Special Report

Pathways to Progress

By Lynn Olson & Caroline Hendrie — January 08, 1998 58 min read

In the of some of the greatest cities in the world, hundreds of thousands of children spend their days in schools that are a national disgrace. It is a paradox that defies simple explanation or easy solutions.

But as clouded as the prospects for urban public schools remain, the nation has not given up on them. On the contrary, scores of efforts are under way across the United States to help city school districts hit the ever-moving target of 21st-century achievement.

Because of the widely recognized problems of urban schools, the boldest experiments in American education are playing out in cities. In hope of narrowing the achievement gap between urban and nonurban America, reformers are looking to everything from providing tuition vouchers to closing failing schools.

“The impetus for these radical changes is not coming from complacent suburbs,” says Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas Fordham Foundation in Washington and a senior fellow at the Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute. “It’s coming from the most discontented and disaffected part of the population, where kids are trapped in lousy, rotten, and largely unchanging urban school systems.”

Whether such reforms are happening fast enough--or happening at all--is open to debate. For every big-city school system celebrating an uptick in test scores, another languishes in dysfunction, despair, and dismal student performance.

Still, some observers think the case for progress is clear. “I believe that there is a lot of improvement going on,” says Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. “It’s happening with a lot of pain, and it isn’t easy. But, as I look across the country in urban areas, I see improvement.”

In San Francisco, test scores are up for the fifth straight year. In Denver, the dropout rate is down from 8.5 percent of students in grades 7-12 in 1995-96 to 6.5 percent last school year. In Milwaukee, Providence, R.I., and San Jose, Calif., all 9th graders now take Algebra I, a gateway to higher-level mathematics.

Others see less cause for hope. “It’s hard to find evidence to suggest that the quality of education in urban America is improving overall,” says Samuel L. Stringfield, a principal research scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “It is also the case that some of the most interesting experiments in education are happening in urban school districts.”

Even the harshest critics of urban school systems recognize that they didn’t get there on their own. Economic changes, including the astonishing geographic spread of inner-city ghettos, mean educators are often swimming against a powerful tide of concentrated poverty.

“A lot of people look at poor schools and ask, ‘What can we do to fix those schools?’” says Paul A. Jargowsky, a visiting associate professor of public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “But these school are a symptom of the disease, which is economic segregation.”

To combat the problem, policymakers must find ways to reverse this trend, he says. “Trying to alter this process by which neighborhoods are being destroyed is a long-range way to deal with it.”

Meanwhile, many analysts argue, states and school districts can best help by targeting resources to high-poverty schools.

Research suggests that efforts to reduce class size in the early grades and to provide early-childhood education, for example, reap the largest benefits for poor and minority students. Data also suggest that test scores of those at the bottom of the heap are the most amenable to change.

But as the shortcomings of the federal Title I and other anti-poverty programs have shown, monitoring how those extra resources are used will be crucial if children are to realize any lasting gains.

Equally important will be the willingness and ability of state governments to strike the right balance between pressure and support-financial and otherwise. Christine Johnson, the director of the Education Commission of the States’ urban initiative, says many more state leaders are willing to make this effort because they have come to recognize the role urban schools play in their economies.

“Clearly, state officials no longer can afford to dismiss city education problems as ‘local control’ issues beyond the scope of state policy,” Ms. Johnson wrote in a recent report by the Denver-based commission.

Virtually every urban district in America has its success stories--schools of excellence created against often debilitating odds. These triumphs have given rise to justifiable faith that with enough perseverance and political will, the problem of urban education may prove solvable after all. What follows is an overview of some of the leading strategies being pursued around the country to make that hope a reality.

Raise the Bar

Set clear, high expectations for all students.

EI Paso shimmers under a burning Texas sun. Across the Rio Grande in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, small factories and assembly plants churn out goods to ship across the border. In the desert scrubland outside EI Paso, thousands of families live in makeshift neighborhood with no electricity, running water, or sewerage.

This is the fifth-poorest major metropolitan area in the United States. More than a fourth of it residents live below the poverty line. About a quarter of the population is foreign born, and an estimated 30 percent of adult are functionally illiterate. The three school districts that serve the city--EI Paso, Socorro, and Ysleta--enroll about 135,000 students, more than 85 percent of them Hispanic and two-thirds poor enough to qualify for federally subsidized school lunches.

“It’s hard in EI Paso to find any school that you might call comfortably middle class,” says Arturo Pacheco, the dean of the college of education at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Yet this border city is producing what most urban districts do not: a majority of students who pass state achievement tests, and an increasing percentage of young people who take and succeed in college-preparatory courses.

Since 1992, parents, educators, and community leaders in El Paso have worked together to specify what students should learn. They have invested in new curricula and teaching methods, and used data to track whether students are succeeding.

Today, nearly every state and half of the 74 big-city school districts surveyed by Education Week report that they are setting academic standards for students. EI Paso’s example provides a heartening glimpse of what can be accomplished when district take standards-based reform seriously.

“You will increase equity to the extent that you give poor kids access to the same curriculum,” says Diane S. Ravitch, a senior research fellow at New York University. “But if you continue to give them a low-level, watered-down curriculum and keep them in the dark about what they’re expected to learn, they will meet your expectations.”

In the early 1990s, as Texas was gearing up its testing and accountability system, community and business leaders in El Paso realized they had a problem. The University of Texas at EI Paso draws about 85 percent of its students from the local schools and produces about 70 percent of the region’s teachers, resulting in what Mr. Pacheco describes as a “closed loop.”

UTEP professors complained that too many high school graduates were entering college needing remedial work. School administrators in turn charged that new teachers coming out of the university lacked the skills to teach high-level math and science courses or to work in urban schools.

So in early 1992, the city’s leaders formed the EI Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence. The compact between the local school systems, the president of the university and the community college, the mayor, and the region’s business and religious leaders has focused on raising achievement for the city’s young people, beginning with a hard, clear-eyed look at the data.

“We had to come clean on the fact that if kids were achieving at different levels, it was because they were being taught different things,” says Susana Navarro, the executive director of the collaborative.

In six years, the group has fostered a culture of excellence in all three school districts. The 48,000-student Ysleta district, which is overwhelmingly poor and minority, has set as its goal that all students will graduate from high school fluent in both Spanish and English and fully prepared to enter a four-year college or university.

“It’s a simple standard that is universally understandable and universally achievable,” says Superintendent Anthony J. Trujillo. Ysleta now requires all high school students to complete four years of college-preparatory English, math, and science. The two other districts have imposed similar requirements.

