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Urban Educators Urge Teaching of Cognition Skills

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The teaching of higher-order thinking skills must become "a major force in improving education in urban districts," a coalition of urban educators said in a "manifesto" sent to President Bush and the nation's governors last week.

The "Declaration on Urban Education" is one of several efforts unveiled last week by the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, an organization that has grown out of a series of informal discussions among educators concerned about the need to improve students' cognition and comprehension skills.

Its members include school officials from Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and five other urban districts, as well as the College Board, the Public Broadcasting Service, state education departments, and several colleges and universities.

The coalition's varied membership reflects one of its fundamental beliefs: that, working alone, schools cannot be successful in solving the problems of urban youth, but must collaborate with families, employers, and a full range of community interests.

"We need to really come together to build communities for effective schools to emerge within," said Eric Cooper, a former College Board official and current vice president of Simon & Schuster, the book publisher, which is also a member of n.u.a.

"We need to re-evaluate and re-define the family to include teachers, other school personnel, and members of the community, all of which must assume some responsibility for teaching our youth," he added.

The alliance, which will be headquartered at the College Board's offices in Princeton, N.J., "intends to take an advocacy position to ensure that the higher-order thinking skills movement does not skip urban districts," said Robert Peterkin, superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools and co-chairman of the alliance.

Research has shown that the teaching of such skills "can happen concurrently" with the delivery of instruction in basic skills, he said.

At the American Assocation of School Administrators' annual meeting in San Francisco last week, the alliance also released preliminary results of a study of programs in 10 schools that are using research-based strategies to improve student reading comprehension.

The study has found that "the slower students made several years' gain in less than two years," said Daniel U. Levine, co-author of the study with John K. Sherk. Both are professors of education at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

"To get these improvements requires using what has been learned in school-change research and effective-schools research," he added. "In inner-city situations, there needs to be some school reorganization or restructuring" to build effective programs to improve students' cognition.

The alliance's manifesto states that "It is no longer sufficient to strive only for basic or minimum-skill mastery as the goal of public schooling. Whether a student is headed for university education or the workplace, higher-order mental operations--to make decisions soundly, to solve problems, to be both critical and creative--are requisites of successful performance by all our students."

The document calls on President Bush and the governors to take 18 steps to improve teaching in urban districts, including providing "ample" resources, eradicating tracking in elementary and middle grades, developing "authentic" assessments of student performance, and establishing a "common set of expectations--a charter for excellence--which provides direction, evaluation, and encouragement to all children."

It also calls for teachers and teacher-candidates to be trained in the skills necessary to train students how to think.

To that end, the alliance also announced that it is helping to develop a series of videotapes, entitled "Reading, Thinking, and Concept Development," to ensure widespread dissemination of research-based teaching methods.

The alliance also last week previewed a new documentary film, "A Cry from the Edge," that examines the impact of both positive and negative teaching practices on urban schoolchildren.

Both the documentary and the training tapes will be distributed this fall by PBS and its Los Angeles affiliate, KCET-tv.

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