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Connections: Failure And Success

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Our failure to educate the impoverished children in America's urban school districts is one of the great scandals of the 20th century. Generations of them--millions of children--have been leaving school, often by dropping out, without learning even the basic academic skills they need to survive in a complex and changing world. The cost to the society in lost productivity, social support programs, and crime amounts to billions of dollars each year; the cost to the individuals in unfulfilled lives is incalculable.

Educators more often than not throw up their hands and blame the larger society. They point to the awful problems that so many of these children bring to the classroom--social, physical, and emotional problems that make them seem virtually uneducable. And so they don't expect much, and those low expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies. The schools' primary function then becomes custodial: Keep the kids off the street during the day, and keep them under control until they are old enough to leave.

This abrogation of responsibility is clearly exposed by schools like P.S. 161 in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Like many schools in distressed urban districts, P.S. 161 is largely poor and black. It sits in a neighborhood with a history of violence, where people are either unemployed and on welfare or working menial jobs.

The story of P.S. 161 is aptly titled "The Jewel In The Crown." This once-failing school is now a model of success and a source of community pride. Student achievement as measured by test scores has steadily improved and now tops the state average. Indeed, P.S. 161 students now score well above their peers in reading, writing, and mathematics. Equally impressive, the children are enthusiastic about learning.

Some explain P.S. 161's success by pointing to its concentration on the basics or the requirement that pupils wear uniforms or the unusually wise blending of whole language and phonics in the teaching of reading. But principal Irwin Kurz correctly insists, "It's the whole picture."

There are no silver bullets. Other failing schools in urban districts cannot replicate P.S. 161's success by adopting one or another program. They must do what Kurz and his teachers did: Change the culture of the school.

The ingredients for success at P.S. 161 are clear and simple: High expectations and the belief that all students can learn; teachers committed to continuous learning for their students and themselves; parent involvement; a clear sense of mission widely shared; and, finally, discipline and order. Leadership obviously has been key to P.S. 161's success. Kurz works 12 hours a day, inspires and respects both his staff and his students, and refuses to take the easy way followed by too many of his peers around the country. "It is really a question of intentions," he says. "If you intend something to happen, you can make it happen. If you want to get the job done, you can do it." And the teachers at P.S. 161 respond in kind.

Kurz and his teachers want their students to succeed and will do whatever is necessary for that to happen. Unfortunately, student achievement is not the highest priority in many urban schools.

The evidence is abundant that teachers commonly assume that because they are teaching, students are learning. If students aren't learning, it's their problem, their fault. Good teaching is hard work, and constantly learning ways to do it better is a demanding exercise. For most teachers, there is little or no payoff in making the effort and doing better. Good teaching is rarely rewarded; bad teaching is rarely penalized. As long as that situation prevails, little will change.

Diane Ravitch, a former U.S. assistant secretary of education, believes that P.S. 161's success can be replicated. "Nothing that they are doing is beyond the reach of any school in other low-income communities," she says. She is right. But the educators in other schools must want to succeed. Then they must expect success and work for it. The highest priority for every school--those in the rich suburbs as well as those in the poor inner cities--must be student learning. That is the single most important responsibility of educators.

--Ronald A. Wolk

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