In 1996, the El Paso community adopted rigorous academic standards that hang on the wall in every school. With a 15 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the collaborative has worked with the districts to build a more challenging and engaging math curriculum and to prepare mentor teachers who work with the schools. The districts have spent millions on professional development for teachers. UTEP has redesigned its teacher preparation program, with an emphasis on students’ command of academic subjects and more time in K-12 classrooms.

The results are encouraging. The number of schools in the three EI Paso districts identified by the state as low-performing, based largely on test scores, has fallen from 15 to none. The number of exemplary schools, in which more than 90 percent of students pass the state tests, has gone from a handful to more than 30. Today, nearly 60 percent of Hispanic students and 56 percent of African-American students pass all portions of the state exam.

Enrollment in algebra jumped from 59 percent by the end of grade 9 in 1993 to 95 percent in 1996, while the percentage of students who pass the course has increased to 58 percent. Although minority students remain less likely than their white peers to pass college-prep courses, their passing rates have improved, more than doubling in some instances.

Make Performance Count

Devise an accountability system based on good information.

Never before has the public demand for results in education been so high. And politicians and policymakers are responding. At least 32 states and 34 urban district now have accountability systems that provide rewards or sanctions for schools based, in part, on test scores.

Last month, President Clinton joined the accountability chorus by proposing a new “education opportunity zone” program aimed at high-poverty urban and rural school systems. To qualify, districts would be required to have accountability systems for schools, teachers, principals, and students as well as provide choice among public schools. Funds could be used for such purposes as providing supplemental, standards-based instruction; rewarding good teachers and removing poor ones; turning around low-performing schools; and converting failing schools into charter schools.

But no state has moved more aggressively on the accountability front than Texas. In 1992, Texas lawmakers threw out their old education system, which focused on how well schools complied with state regulations, and replaced It with one aimed at results. The state specified what students in each grade should learn and developed a testing system to measure whether they were meeting those goals.

Results on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills are broken down for black, Hispanic, white, and low-income students. And the state rates individual schools based on the percentage of students in each group who pass the exams, as well as on dropout and attendance rates.

For a school to earn an “exemplary” rating this past year, at least 90 percent of the students in each group had to pass the tests. To earn a “recognized” rating, at least 75 percent of each group had to do so. Schools in which fewer than 35 percent of students in any group passed the tests, or that had a dropout rate for any group that exceeded 6 percent, were rated “low performing.”

Texas newspapers carry the ratings on the front page. But low-performing schools suffer more than public embarrassment. The consequences can range from a public hearing at which school officials must explain how they plan to improve, to shutting a school down. So far, the state has not closed any schools, but it has dismissed the faculty members at four schools and forced them to reapply for their jobs.

In past years, the state also has set aside as much as $20 million to reward high-performing schools. And high school students must pass the tests to receive a diploma.

“While people in other states have dickered over the content of the curriculum frameworks,” says Uri Treisman, the director of the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin, “in Texas, as much attention has been spent on the teeth.

A crucial element of the system, Mr. Treisman explains, is that it does not allow a school’s overall good performance to mask shortcomings among its poor or minority students. By isolating the scores of poor and minority students--and judging schools on that basis--Texas has forced educators to pay the most attention to their lowest-performing groups.

Not everyone likes such a high-stakes system. Critics complain that the test scores are open to manipulation and that the emphasis on them encourages teachers to focus only on what is tested. Others contend that the state has created high stakes for students without first ensuring that they have access to a high-quality curriculum.

Despite such criticisms, Criss Cloudt, the state’s associate commissioner of education, says the results speak for themselves. Since 1993, the number of low-performing schools in Texas has declined from 326 to 68, and the number classified as exemplary has jumped from 22 to 684. That’s during a period when the passing rates required to meet the standards have increased every year.

More impressive, the percentage of African-American students performing at the “acceptable” level in reading jumped from 60 percent in 1994 to 73 percent in 1997. The passing rate in math increased to 64 percent. For Hispanic students, the passing rates improved from 65 percent to 75 percent in reading, and from 47 percent to 72 percent in math.

On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal program that tests a representative sample of students in key subjects, Texas’ black and Hispanic students now far outperform black and Hispanic youngsters nationally.

Although gaps between different student groups remain, the accountability system has galvanized Texas educators. “We needed to have a sledgehammer to get people’s attention,” says Stan Paz, the superintendent of the EI Paso Independent School District.

David Hill, the deputy director of the state’s systemic math and science initiative, agrees. “Principals are paying attention to student performance who hadn’t shown any interest before,” he says. “As a principal, I can’t ignore any group in my school, and that is the key to the accountability system.”

By shining a light on the various subgroup at the same time it is raising standards, Texas has managed to pursue both excellence and equity.

The San Francisco schools have made a similar commitment. The 64,000-student district also releases test scores that are broken down by race and economic class. School must explain how they are going to address shortcomings in their improvement plans, and the evaluation of principals is based, in part, on the performance of their poor and minority students. Like Texas, the California district has some heavy weaponry at its disposal: Since 1994, it has completely overhauled 10 schools in which student performance was deemed unacceptably low--a process known as reconstitution.

For the past two years, San Francisco students have scored above national norms in reading and math on the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills. Those scores exclude some special education students, some who are not fluent in English, and children who have not been in the district long enough to have taken the tests at least once before. Meanwhile, the dropout rate has been cut in half since 1990, from 18.3 percent to 9.4 percent.

In November, the district held a citywide summit focused on raising the achievement of black students. Superintendent Waldemar Rojas has pledged to bring the math and reading scores of minority students to the national average by the spring of 2000. “If you don’t disaggregate your data,” he says, “you won’t get at the problem.”

Let Leaders Lead

Create clear lines of authority. Give schools freedom in exchange for accountability, and allow those at the top to do their jobs.

Governing big-city school systems has never been for the faint of heart. Lately, however, the climate has been even more turbulent. In some cities, shake-ups are roiling top management, while in others the central office is loosening its grip on schools. Still other districts are trying to do both at the same time.

Pressure for much of these changes is coming from outside, as state and municipal officials feel the need to intervene in situation that they perceive as dysfunctional. Outside reformers, too, are battling to force districts to ease up on the reins and shift more power to communities and schools.

In New York, Chicago, and other cities, closely watched efforts to strengthen the hand of top administrators are provoking fear that earlier moves to decentralize power are falling by the wayside. But the two trend are not necessarily incompatible, experts say, if district leaders can find a way to trade freedom for accountability.

