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‘Real Change Is Real Hard': Lessons Learned in Rochester

By Adam Urbanski — October 23, 1991 7 min read
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Like so many urban school districts in America, our schools could be labeled as educational intensive-care units. Nearly 70 percent of our students live in poverty. Most come from families headed by a single parent. Nearly 80 percent of our entering kindergartners are already assessed as one or more years behind in readiness skills. We are learning, the hard way, that “children at risk” get to be that way before they are 5 years old, and that teachers and schools are at a disadvantage even before they have first contact with their students.

If demography is destiny, we are in deep trouble. In Rochester, N.Y., the Center for Governmental Research estimates that there are approximately 1,100 pregnant teenagers and as many as 40 percent of them admit to drug and alcohol use while pregnant. Last year, 50 percent of the babies born to teenage mothers at St. Mary’s Hospital in our city tested positive for cocaine.

As the conditions for children in our society deteriorate, even heavier burdens are placed upon our schools. Children traumatized by social ills can indeed be helped by schools--but not by schools alone.

To address successfully the academic needs of children, we must at the same time pay attention to their other needs. We must promote development and learning by building supportive bonds that draw together parents, social- and health-service agencies, and schools.

Education reform can be effective only if accompanied by reform in health care, social services employment, housing, child care, juvenile justice, and other services that, in addition to schools, affect children’s lives.

While the problems are daunting and there is no quick fix, we have a collective responsibility to do the hard work necessary to improve the lot of our children. We cannot accomplish this as single individuals or as individual constituencies; we can succeed only as a community collaborating on a shared agenda.

And as our community tackles the goal of getting all children ready for school, we, the educators in Rochester, are determined to continue our effort to get schools ready for all children.

Under current circumstances, it ought to be understandable why we favor change. For us, status quo is merely a euphemism for “the mess we’re in.” Simple common sense tells us that the surest way to continue to get the lousy results we have been getting is to do everything the same lousy way: If we always do what we’ve always done, we will always get what we’ve always got. Besides, it seems futile to agonize over whether or not to change; change is inevitable, only growth is optional.

But change in education is difficult. It means doing things differently, not just doing longer or harder what we already do. Change is difficult also because we tend to confuse what is familiar with that which is natural. Change is inhibited more by tradition and inertia than by mandates and regulations. “Letting go” of some practices is proving more difficult than “adding on” new ones. And since most of us were schooled in the very type of institutions that we are trying to change, too many of us hold suspect any school that does not resemble the school that we remember.

Yet, schools must be restructured because they remain today as they were designed nearly a century ago, when the economic rage was the mass-production system and the factory model. The problem with schools is not that they are no longer as good as they once were; the problem is that they are precisely as they always were, but the needs of society and the needs of our students have changed significantly. That is why we must reevaluate what we do in schools: how time is allocated, how space is utilized, how students are grouped, and how the subject matter is divided. We must recognize that teaching is not “telling,” learning is not just accumulating, and knowledge is not just facts.

The new definition of knowledge is ability to apply information in a useful way. The question, therefore, is no longer just “what do students know?” but also “what are they able to do?” Our pedagogy and assessments of student learning should reflect this change, as well.

Real change is real hard. It is an inductive process, a search. Along the way we have encountered some false starts, wrong turns, and negative findings. We experienced turf wars (the administrators’ association filed a suit against the school district and the teachers’ union in an attempt to block the reforms), community opposition (“You are experimenting on our children”), and resistance from some teachers, as well (“What if they pay us more and let us make the decisions, but the kids still don’t do better? They’ll then blame us!”). Yet, the pain involved may in itself be evidence that the changes we are attempting are substantive.

And real change also takes real time. Expecting extraordinary results very quickly is unrealistic. As Fred Hechinger, the former education writer for The New York Times, has pointed out, that would be like planting a young tree and then pulling it up once a week to see how the roots are taking hold. “Never discourage anyone who makes progress, no matter how slowly,” Plato cautioned wisely.

There are, however, signs of improvement in Rochester city schools. We are beginning to arrest and to reverse the downward trend of student failure:

  • When last year’s 3rd graders entered kindergarten in 1987-88, 53 percent of them tested well below the national average; yet, by 3rd grade, more than 81 percent tested above state standards on state tests.
  • At the elementary level, the percentage of students promoted has increased at each grade (93 percent at the end of 1988-89).
  • Fewer elementary-school students are being referred to the committee for special education, and fewer are enrolled in special-education classes.
  • Elementary students’ reading and mathematics performance continues to improve. Reading performance of 6th graders in our middle schools improved, in the 1989-90 school year, from 51 percent achieving at the state reference point to 73 percent. Meanwhile, more 8th graders passed English, math, science, and social studies. And there has been a sizable increase in the proportion of students over all scoring an A, B, or C in science. . More students are enrolled in state Board of Regents courses. Among 9th graders, the proportion went from 41 percent in 1986-87 to 55 percent in 1988-89.
  • More students are interested in college and taking the Scholastic Aptitude Test. (Significantly, this is especially true among minorities.) The percentage of S.A.T. testtakers went from 25 percent in 1986-87 to 55 percent in 1988-89, surpassing the national average.
  • Dropout rates have decreased from 14.4 percent in 1988-89 to 12.1 percent last year.
  • There is a higher percentage of black and Hispanic students in math classes, now matching the ethnic distribution of the school district.
  • More students are graduating and going to colleges, from 43 percent in 1989 to 52 percent in 1990-91.
  • There are fewer long-term suspensions. . The district is now better able to attract and retain good teachers. Since 1987, there has been a 50 percent increase in applicants to the Rochester City School District.
  • We have gained an improved ability to promote affirmative action in hiring teachers and administrators. The improved salaries and the reform efforts attract more minority candidates at a time of diminishing supply.
  • There are more home contacts by teachers: 73 percent of the parents of middleschool students surveyed last year reported that they had direct contact with the Home Base Guidance teacher by mid-year--up from 45 percent in 1988-89. Of those parents, 82 percent said that they found this home-school communication helpful.

Though we are somewhat encouraged, we also recognize that the reforms that we have promoted thus far are necessary but not sufficient to significantly improve the lot of our students. We must focus more than we now do on active learning and on coordinating access to the social and health services that schools cannot provide alone. And we need more top-down support for bottom-up reform: enabling support, incentives for success, and logical consequences for failure. We must also recognize that radical problems require radical solutions. The challenge of reform is not merely to buttress the schools we now have, but to invent schools we’ve never had.

We are determined to continue the reform efforts. If we succeed, we will give hope to the many children who otherwise are condemned to continue the vicious cycle of poverty, failure, and despair. Nothing is more important.

A version of this article appeared in the October 23, 1991 edition of Education Week as ‘Real Change Is Real Hard': Lessons Learned in Rochester

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