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Mission: Possible

May 01, 2001 3 min read
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When will we realize that poor children in failing schools pay a terrible price for our shortsightedness and apathy?

Kentucky is the “poster child” for school reform among the states. In 1990, its supreme court declared the entire public school system unconstitutional. Since then, the state legislature, guided by enlightened political, civic, and business leadership, has been working—with significant success—to build a first-class public school system.

As part of its reform strategy, Kentucky identifies both low-performing and high-performing schools. It intervenes to assist the troubled schools and provides recognition and monetary rewards to the successful ones.

It might be tempting to attribute the dismal student achievement in the 50 lowest-performing schools to the fact that most of them serve poor, white, rural kids whose parents rarely finished school and are either unemployed or underemployed. The correlation between poverty and low performance is so strong in this nation that it’s easy to confuse cause and effect and assume that poor kids (whatever their color or nationality) can’t or won’t learn. But that myth is shattered by a number of Kentucky’s high-performing schools that also cater to poor, rural students.

Kentucky’s Department of Education recently conducted audits of failing schools in an effort to pinpoint the causes of failure. To identify the reasons behind success, the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence and the Partnership for Kentucky Schools commissioned a survey of teachers, principals, and parents and brought together 80 educators from the high-performing schools for a discussion. The findings make dramatically clear that the difference between success and failure is not resources but leadership and attitude.

The 38 schools recognized for consistent and significant gains in student achievement over time share the following essential characteristics:

  • The school’s mission is clear, and the staff understands it and believes in it. Principals are strong leaders, not simply building managers, and they share leadership with teachers. There are high expectations for every adult and student in the school.
  • Curricula are aligned across grade levels and topics, and teachers cross boundaries to work and plan together. They share stories, techniques, and ideas, and they focus on each student, comparing notes on progress. They are continually involved in challenging professional development connected to their daily work.
  • Teachers analyze student test scores and other data and then, based on what they learn, modify their teaching.
  • Finally, administrators extend themselves to get parents involved in the school and in their children’s learning.

The focus in these low-performing schools is not on children; instead, the schools are organized for the benefit of adults.

The 50 schools (out of 1,300) designated as the lowest performing are the exact opposite of their successful counterparts, sharing none of these positive characteristics. For example, the unsuccessful schools have not changed since the court ruling more than a decade ago. They are aimless, lacking mission, energy, and constructive leadership. They have low expectations for teachers and students, little or no curricular alignment, and no significant collaboration among staff.

The focus in these low-performing schools is not on children; instead, the schools are organized for the benefit of adults. In the state’s poor, rural counties, the best-paying jobs are in the school district, so the education system is viewed primarily as an employment agency. The effort to ban nepotism by school boards was one of the more controversial issues in the Kentucky Education Reform Act.

Knowing what contributes to success seems to be of little help in dealing with failing schools. Despite the state’s intervention, most schools will not improve sufficiently. They lack the capacity—and often the will-to better themselves, and state takeovers have not proved successful. After the period of intervention, they go on as they did before—depriving children of the education they need to survive in a high-tech, information society.

Every state has failing schools and many more that are only marginally better. Because they nearly always serve the urban and rural poor, the problem isn’t identified for what it truly is: a national emergency. When will we realize that these poor children pay a terrible price for our shortsightedness and apathy—and that we do, too?

—Ronald A. Wolk

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2001 edition of Teacher as Mission: Possible

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