Making that deal work is proving difficult for many districts, however. A study of school district decentralization by researchers form four universities last year found that none of the six systems they examined--Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., Chicago, Cincinnati, Denver, Los Angeles, and Seattle--had fully capitalized on the idea’s promise.

As districts strive for the proper balance, traditional school boards often emerge as the losers, says Michael W. Kirst, a Stanford University education professor. “One of the themes running through a lot of these change is to prune back the powers of the boards of education--reflecting a 10 of confidence--either by decentralizing or taking over the systems,” he says.

Yet despite all the turmoil, some observers doubt that most cities are making lasting breaks with their traditional forms of governance.

“It isn’t clear to me that those are any kind of permanent structural changes,” says Paul T. Hill, the director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. “What this shows to me is that there are greater powers-the courts and the states-that are perfectly willing to disrupt things if things get desperate.”

Whether permanent or not, change is everywhere.

  • In Chicago, two dramatic changes in governance in the past decade have transformed the administration of what, until recently, had often been characterized as one of the most troubled districts in the nation.

In 1995, the state declared a state of crisis in the district and handed the mayor authority to run the 424,000-student system for four years. The superintendent was replaced by a chief executive officer, who runs the system with the help of a chief academic officer and reports to a mayorally appointed school board.

  • New York City is experiencing its own landmark governance change. Amid a series of scandals involving some of the district’s 32 community school boards, the state passed legislation, which took effect last year, that placed the superintendent of those subdistricts under the city schools chief instead of the local boards.
  • The 32 subdistricts oversee the city’s elementary and middle schools while the high schools remain under the central board. Although the power of the local boards has shrunk, the new governance law requires city school officials to transfer greater authority to a lower layer of bureaucracy: the individual schools.

    The district has until next year to write regulations that will govern a shift of some budgetary and policymaking powers to new school-based councils. Meanwhile, it is experimenting with school-based budgeting in more than a quarter of the subdistricts.

  • School boards in many cities have fallen prey to full or partial takeovers by the state, or in the case of the District of Columbia, by the federal government. In Connecticut, a panel appointed by the governor and lawmakers displaced the elected board in Hartford last year. Local boards in New Jersey’s three largest districts have been replaced in state takeovers since 1989.
  • Boards such as that in Compton, Calif., have been relegated to advisory status by state intervention. Cleveland’s school board suffered a similar fate under a state takeover ordered by a federal court in 1995. Ohio lawmakers approved a plan last year to hand control of the system to the mayor, but that shift is on hold pending court approval. In Baltimore, a board jointly appointed last year by the mayor and governor runs the schools. State leaders insisted on the partnership as a condition of greater state funding.

    Although many critics remain unconvinced that direct state intervention is a solution, supporters say it is sometimes necessary as a last resort.

    “However unpleasant the state takeover has been, it did institute a process of reform unencumbered by past policies of patronage and maintenance of the status quo,” says Beverly L. Hall, the state-appointed superintendent in Newark, N.J. “Our ultimate goal is to raise our districts to high standards so we can return to local control.”

  • Boston broke with 200 year. of tradition and ditched its elected school board in favor of a panel appointed by the mayor in 1992. In 1996, city voters rejected an effort to restore the elected board after Boston’ popular mayor, Thomas M. Menino, mounted a full-court press to keep the existing system.
  • Boston Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant, a former assistant U.S. secretary of education, says decisions about governance are sensitive to local conditions. Each community should select a structure that seems most conducive to school improvement, he says--one that allows for “more democracy built in at the local school level” and competent leaders throughout the system. “Intimately,” Mr. Payzant says, “the people in the leadership positions are the critical variable.”

    Recruit for Success

    Recruit, hire, and retain teachers who can enable students to reach higher standards.

    The situation seems unfair on Its face: Children with the most urgent needs often wind up with teachers who are least prepared to meet them.

    But, as matters stand, many urban districts have big trouble hiring fully qualified teachers. In a recent survey, three-quarters of urban districts admitted hiring unqualified teachers. And in high-poverty. schools, teachers are far more likely than in other schools to lack training in the subjects they teach.

    “The issue of what can be done for urban schools is quite straightforward: Get better teachers,” says Martin Haberman, a professor in the education school at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

    Programs to ease the shortage of qualified teachers in urban schools have sprung up around the country, often involving collaborations among universities, school districts, and private foundations and reform groups. Recently, policymakers and politicians have begun paying greater attention to the issue, often in the context of a broader push to upgrade standards for teaching.

    In November, the Ford Foundation announced a 1 million grant to the New York City-based National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future for an “urban initiative” designed to recruit and retain well-qualified teachers.

    The timing is crucial: U.S. schools are expected to need 2 million new teachers in the next 10 years.

    “We’re being jolted out of our apathy by the huge numbers of teachers we’re going to need in the next decade,” says Therese K. Dozier, the special adviser on teaching to U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley.

    In efforts to get a jump on the problem, some states stand out. California and Connecticut have launched successful programs to support, assess, and reduce attrition among beginning teachers. North Carolina gets high marks for its “teaching fellows” program, which offers four-year, $20,000 college scholarships to 400 high-achieving students who agree to teach in public schools for four years.

    And South Carolina’s program to attract academically talented high school seniors to teaching has been widely copied. The program is credited with expanding the pool of qualified teachers for hard-to-staff rural schools, and has served as a model for grow-your-own recruitment projects in Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, and other urban districts.

    In general, though, states have only indirectly targeted city schools in their effort to expand the pool of qualified teachers. Often, they have focused on attracting members of racial and ethnic minorities into the field. Such efforts have begun paying off, as more nonwhites have enrolled in collegiate teacher education programs in recent years. Experts differ on whether the focus on diversity has given short shrift to questions of quality.

    “There’s this massive rush around the idea that what urban kids need is more teachers who look like them,” says Kati Haycock, the director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit group that focuses on education reform. “The real thing minority and poor kids need is good teachers.”

    Mindful of such concerns, some states are pursuing the twin goals of enhancing the diversity and quality of the urban teaching corps.

    Illinois provides most of the money for the Golden Apple Scholars Program, which for the past decade has offered $5,000 annual scholarships to aspiring educators in exchange for five years of teaching in schools with high poverty and low test scores. Six in 10 of those selected have been nonwhite, and most graduates teach in Chicago.

    And the program recognizes that the best teachers often aren’t those right out of school. Last year, the state legislature gave the go-ahead for the Chicago-based Golden Apple Foundation, in conjunction with Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., to start offering an accelerated certification program for people who already have college degrees but want to switch to a teaching career. The program will allow students to earn teaching licenses that are valid only in Chicago. Although such nontraditional routes to teacher licensing exist in more than 40 states, few are specifically geared to city schools.

    In New York, state officials hope to increase funding for a 10-year-old program that give grants to teacher education programs that train minority students to teach at-risk pupils. The state board of regents is also considering proposals that would give bonuses and loan forgiveness to teachers who work for three years in such high-demand areas as special education or bilingual education, or in hard-to-staff geographic areas, including cities.

    At the federal level, President Clinton and some members of Congress are promoting ideas for enhancing teacher preparation as part of this year’s expected reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, and some of the plans have a decidedly urban tilt.

    Among them is the president’s proposal to provide scholarships and other support for students who agree to teach at least three years in high-poverty urban and rural schools.

    In the long run, improving the urban teacher corps may well hinge on states’ efforts to raise standards for the training and support of all teachers. But many analysts say states can do more to create interest in--and incentives for--good teaching in urban schools.

    One place to start is by ensuring that teacher training programs in public colleges and universities give students more experience in urban schools and help them develop skills for reaching diverse populations. Some experts, such as Ms. Haycock of the Education Trust, say schools of education should reserve slots for students who want to teach in urban districts.

    Another promising, if politically problematic, approach is to make sure that city districts can match the salaries and benefits offered in the suburbs. In 1986, Connecticut increased the ability of its poor district to pay teachers higher salaries as part of a major reform law. That measure also introduced a highly regarded program for beginning teachers and toughened standards for teacher education and licensing. Since then, the state has eased the hiring problem in urban schools and posted sizable gains in student test scores.

    “In three years they eliminated the shortages in the cities while raising standards at the same time,” says Linda Darling-Hammond, the co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching at Columbia University.

    Support Your Local Teacher

    Build capacity at the school level to improve teaching and learning, with a strong focus on better curriculum and instruction.

    Urban districts are only as strong as their individual schools and the educators who work in them. And most of those educators are already in the classroom. That recognition has led many city districts to bolster the support and learning they offer to teachers on the job.

    “The one thing I know that really counts is what goes on between teachers and kids,” says Anthony J. Alvarado, the superintendent of New York City’s District 2. In eight years, his 22,000-student district, where about half of the children live in poverty and more than 70 percent are members of minority groups, has increased the percent of its budget spent on professional development from less than 1 percent to about 3 percent.

    Every administrator is responsible for improving the knowledge and skills of those they supervise. And professional development is focused squarely on issues of instruction and curriculum. District 2 has also created a pool of talented educators, known as “resident teachers,” who accept visiting teachers into their classrooms each year for observation and practice. Within schools, consultants and district employees work with teachers to improve instruction. Teachers and principals also visit one another’s schools and classrooms and travel out ide the district in search of ideas.

    “I’ve looked fairly hard, and I can’t find another urban district that has done that level of instructional improvement in teaching and learning,” says Richard Elmore, a professor at Harvard University’s graduate school of education.

    Other districts are moving in a similar direction. Diana Lam, the superintendent of the 59,500-student San Antonio schools in Texas, estimates that her district spends about 3 percent of its 360 million budget on improving teaching. Each school has a full-time master teacher who works with teachers to demonstrate effective practices, identify outside resources, and analyze achievement data. The positions are paid for with a combination of federal and state compensatory education aid.

    Administrators in several city districts, notably San Antonio, Memphis, Tenn., and Cincinnati, also are focusing on connecting individual schools with broad reform efforts that are based on research. Nearly half of San Antonio’s 107 schools have adopted designs supported by New American Schools, a nonprofit group based in Arlington, Va. In Memphis, 75 of 161 schools have adopted a whole-school design for improvement.

    The same commitment is less evident at the state level, where policymakers have focused more on academic-content standards and student tests than on providing teacher and schools with the knowledge and skills to help students meet those standards. “If we had a heavier investment at the state level,” says Superintendent Rojas of San Francisco, “then it would take pressure off of districts.”

    In what could prove a groundbreaking step, New Jersey leaders unveiled a plan last fall to require all the elementary schools in targeted urban districts to adopt Success For All, a popular program that emphasizes bringing all students up to grade level in reading early in their school year. The 2 districts in question have received large infusion of state aid in recent year a part of a long-running legal battle over state education funding, and the latest plan requires court approval.

    At the federal level, Congress has set aside $150 million in the current fiscal year for grants that schools can use to implement proven, research-based models, such as the Comer School Development Program, Accelerated Schools, or Success For All. The grants, of up to $50,000 each, would help pay for training and other costs associated with the reforms.

    One state that is taking its commitment to professional development in urban schools seriously is Ohio. The legislature has provided 1 million each to six cities--Akron, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Toledo--to create or expand professional-development academies.

    Build Strength At the Top

    Create strong leaders at the school and district levels.

    Finding highly qualified leaders for urban schools is a continuing problem, most famously illustrated by the rapid, sometimes frenetic, turnover among superintendents.

    A few widely known programs focus on preparing urban administrators, such as Harvard’s Urban Superintendents Program and the Washington-based Superintendents Prepared, a collaborative effort of three national organizations. But they graduate only a handful of people each year.

    The University of Cincinnati plans to launch a doctoral program for urban leaders next fall in close cooperation with Ohio’s cities, but it too will graduate only a few administrators annually.

    With so few options available, many urban districts are concluding that they will have to grow their own top managers. “People are scrambling to find ways to develop the leaders that they have because they’re not finding them anywhere else,” says Robert S. Peterkin, the director of the Harvard superintendents’ program.

    Last fall, New York City’ District 2 began working with New York University to prepare 23 teachers for leadership roles. The idea is to recruit experts in teaching and learning, then train them to use that classroom expertise in managerial positions. “It’s the system’s responsibility to identify and prepare people for leadership roles,” Superintendent Alvarado says. “Most folks who are trained in school leadership know very little about the learning process of kids, the blood and guts of reading and mathematics, and the leadership end of improving instruction.”

    The current focus on making decisions and improving instruction in individual schools also has led some urban districts to create new leadership roles for their teachers. In San Francisco, lead teachers, who are experts in particular subjects, are taken out of the classroom for three years to train other teachers. San Diego has a group of 165 teacher leaders, called the Learning Communities Network Cadre, who continue to work in the classroom but also receive released time for working with clusters of schools on professional development.

