Urban Schools: 'Equity and Excellence Cannot Be Divided'

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Following are excerpts from An Imperiled Generation, the report of the trustees of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

We begin with one essential declaration: an urban school will be successful only as teachers, administrators, and community leaders have confidence that all students can succeed. Different approaches to learning are required, but all students, regardless of background, should be given the tools and encouragement they need to be socially and economically empowered.

It is unacceptable that, year after year, about one out of every three urban students leaves school before completing the program or receiving a diploma. While the dropout rate among nonwhites has slowed, academic failure rates continue to be considerably higher for minority students than for whites. This gap persists precisely at a time when black and Hispanic students represent a growing proportion of the population.

Equality of opportunity, along with the support to make it real and not merely rhetorical, must be seen as the unfinished agenda for the nation's schools. To expand access without upgrading urban schools is simply to perpetuate discrimination in a more subtle form. But to push for excellence in ways that ignore the needs of less privileged students is to undermine the future of the nation. Clearly, equity and excellence cannot be divided. Unless we find ways to overcome the problem of failure in urban schools, generations of students will continue to be doomed to frustrating, unproductive lives. This nation cannot afford the price of wasted youth.

Accountability: A School Report Card

Holding local schools accountable is perhaps the most important and least effective part of urban education. What is needed is a school report card, one that includes a wide range of measures to evaluate school goals and procedures as well as student progress. We recommend, therefore, that each school be asked to demonstrate, at regular intervals--perhaps on an annual or bi-annual basis--the educational effectiveness of its program. Such a strategy might include reports which respond to the following questions:

  • Does the school have clearly defined goals?
  • Does the school evaluate the language proficiency of each student? What evidence is there that students are developing their ability to communicate in both the written and spoken word?
  • What are the number and types of books being read by students?
  • Does the school have a core curriculum for all students? What is the general knowledge of students in such fields as history, geography, science, mathematics, literature, and the arts? Is such knowledge appropriately assessed?
  • What is the enrollment pattern among the various educational programs at the school? Specifically, what is the distribution between remedial and academic courses?
  • Is the school organized into small units to overcome anonymity among students and provide a close relationship between each student and a mentor?
  • Are there flexible scheduling arrangements at the school?
  • Is there a program for students to take responsibility for helping each other to learn and for helping to make the school a friendly and orderly place? How well is it succeeding?
  • What teaching innovations have been introduced during the preceding academic year? Are there programs to reward teachers who exercise leadership?
  • Does the school have a well developed plan of renewal for teachers and administrators?
  • Is the school clean, attractive, and well equipped? Does it have adequate learning resources such as computers and a basic library? Can the school document that these resources are used by students and teachers to support effective learning?
  • Are parents active in the school and kept informed about the progress of their children? Are there parent consultation sessions? How many parents participate in such programs?
  • Does the school have connections with community institutions and outside agencies to enrich the learning possibilities of students?
  • What are daily attendance and graduation rates at the school?
  • What changes have occurred in the dropout rate and in students seeking postsecondary education and in getting jobs after graduation? What is being done to improve performance in these areas?

What we envision is an evaluation program in which the school systematically collects information and reports on student progress, not simply on institutional procedures. There is both input and output in the assessment, with a focus not just on means, but ends. For the school, the emphasis should be on a well-planned program, with flexibility, and a climate that supports a community of learning. For the student, the focus should be on language skills, acquisition of general knowledge, and on the capacity to think clearly and integrate ideas. Attention also should be given to books the students read, the service activities they perform, and the uses they make of resources in the school beyond.

State Intervention: A Necessary Step if Failure Persists

It is our deep conviction that when schools continue to fail, swift changes must be made. No other crisis--a flood, a health epidemic, a garbage strike, or even snow removal--would be as calmly accepted without full-scale emergency intervention. Therefore, we propose that the state and local district be authorized to appoint a School Evaluation Team, made up of education officials, along with parents, teachers, and college faculty members, to review a school where unsatisfactory progress is reported. The evaluation team, in its assessment, would have access to school records in addition to the official report. On-site visits would be scheduled. Team members would observe classes and conduct interviews with the principal, teachers, students, and parents.

Upon completion of its site visit, the evaluation team would identify strengths and weaknesses and prepare a specific plan for school improvement. It would outline steps that the state, the district board, and the local school should take. A range of options would be available.

  • First, the evaluation team might outline a list of emergency steps to be taken by the school itself with the understanding that another mid-year assessment would be scheduled.
  • Second, the team could recommend a continuing review arrangement, citing problems that bear watching. Under this procedure, on-site consultation would be provided by a senior advisor who would spend time working with teachers, counselors, and administrators. An analog for this person might be the "School Inspector'' in the English system who plays the role of prodder, coach, and advocate.
  • Third, the evaluation team might also conclude that the school was failing because of a fiscal crisis. It could then recommend that a special state fund be established to provide emergency aid to the school, proposing also how the additional resources should be spent.
  • Next, the team might conclude that poor leadership is the problem. In this case, it may well recommend removing the principal. This means that the practice of tenure for principals should be ended. Principals should continue in office only so long as they are able effectively to lead the school.
  • Finally, the problems may be so great and so intractable that the school, as organized, cannot be improved. In such a case, the evaluation committee could recommend closing the school, providing new educational arrangements for the students. This would be a strategy of last resort.

