Student Performance Again Tops List of Concerns

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Improving academic achievement emerged as the most urgent concern of urban school leaders in a poll released last week by the Council of the Great City Schools.

It was the second time in as many years that lifting student performance topped the list when survey respondents were asked to identify the most "pressing needs" of public schools in the nation's cities.

The poll also explored respondents' views on school reform and the helpfulness of various groups to urban education. And it suggested that urban school leaders are growing more optimistic about the outlook for big-city schools.

Nearly half of the 235 survey respondents said they were "somewhat optimistic" about the future of urban education, while another third said they were "optimistic." In a similar poll the council conducted last school year, 62 percent of the 177 respondents put themselves into one of those two categories, compared with 82 percent in the latest survey.

"I believe this optimism reflects genuine confidence among urban leaders that many of their reform efforts are beginning to pay off and that their communities are showing more support," said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Washington-based council, which represents nearly 50 of the largest city school systems.

Public Support Desired

The council distributed the poll at its annual conference last fall, and also mailed it to urban school leaders. The largest share of responses came from city school administrators and other educators. Respondents also included school board members, mayors, college representatives, and others.

When asked to identify the 10 most pressing needs of urban districts, more than three out of four respondents put improved academic achievement on their lists. Building public confidence and increasing parent involvement tied for second-most-cited needs, followed by professional development, greater funding, and higher academic standards.

Smaller class sizes and facilities renovations ranked sixth and seventh respectively. With proposals pending before Congress to provide federal funding to lower class sizes and renovate schools, council leaders were asked at a news conference last week whether the poll sends a signal that those issues rank relatively low on urban educators' priority lists.

"No, it does not," Mr. Casserly replied. "This is not an either-or issue for us."

Reform Efforts Reported

Two years ago, violence and gang activity topped the list of pressing concerns in the council's poll, the first of which was published in 1994. This time the council did not ask directly about those issues. Instead it listed the broader concern of student discipline, which was the 12th most frequently cited need among poll respondents.

On the issue of school reform, more than 85 percent of respondents said partnerships with business and community leaders and staff development were being implemented in their communities. Raising performance standards was cited by eight of 10 respondents, while decentralized decisionmaking and higher content standards were named by nearly three out of four.

As for which reform strategies poll takers considered most effective, staff development ranked at the top, followed by higher standards, smaller class sizes, and student accountability. The council noted that although poll participants cited business and community partnerships as the most frequently used reform strategy, "relatively few respondents felt it was one of their most effective."

When asked to rate the helpfulness of 17 groups to city schools, respondents put Congress at the bottom of their lists. The news media rated almost equally poorly, while foundations, local public education funds, and business leaders garnered top scores.

Still, the council's report points out, "no group or sector had an overwhelming majority of favorable responses."

"Most urban educators still feel very much on their own when it comes to urban education reform," Mr. Casserly said.

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