    Urban districts also are tightening up the selection process to ensure that they hire leaders who can actually lead. Last year, Chicago’s mayorally appointed school board approved a new set of qualifications for principals. These include at least six years of classroom and administrative experience, a six-week internship under a mentor principal, and 70 credit hours of administrative coursework in such areas as teacher observation and coaching.

    In November, city school officials announced a new partnership to recruit and train aspiring principals, who would attend a six-week university program and serve as “associate” principals in Chicago schools. The district is also opening a new center to help prepare prospective principals, train members of local school councils in principal selection, and maintain a database of qualified candidates.

    But while states are responsible for licensing administrators and approving the programs that train them, Mr. Peterkin of Harvard asserts that there is little special focus on preparing the urban leaders of tomorrow: “I don’t see the state doing anything.”

    Patrick Forsyth, the director of a consortium of research universities that have doctoral programs in education administration, adds that while many preparation programs are located in cities, few have a specifically urban focus.

    “One university claimed to have an urban school leaders’ program,” he says, “and I said, ‘Well, what’s urban about it?’ And they answered, ‘Our students are urban.’ But the content, in fact, didn’t change.”

    Go the Extra Mile

    Get students the extra time and attention they need to succeed.

    Since taking charge of the Chicago schools in 1995, the administration appointed by Mayor Richard M. Daley has become renowned for its get-tough approach to student achievement. As more cities look to Chicago for inspiration, however, school leaders there want recognition for doing more than cracking the whip.

    “Yes, we want student taught to high standards, and we’re mandating a more back-to-basics curriculum,” Paul G. Vallas, the district’s chief executive officer, says. “But along with the focus on accountability, we also realize that we need to provide our children... with much more academic support and resources than children elsewhere would otherwise need.”

    As the drive for higher standards marches on, urban schools are under mounting pressure to do whatever it takes to help their students make the grade. After-school tutoring programs, a focus on early literacy, summer school, preschool initiatives, and smaller classes are just some of the ways city districts are responding to the challenge.

    Much of those efforts are conceived and paid for by districts themselves, but in some instances state governments are lending a hand. One area of particular interest is early-childhood education, spurred in part by recognition of the importance of the first years in developing children’s intellectual potential.

    Many states supplement federal Head Start programs for poor preschoolers. Others funnel money to public prekindergarten programs, in some cases targeted to urban or low-income children.

    As part of a broad-based effort to improve urban schools, Ohio is pursuing both strategies in a push to make preschool or Head Start available to all eligible children by the end of fiscal year 1999. The state also plans to foot the bill for the full cost of all-day kindergarten in its eight largest cities by next year, and three-quarters of the cost in 21 other urban districts.

    Connecticut last year approved a plan to expand readiness programs in the state’s 14 poorest districts, as well as in more than 120 additional schools with many low-income students. Georgia, in a program initially targeted to poor families, uses lottery proceeds to pay for a preschool program now available to all 4-year-olds statewide. And New York also committed itself last year to providing universal preschool for 4-year-olds.

    Reducing class size is another costly but popular strategy some states are embracing to give children extra attention. The need for such programs is especially urgent in cities, where classes are generally larger and the children more needy.

    But urban districts may have trouble taking advantage of class-size reduction because of shortages of space and teachers. Those problems have become acute in Los Angeles and other cities in California, which is in the midst of the nation’s most ambitious effort to lower class size in grade K-4.

    Campaigns to make all children literate by the 3rd grade--a cause championed by President Clinton-- are also gaining prominence. Cities such as Boston and New York and states including Colorado and Texas have embraced the 3rd grade benchmark as a guidepost for decisions about policy and resource distribution.

    Long Beach, Calif., requires 3rd graders who cannot read at grade level to attend summer school and after-school tutoring programs the following year. Eighth graders with at least two failing grades are also required to attend special academies designed to enhance their skills before advancing to high school.

    Baltimore schools, meanwhile, are using some of their $30 million in extra state aid this school year to lower class sizes in the early grades, run programs after school, and hire retired teachers to help children learn to read. The money was part of a deal struck with the state that resulted in an unusual state-city partnership to operate the schools.

    In Chicago, school leaders are trying a range of approaches to help students catch up or prevent them from falling behind.

    As part of the district’s crackdown on so-called social promotions, students in grades 3, 6, 8, and 9 are required to hit target scores on reading and math tests before going on to the next grade. Those who don’t achieve those scores are required to attend a highly structured remedial program in the summer. In 1997, about one in 10 of the district’s 424,000 students was enrolled in mandatory summer school.

    Students who still fail to reach the targets and are held back must attend a mandatory after-school program the following year. The district has also lowered class sizes at some schools where large numbers of students are retained.

    Nearly eight in 10 Chicago schools now have some kind of after-school program, with more than 200 offering dinner as well as an extra hour of math and reading instruction in a program that serves about 67,000 students. The district has also added 10,000 extra preschool slots, set up special programs for pregnant teenagers, and begun intervention programs at city hospitals for babies and toddlers. “If I can intercept the next generation,” Mr. Vallas, the CEO, explains, “by the time they enter kindergarten they will be far further along than many of the children are now.”

    Reach Out

    Improve the relationship of parents and communities with schools and educators.

    Parents at E. Washington Rhodes Middle School in Philadelphia became alarmed in 1996 about the high rate at which their children were being suspended from school. After some research, parents found that girls were suspended at twice the rate of boys, and many students were sent home for first-time infractions.

    Today, thanks to their persistence, the 1,100-student school has an in-school suspension room and a parent-school support team that meets twice a month to devise alternatives that will keep youngsters in class.

    Such changes are a small example of what can happen when parents and educators work together. They reflect a growing recognition that if urban schools are to succeed, they must reach out to the parents and communities they are a part of. “We need to redefine schools as a community anchor,” says Mr. Rojas, the San Francisco superintendent. “Schools, at this point in society, are becoming the one-stop shopping center for all services to the community.”

    Public and nonprofit group increasingly offer a host of services through schools, from health care and child care to parent education, job counseling, and recreation.

    New Jersey was one of the first states to provide money for school-based health clinics, beginning in 1989. A 1991 Florida law encouraged the provision of integrated services through schools. Today, states such as Kentucky, Iowa, and Tennessee finance family-resource centers and youth-service centers designed to strengthen families and remove nonschool barriers to learning.

