr. Boyer said. "This same spirit must be directed toward the education of our least advantaged children.''

'Alienated Youth'

To prepare their report, Carnegie representatives visited schools in Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and New York City. They also drew on data from a national survey of 22,000 teachers, and on interviews with students, teachers, school administrators, and parents.

Beginning with the finding that one in three urban students leaves school before graduation, the report goes on to cite a grim record of student achievement and alienation.

In Chicago, for instance, 75 percent of high-school freshmen had reading-test scores below the national average. And in one Los Angeles high school, because of mobility and academic failure, 7 out of 10 students left between the 9th and 12th grades.

The study also cites a widespread "culture of cutting'' in many inner-city schools. In New York City's academic high schools, one out of every five students was absent on any given day. And in four of those schools, the absence rate approached one in three. (See related story on page 1.)

Such truancy, the report notes, is a prelude to leaving school entirely.
"Alienated youth, for whom schools have barely made a difference, are flooding into communities,'' the report states, "where they confront unemployment lines, welfare checks, homelessness, and even jails.''

Breaking the 'Paralysis'

Mr. Boyer portrayed the sheer size of urban school systems as a major problem. "These schools are different not just in degree, but in kind,'' he said, noting that the "complexity of bigness'' makes every problem "more difficult educationally and more frustrating bureaucratically.''

To "break the paralysis'' that characterizes such schools, the foundation president suggested that "radical emergency arrangements'' may be needed.

One option, he said, would be the creation of separate legal authorities at the state level that could free urban schools from excessive regulations and procedures.

In particular, the report advocates placing much more control for day-to-day decisionmaking in the hands of school staff members.

Teachers and principals, it argues, should have the authority to allocate money at the school site, within broad district guidelines. And principals, in consultation with their colleagues, should have the final responsibility for selecting teachers.

Strict Accountability

In addition, it suggests that districts provide each principal with a discretionary "school-improvement grant'' for program materials, special seminars, and staff retreats.

In exchange for greater autonomy, however, urban educators would be subject to strict accountability for results.

"If we spent a lot more time asking what the outcome should be and how to assess it, and a lot less time trying to control it in a bureaucratic process,'' Mr. Boyer said, "we'd start freeing people to think creatively and start holding them accountable for the right things.''

The trustees recommend that each school be held responsible for issuing a "school report card'' on a regular basis that would include a wide range of measures to evaluate school goals and student progress. These reports would be submitted to the district office and the state.

In instances where schools are not making progress, a five-step sequence of intervention, which could eventually result in the replacement of a school's principal or the closing of the school building, is recommended.

During the press conference, however, Mr. Boyer made it clear that the proposed interventions differ significantly from the "academic bankruptcy'' laws now in place or proposed in eight states.

"I'm not sure that an administrator in a state capital is any better able to run a school than is a local school district,'' he said.

Restructuring the Schools

The report also lays out a number of controversial proposals for restructuring urban education.

These include an ungraded, language-rich program for students in grades K-4; the division of large schools into smaller units of no more than 450 students; provision of a common core of study for all students; and the elimination of tracking and coursework that stresses narrow, "marketable'' skills with little intellectual substance.

The report praises magnet schools and another, more controversial innovation: the practice of giving students prizes for good performance. The latter, it says, can be useful "providing it does not trivialize learning or demean the enduring benefits of education.''

The report also suggests that the last two years of high school become a "transition school,'' in which class work can be stretched out over a longer period, if needed, enabling students to combine work and study, or to leave school and return.

Finally, it calls on schools to involve parents as "co-teachers'' in their children's learning. And it urges that colleges and universities, social-service agencies, and corporations play a major role in helping the schools.

Mr. Boyer acknowledged during the press conference that schools cannot do it all.

"There are enormous pathologies that surround the schools and these children have been affected,'' he said. "Those [problems] have to be tackled with high urgency.''

"But what I worry about is a suggestion that we can be complacent,'' he continued, "that it's almost routine and expected that 20 to 30 percent of these children are going to be on the human waste heap.''

"That cannot be our objective, and that cannot be our policy,'' he said.

Copies of the report will be available for purchase in April for $7.50 each, plus $2.00 for billed orders, from the Princeton University Press, 3175 Princeton Pike, Lawrenceville, N.J. 08648; (609) 896-1344.

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories