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Tales From the City

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If told as an epic, the drama of urban school reform should certainly be nearing its climax.

The story has been unfolding for years: Urban schools, with the exception of a few pockets of success, face a host of complicated social problems that stand in the way of higher student achievement. Pick up a newspaper from any urban center; the cast of characters is strikingly similar. A mayor wants greater control over the board of education. The superintendent cannot overcome political intransigence and chooses to resign. Tight finances and budget cuts are forcing teachers to teach more students with less money.

These are a few of the similarities. But each city is going about solving the problems facing their school systems in vastly different ways.

Education Week asked four leaders from urban districts for their solutions to the problems in their schools. Their responses, though specific to the context of their cities, have surprisingly common themes. But the emphasis is on the solutions, not the problems. One of the greatest challenges facing urban districts is cultivating a culture that allows for innovative and viable reform ideas.

The writers in this special report--a superintendent, a teacher, a community leader, and a union president--put forth their best ideas. They point out that focusing exclusively on governance diverts attention and political energy from the real question: What must be done to improve academic instruction and achievement? On the other hand, substance sometimes follows structure. If an unwieldy governance system is impeding education reform, it must be changed.

These four writers come from cities where education reform is a priority. Los Angeles is considering the breakup of its 640,000-student district; New York City has tinkered with small schools and other forms of decentralization within its 32 area districts and central high school district; Milwaukee has been a pioneer in privatization, allowing parents to use vouchers to pay for private schools; and Seattle ushers in a new superintendent with support from the community and high hopes from students.

These individuals, from their vantage point in the trenches, implore others not to give up on the urban education system. They point to the successes in their districts, budget cuts and political skirmishes notwithstanding.

The following Commentaries point out that although this urban epic is far from over, it's too important not to see it through to the end.

This special Commentary report, one in a series examining issues in education, is being underwritten by a grant from the Philip Morris Companies Inc. In each report, Education Week will bring together leading thinkers and practitioners to focus attention and frame the debate on a critical issue.

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