    Some of the most recent initiatives are modeled after the community schools that began operating in 1989 in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. A joint project of the Children’s Aid Society and the New York City school system, the schools serve children three meals a day, offer education and job-training services to parents, and give teachers extra planning time.

    In Minnesota, lawmakers appropriated $3.3 million for this school year and next to encourage the creation of such community centers. They will be open 16 hours a day, every day, to offer education, recreation, health, and social service. The first three in St. Paul are expected to serve more than 1,700 children.

    There’s ample evidence in support of the value of school-community partnerships. Programs report that making a range of services available in schools can help reduce student discipline referrals, absenteeism, and course failures. When schools encourage parents to get involved, grades improve, test scores and graduation rates rise, absenteeism falls, and expectations for students soar. And the achievement gains are greatest for those students who start furthest behind.

    “The research is very clear that when parents are involved their kids do better in school, and the schools get better,” says Anne Henderson, an education policy consultant in Washington. “Schools that have an active, engaged parent community feel accountable to that community. And they’re going to do more, exert more effort, and have higher expectations for kids.”

    Studies also show that outside actors, particularly the business community, have been the most powerful force in efforts to decentralize and reform district bureaucracies.

    The San Antonio schools now have the equivalent of an assistant superintendent who is in charge of a Parent-Community Partnership Network. The 59,500-student system offers training and support to 69 community organizers located in schools, operates a 24-hour phone line for parents, and runs a parents’ academy that offers more than 100 free classes a year.

    Parents also are becoming involved in school governance through school-site councils and management teams. The most obvious example is in Chicago, where state lawmakers in 1988 required the creation of local school council at all schools.

    Some community groups also have organized low-income parents and community members to improve their schools and even to create new ones. Leaders among this push are the Industrial Areas Foundation, a national network of grassroots organizations working to restructure local schools, and ACORN--the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now--another grassroots community group.

    In Texas alone there are now more than 100 schools affiliated with the IAF’s Alliance School Initiative, which works with parents and communities to raise student achievement. Of the 89 schools in Texas involved in the program for more than a year, 90 percent have shown an increase in the percentage of students who pass the statewide tests.

    “For kids who are affluent it’s easier for parents to connect with what goes on in schools,” says Ernesto Cortes Jr., a veteran community activist and labor organizer, who is on the national staff for the Industrial Areas Foundation and supervises projects in the Southwest. “But when you have cultural barriers between teachers and what’s being taught and what’s going on in the lives of kids, you have to bridge that.”

    Think Small

    Size isn’t everything, especially in big-city schools.

    With Its pastel walls and polished hardwood floors, it’s hard to believe that a few years ago, the Wings Academy in the South Bronx was a functioning metalworking factory. But then again, it doesn’t much resemble a typical New York City high school either. And that’s just fine with Nateca Pedro.

    The 17-year-old senior, who entered the academy as a 9th grader when it opened in 1994, says the nontraditional high school offers a sanctuary from the large and violence-prone middle school she attended before. Wings, with 325 students, is one of an expanding flock of small schools that are taking flight across the city. “You can concentrate better,” Ms. Pedro says of the school. “You get more attention and a better education.”

    Members of the urban small schools movement fully agree. Their idea--simple in theory but far-reaching in its implications--boils down to this: When it comes to schooling, big cities should think small. Over the past decade, scores of small schools or schools-within-schools have sprung up, many of them in New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia.

    The new schools take different forms, and the degree of autonomy they enjoy varies greatly. Most share space with existing schools or other small schools, although some, like Wings Academy, have their own buildings. Some start from scratch, while others result from the breakup of large, traditional high schools. In another variation on the theme, a growing number of big urban schools are carving out houses or academies that aim--with mixed success--to replicate small-school conditions within the larger institutional structure.

    Amid this activity, there is no uniform definition of what constitutes small. While some say an urban high school with as many 1,000 students qualifies, many advocates of downsizing think any school over 500 students is too big.

    As matters stand, 85 percent of high school students in the 74 urban districts examined for Quality Counts attend schools with more than 900 students.

    Even ardent proponents of scaled-down schooling agree that simply being small is not enough. Many call it a prerequisite for creating a climate in which teachers and students know each other well, bureaucracy is kept at bay, and innovative and personalized forms of teaching and learning flourish.

    “Small is a necessary but not sufficient condition,” says Jacqueline Ancess, the associate director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching, based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

    In New York, a coalition of four nonprofit groups is nourishing a growing crop of small schools with the help of a five-year, $25 million Annenberg Foundation challenge grant. In the past three years, the number of affiliated schools has swelled from 82 to 140.

    Chicago is experiencing its own small-school boom, inspired in part by New York City’s efforts. University scholars, reform groups, and private foundation have helped educators create dozens of new schools, mostly within larger schools. They include 24 supported by $10,000 planning grants distributed in 1995 by the city’s reform school board.

    And in Philadelphia, all of the district’s 22 comprehensive high schools have been broken up into “small learning communities” in a reform effort supported with $16 million from the locally based Pew Charitable Trusts.

    In all three cities, relations between small-school advocates and the central office have waxed and waned. Issues of autonomy, support, and integration into the districts’ accountability schemes loom large.

    Meanwhile, the state role in creating and supporting small schools has generally been limited. “This has been a more local, district thing,” says Mary Anne Raywid, a professor emerita at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., who has written extensively on small schools. “And it’s heaviest where school are worst, which is urban areas.”

    In New York, however, the state has helped out by cutting small schools some slack from state regulations governing student assessment. That latitude came in the form of five-year waivers, initially granted in 1995 to 28 schools and later extended to several others. The waiver allows them to substitute alternative assessment measures for the state’s required graduation tests in science and social studies. Now, in light of sweeping changes to the state graduation requirements, state officials are working with representatives of small schools to craft a new system of recognizing alternative assessment methods.

    Research on smaller school settings has consistently found that they produce better attendance, lower dropout rates, fewer incidents of violence, and greater participation in extracurricular activities, according to Kathleen Cotton, an Oregon researcher who analyzed the finding of 103 earlier studies and reviews. Her 1996 analysis also found that students in small schools have more positive attitudes toward academics and that poor and minority students gained the most from small settings.

    As for academic achievement, the evidence in favor of small schools is less clear from the research. But a recent study that recommended 600 to 900 students as the ideal size for a high school may influence the debate.

    That study, based on math and reading data from a federally supported testing program that is tracking 24,000 students over time, found that students learned less in schools above or below that ideal range. Noting that performance of poor and minority students was most affected by school size, the researchers concluded that urban districts should break up big schools while making sure the smaller units are large enough to offer a sufficiently broad curriculum.

