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E.C.S. Advocates Redesign of Urban Districts

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Urban school districts need to be redesigned before they can be substantially improved, the Education Commission of the States suggests in a new report.

"Piecemeal change in urban systems has not worked," the report says. "It is time to change what we mean by the district or 'system,' and what we do to enable all children to learn what they must learn, when and where they can best learn it."

The E.C.S. report, released this month, is based on the organization's work with state leaders, input from various experts, reviews of school district policies, and meetings with political and education leaders in Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Washington.

The Denver-based consortium of state education leaders also studied and compared education policies at the state and district levels to determine whether they were consistent in efforts to improve teaching and learning.

Asserting that urban children cannot succeed in school districts that are geographically and financially cut off from the rest of the nation, the report says that states and urban districts may have to design new education entities to meet the needs of these children.

'Complex' Undertaking

The commission proposes calling these education systems "new American urban school districts."

The redesigned districts could be structured in a variety of ways, from being uniform, to being totally decentralized, to consisting of electronically interlaced networks of like-minded schools.

All, however, must be designed to lessen "the destructive effects of racial and economic isolation," the report says.

Creating such districts "would be an extremely complex and politically difficult undertaking, affecting fundamental elements of state constitutions and policies, and no doubt involving judicial review and support," the report's authors caution.

And before it is possible to create such districts, the report says, state and urban policymakers must find resolutions to three areas of tension: the tradeoff between decentralization and accountability; the tug-of-war between diversity and equality; and the political tussle that pits the interests of states, districts, and their employees against the interests of students and their families.

Unleashing Improvement

The report also outlines a broader policy framework based on one overarching conclusion: State and city leaders must work to improve the entire urban-education system--not just its parts.

The commission calls for urban systems to be released from state and federal restrictions that prevent them from pursuing teaching methods tailored to their students.

The report also calls on states to:

  • Revise their education-budget-reporting requirements to simplify categorical funding, elicit better accounting of money spent helping students meet higher standards, and de-emphasize the reporting of time spent teaching various subjects.
  • Eliminate financing policies that discourage improvement, such as reductions in funding when children are no longer deemed "at risk."
  • Develop higher performance standards for students, create assessments tied to those standards, and promote the development of certification requirements and professional-development opportunities to insure that teachers can help students meet such standards.

"Although education policy alone cannot solve the complex problems that plague cities, it can play a major role in shaping and energizing solutions," the E.C.S. said in releasing its report.

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