Local school control is crucial, but it is insufficient. In the end, students must be served and there may be times when the school, for whatever reason, is unable to provide the conditions for effective education. In such circumstances, public officials have both a legal and moral obligation to intervene.

School-Based Reform: Priorities for Renewal

During our visits, we saw, in all too many cases, a fragmented approach to school improvement. We found isolated examples of good practices but there was no overall design. We conclude that the time has come for a comprehensive program of renewal to be introduced in every school in every city. The exceptional example of excellence must become the rule. What urban schools need is a renewal program that embraces the following commitments:

  • Special emphasis should be given to preschool and early education. This means that, with government assistance, the nutritional and educational deficiencies of disadvantaged children must be overcome. It also means reorganizing the primary grades as a "basic school'' and giving priority to the language development of each child.
  • School size is crucial, too. All urban schools should be organized into small units--schools-within-schools--to make it possible for teachers to work together and overcome the sense of isolation felt by young people in the inner city. Every student should be well known and counseled by a caring mentor.
  • Every urban school should have clearly defined purposes and a curriculum that prepares students to meet their social and civic obligations, that introduces them to the world of work, and helps them relate activities of the classroom to the realities of their lives.
  • The urban school should be flexible in its scheduling arrangements, offering, for example, work-study and weekend programs, an extended school year, five- and six-year diploma options, independent study, and early college entry. A program of coordinated services also is required to meet the educational, financial, and social needs of students.
  • Good facilities are essential. City schools must be places with good equipment and libraries for effective learning. Federal support is needed to permit the refurbishing of old buildings and the construction of new facilities so students can learn in safe, attractive settings.

Educational success can, and does, occur in city schools and even in the most troubled pockets we found good practices that serve students well. But these effective, common-sense procedures--from early intervention, to smaller schools, to flexible scheduling arrangements--should not be introduced in piecemeal fashion. What urban schools need is a comprehensive renewal program.

Partnerships: The Federal Connection

Whether a school succeeds or fails in its mission depends on the degree of support received from the community it serves, both locally and nationally. How we, as citizens, regard our urban schools determines the morale of the people who work in them and helps students gauge their expectations. Only by building a network of support beyond the school can urban schools improve.

Specifically, we propose a new National Urban Schools Program. Such a program--similar in spirit to the Rural Extension Act that was enacted years ago to help farmers--would make it unmistakably clear that the federal government intends to be a partner in addressing one of today's most compelling social problems--the renewal of urban schools. The National Urban Schools Program would pull together pieces of existing legislation and introduce carefully selected new projects:

  • First, we recommend that the funding of Head Start be incrementally increased so that all eligible children are served by the year 2000.
  • Second, the appropriation for federal child-nutrition programs should be increased.
  • Third, we propose a 5 percent increase in the funding of Chapter 1 of the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act each year until all children eligible are provided service. Further, Chapter 1 should continue to focus on basic skills, but the rigid regulations regarding the supplemental support provisions should be loosened.
  • Fourth, a new provision should be added to the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act to make it possible for parents living in poverty to place their children in afternoon and summer enrichment programs of their choice.
  • Fifth, the National Urban Schools Program should contain a provision on teacher renewal, an updated version of the National Defense Education Act, to make summer fellowships available for teachers. This program also would expand the Christa McAuliffe Fellowships Program and reinstitute the Teacher Center program, encouraging teacher teams at the local school to institute their own program of continuing education.
  • Sixth, we propose an Urban School Facilities provision. Such legislation would make available to school districts low-interest loans to demolish or refurbish old buildings and create more attractive, smaller units, or make it possible, where necessary, to relocate in residential or commercial buildings, or shopping centers. Loans also would be available to rebuild science laboratories and to secure technology such as computers for more effective learning.
  • Seventh, the National Urban Schools Program should have a school innovation provision, a fund that would encourage schools to introduce new curriculum or new scheduling arrangements.
  • Finally, the new program should provide incentives for the community colleges and four-year institutions in urban areas to maintain special relationships with schools, to enrich teachers, recruit minority students, train more minority teachers, and help schools in the design of flexible school models. In this sense, higher education would play a role in urban schools analogous to the land-grant mission.

Finally, most funds appropriated under the National Urban Schools Program would be spent in behalf of school districts serving the nation's 100 largest cities.

[Focusing the funds primarily on districts serving the 100 largest cities would guarantee that the money would go to the target population. The smallest of these cities is Worchester, Mass., with a population of 160,000. This would mean that districts in 36 states and the District of Columbia would be eligible for this kind of aid.]

Recognizing that states without big cities also have urgent needs, we propose that 15 percent of the federal allocation of funds be set aside for students in these states whose pockets of disadvantaged children must also be served.

A comprehensive federal program such as this one would in no way signify a lessening of the belief that public education is primarily the responsibility of states and local districts. However, it would be a recognition of the enormity of the task and a declaration that a local, state, and federal partnership is required.

A federal government that can aid localities to build highways, provide for environmental protection, and construct hospitals surely can find a way to play a larger part in securing the future of urban education.

Copyright 1988. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Reprinted with permission.

Vol. 07, Issue 26

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