    “Now it’s almost like a mantra: ‘Small is good, big is bad,’” observes Valerie E. Lee, a professor of education at the University of Michigan, who co-wrote the study with Julia B. Smith of Western Michigan University. “But there’s a balance between the smallness that brings intimate social relations and having a school that’s large enough to have a rational academic program.”

    Fix the Roof

    Provide safe and adequate school buildings. Give children an environment that is conducive to learning.

    Since a parents’ group sued five year ago over dangerous and decrepit conditions in public schools in the nation’ capital, legal skirmishes over repairs have repeatedly brought the system to a standstill. Not only did the conflicts cause the school year to begin late in three of the past four Septembers, but they also led to the temporary closure of eight schools last fall before the suit was settled in November.

    Because of the depth of its infrastructure crisis, the District of Columbia provides a textbook example of crumbling city schools. But no urban district is immune from facilities problems.

    City districts across the country need not only to renovate aging schools, but also to catch up with new technology and other innovations, build new schools to handle growing enrollment, and comply with increasingly complex health and safety regulations. In many cities, the estimated bill for school repairs run into the hundreds of millions--even billions--of dollars.

    Historically, school infrastructure has been considered primarily a local responsibility. Many state leaders believe it should stay that way. Even in Florida, where lawmakers adopted a $2.7 billion plan to ease severe school crowding during a special session last fall, lawmakers stressed that districts should not look to Tallahassee for the solution.

    “I certainly think there’s a role for states,” says Terry Whitney, a senior policy analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. “But that doesn’t absolve local school districts, who until recently have always been responsible for this and have cut their budgets in ways that have contributed to the conditions we’re talking about.”

    While applauding the periodic construction aid offered by such states as Florida, California, and New York, advocate for urban schools argue that states could do much more.

    “The degree of state assistance to solve urban infrastructure problems is pitiful and pathetic,” says Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, an association of large city school systems. “The states have clearly walked away from one of America’s toughest educational problems.”

    A much-cited series of reports on school facilities by the U.S. General Accounting Office in 1995 and 1996 estimated that 112 billion was needed to build and upgrade schools nationwide. City schools, according to the studies, were more likely to have inadequate facilities than those elsewhere. At the time of the studies, just 13 states had comprehensive program that provided funding and technical assistance in addition to collecting data on building needs statewide. The GAO found that states had spent 3.5 billion on school renovation and construction in 1994, and that 34 of the 40 states that provide aid for such purposes took school districts’ own ability to pay into account when distributing the money.

    In the wake of the studies, President Clinton proposed a plan for $5 billion in federal aid for school construction. The White House agreed to drop the proposal during balanced-budget negotiations with Congress last spring, but the administration has said it will offer a new plan this year.

    Meanwhile, some city districts have won voter approval for sizable school facilities bond issues in recent years. Los Angeles voters gave the go-ahead last spring to a 2.4 billion bond package--the largest ever by a single district--after narrowly rejecting it five months earlier. Detroit scored big with a $1.5 billion bond issue in 1994, although school officials there have been low to put the money to use. But for many cities, persuading voters to approve big spending plans remains difficult. Houston voters in 1996 turned down a proposed 390 million bond package to build 15 schools and upgrade dozens of others.

    Several states, including California, make it even harder, by requiring that bond proposals win approval of two-third of voters. In a 1993 referendum, California voters turned back a bid to lower that threshold to a simple majority.

    Some states are being pushed into taking a more active role in addressing school infrastructure. Pressure comes from surging enrollment and, in some cases, from lawsuits seeking funding equity between rich and poor districts.

    In Arizona, for example, stark disparities in facilities were at the heart of a 1994 court ruling that declared the state’s education funding formula unconstitutional. State leaders responded with plans to provide more than $130 million in facilities aid. But the state supreme court sent lawmakers back to the drawing board last fall.

    In Nevada, booming enrollment and a finance system that has left districts to pay for facilities on their own have led to monumental crowding, especially in Las Vegas and the rest of Clark County, the fastest-growing county in the nation. Last year, state lawmakers responded with legislation that will let the county use increased taxes on hotel room and real estate transfers to pay for school construction.

    New York City, which faces crowding and facilities problems on a scale that dwarfs those in most other districts, was not so lucky. A proposed 2.4 billion statewide bond issue for fixing up schools that was expected to channel more than $950 million in aid to the city lost at the polls last November.

    Encourage Competition

    Break up the monopoly on district-run schools.

    After returning home from an overseas military posting in 1996, Robert and Terri Johnson enrolled their two young daughters in a public elementary school in Milwaukee. It didn’t take long for the disenchantment to set in.

    For most families of their modest means, thoughts of private education would be little more than a pipe dream. But for the past seven years, low-income parents in Milwaukee have had more choices than most.

    In a program at the center of a national debate over school choice, Wisconsin now pays nearly $4,700 in annual tuition for nearly 1,600 low-income students to attend private, nonreligious schools in the city. Among the 23 schools participating this year is the Marva Collins Preparatory School of Wisconsin, which opened last fall with 90 students in a building leased from the Johnsons’ church.

    To the Johnsons, the opportunity to enroll their daughters there last September was an answer to their prayers. “The school instills a discipline that they just weren’t getting in the public school,” Mr. Johnson says. “I think things are going incredibly well.”

    The idea behind Milwaukee’s voucher program--and one in Cleveland that allow students to enroll in religious as well as secular schools--is relatively simple: Poor families should have as much right to choose private education as wealthier ones.

    Many proponents see private school vouchers, along with charter schools and private management of public schools, as just the kind of pressure needed to make urban educators change their ways.

    “The whole credibility and support for low-income vouchers has made them stop and think,” says Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based organization that tracks and promotes school choice.

    While some school choice proponents favor publicly financed tuition vouchers for children of all income levels, the idea of reserving such assistance for poor families seems to be gaining prominence.

    One leading supporter is Ms. Ravitch, a former assistant U.S. secretary of education under President Bush and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington as well as at NYU. Ms. Ravitch says she has come to support income-based vouchers after concluding that public schools were reforming too slowly. “The biggest problem in this country is the low performance of minority kids, and you can’t look at the contrast between public and private schools and not be impressed,” she says. “I think it’s a matter of justice.”

    But to the teachers’ unions and most other public education groups, voucher do nothing but drain resources from the many to benefit the few. “The market economy has not provided good health care in poor neighborhoods, beautiful suburban-style supermarkets, or good housing,” argues Ms. Feldman, the AFT president. “It’s a dangerous thing to expect that this kind of radical idea is going to create good schools for all of our children.”

    Although recent polls suggest that support for vouchers is growing among African-Americans, black leaders who champion vouchers remain the exception. Still, some see the issue as a strong signal for city schools. Hugh B. Price, the president of the National Urban League, got educators’ attention last summer with a speech in which he affirmed the group’s opposition to vouchers but warned that parents were growing impatient. “If urban schools as we know them continue to fail in the face of all we know about how to improve them,” he said in his keynote address at a National Urban League convention, “then your customers will be obliged to shop elsewhere for quality education.”

    Although they have received ample publicity, several large-scale efforts by private companies to run public schools have met with limited success. Baltimore, Hartford, Conn., and Minneapolis are among the cities that have experimented with such arrangements, and Boston, Miami-Dade County, Fla., and Wichita, Kan., are among those that are doing so now. Although the number of such deals is small, analysts say they contribute to a sense that traditional public schools are no longer the only game in town.

    Charter schools, meanwhile, are proving more popular and politically palatable, even to the teachers’ unions. An untested experiment only a few years ago, the idea has quickly worked its way into the education mainstream.

    Minnesota enacted the nation’s first charter law in 1991, and more than 750 are now up and running in nearly two-dozen states, serving some 150,000 children. Another half-dozen states have laws authorizing their creation. In exchange for freedom from most state and district bureaucracy, charter schools agree to be held accountable for results and face revocation of their charters--and their public funding--if they fail to deliver.

    Researchers are closely watching both the voucher programs and charter schools to see whether they work. Many say it is premature to draw firm conclusions about charter schools, as solid data on their student achievement are limited so far.

    As for vouchers, most agree that the kind of satisfaction that the Johnsons express is typical. But early studies of test scores in Milwaukee have drawn widely different conclusions resulting in much finger-pointing and accusations of ideological bias. Most experts agree that the program is still too small and young to show concrete proof one way or the other about whether vouchers produce academic gains.

    Such controversies aside, school choice supporters argue that charter schools and vouchers are having a tangible if sometimes unacknowledged impact on public schools that goes far beyond the relatively small number of students using them. Many see their influence in the national movement for higher standards, in the development of more specialized public schools and programs, and in reform that allow public school students greater choice both within districts and across district lines.

    Some districts, such as Boston and Milwaukee, have even opened schools within the regular public system that look suspiciously like charter schools. “There are just anecdotes so far,” Mr. Finn of the Fordham Foundation says, but I think they are a harbinger of much bigger things to come.”

    Don’t Reward Failure

    Close or ‘reconstitute’ bad schools.

    As patience with low-performing schools wears out, state and districts are stepping in. In a process known as “reconstitution,” they are rebuilding their worst schools from scratch by forcing all or most of the staff members to reapply for their jobs. In some reconstituted schools, the turnover is nearly complete.

    States also have taken over the day-to-day management of chronically low-performing school districts, removing elected school board members and replacing top administrators.

    Such drastic measures show a newfound assertiveness on the part of state and districts, which often have let chronically underperforming schools linger indefinitely. “We’re seeing a limited tolerance for consistent and chronic failure,” says Ms. Johnson, the urban-initiatives director for the Education Commission of the States.

    Massive intervention in district affairs remain relatively uncommon. Although evidence suggests that state takeovers can whip districts into shape financially, it’s less clear that they can improve learning.

    Indeed, some state officials are realizing that operating a large school district from the statehouse on a day-to-day basis may not be worth the trouble. In Maryland, state policymakers decided last year to redesign the governance of the Baltimore schools in partnership with city leaders, rather than running the schools from afar. That realization also has prompted several states to consider following Illinois’ lead by handing control of a failing urban district over to the mayor, though it is far from certain yet that this method works any better.

    The idea of reconstitution, meanwhile, caught fire in the past year as districts around the country seized on it as a way to deal with their most intractable schools.

    Much of the momentum stems from San Francisco’s early success. The district became the first to pursue reconstitution aggressively after an early experience with the process as part of a federal desegregation agreement found that it produced substantial academic gains. Since 1994, the system has reconstituted 10 schools.

    Newly reconstituted schools opened this school year in Cleveland, Chicago, Denver, Prince George’s County, Md., and San Francisco. And in New York City, officials used their own, less drastic version of reconstitution to shake up 20 schools over the summer--on top of 10 in 1996-97.

    “There’s a need when schools have demonstrated a long history of failure to have some direct, systemic intervention,” says Rudy F. Crew, the New York City chancellor. If the principal and teachers could have done this earlier, they would have done it.”

    Such practices have run into fierce resistance from teachers’ unions, notably in Philadelphia and Chicago. In Philadelphia, an arbitrator ruled in July against Superintendent David W. Hornbeck’s plan to reconstitute two high schools. The arbitrator sided with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, ruling that the district had failed to notify the union as soon as possible of its plans and had not involved the union adequately in writing the criteria for identifying the schools.

    In Chicago, the teachers’ union has filed grievances on behalf of its members in seven of the city’s most poorly performing high schools, which were reconstituted last summer.

    Despite such opposition, Ms. Feldman of the AFT has urged teachers not to defend bad schools. “If a district has recognized that a school is in trouble and has given it help over a period of time and the school has not responded,” she wrote in an opinion column last summer, “we must shut that school down and start anew.” But the union president accuses most districts of pursuing the process “crudely--getting rid of people instead of bad practices.”

    Advocates of reconstitution are betting that the approach can rekindle a culture of learning in schools that have come to accept failure as the norm. At the very least, they assert, it will put an end to schools that should have been shut down long ago.

    But the jury is still out on the technique’s effectiveness. “The empirical research on reconstitution simply has not been done,” Matthew Keleman, a researcher at Stanford University’s graduate school of education, says. “It’s unclear whether an accountability policy like reconstitution will necessarily address the need to build capacity within a school.”

    San Francisco administrators point out that their effort involves far more than moving bodies around. Schools that are reconstituted must implement a plan based on principles drawn from widely accepted research on what makes for effective schools. And a number of low-performing schools manage to improve before they ever require such radical surgery.

    Others, however, do not. “In some schools,” Mr. Rojas, the superintendent, says bluntly, “you just don’t have the culture to succeed.”

    A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 1998 edition of Education Week