Strategies for Fixing Failing Public Schools

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Note: This FORUM originally appeared in the Nov. 4, 1998, print edition of Education Week and is reprinted here as a courtesy for our readers. The content of the FORUM is an advertisement prepared by the participating organization. Education Week does not endorse and is not responsible for the content of the statements and/or any views or opinions expressed therein.

F inding a glint of silver in the dark cloud that is urban education is becoming somewhat easier. Many districts are reporting rises in standardized-test scores. Some are requiring their schools to adopt a break-the-mold-model as part of a whole-school reform strategy. And in virtually every big-city district, some of the boldest and most promising reform experiments are underway.

Still, every big city district has too many low-performing, persistently failing schools. And while one failing school is too many, in some districts, they constitute a majority.

Functioning largely as custodial institutions, they are usually found in the poorest neighborhoods, where children are mostly black and Hispanic or immigrants who are not proficient in English. Often, but not always, they look like failing schools from the outside-seedy, unwelcoming, graffiti-covered. For the students, getting to and from such schools is often a high-risk journey.

But it is what goes on inside these institutions that creates a tenacious culture of failure. There are no goals, no sense of mission, and little positive leadership. The schools are usually mismanaged, and use their resources inefficiently and unwisely. They are usually larger than average, with larger classes, and teachers know little about their students. Many of the teachers are inexperienced first-year novices who are ill-prepared for the challenge confronting them. Some will not finish the year, and as many as half of them will leave the school after only one year. Those who return usually transfer out as soon as seniority permits; those who stay, more often than not, do not know how to reach children who arrive in class unready to learn and often wounded. Some of these teachers simply go through the motions, counting the days to retirement. Some are true professionals who strive heroically to help their students learn. Parents are missing partners.

The United States would simply not tolerate medical malpractice even approaching the educational malpractice so evident in America's worst schools.

Low-performing schools, not surprisingly, are so named because children in them perform poorly. Often, fewer than 20 percent score at grade level on standardized tests. It is not unusual for 75 percent of them to be several grades behind in reading, mathematics, and science. On any given day, one out of five high school students may be absent, and, on average, a student in the worst secondary schools may be absent a quarter or more of the school year. When they come to school, they are likely to sleep in class or roam the halls creating disciplinary problems. Suspensions and expulsions tend to be much higher than average. Many students change schools at least once during the year-nearly always moving from one bad school to another. More than half drop out before they reach 12th grade. Some of those who graduate cannot read or calculate well enough to hold a job or succeed in college without remedial education.

The United States would simply not tolerate medical malpractice even approaching the educational malpractice so evident in America's worst schools. What else can we call the failure of schools to teach so many children to read? But these dysfunctional institutions continue to operate even though they have been failing children for decades. They were largely invisible to all but those who lived near them until courts required some districts to report performance data broken down by racial groups and states and cities began putting into place accountability systems that mandate the collection and publication of performance data for all public schools. Now, with their dismal records publicly displayed, failing schools stand out like pathological lesions on the education system, compelling the attention of state and local policymakers. And the greatest challenge to those who would transform public education is to fix the persistently failing schools. In the past few years, a growing number of states and urban districts have been formulating strategies for dealing with the lowest-performing schools-notably Kentucky, Maryland, New York, and Texas; San Francisco, Houston, New York City, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Portland (Ore.), and Philadelphia.

Researchers, analysts, and practitioners have also begun to study various strategies for fixing failing schools, including reconstitution-which generally means closing a school, replacing all or most of its staff, and reopening it under new management. In May 1997, the Consortium for Policy Research in Education and the Pew Forum on Standards-Based Reform held perhaps the first national meeting on the topic of fixing failing schools, with special emphasis on reconstitution.

Papers and studies began appearing in the past few years, and, last summer, the U.S. Department of Education responded to a growing demand for information by publishing, "Turning Around Low Performing Schools: A Guide for State and Local Leaders."

The Pew Forum revisited the subject in July 1998 in a four-day conference on "Strategies to Improve Failing Schools." Most of the participants came from cities and states with failing-school strategies and have had experience dealing with them. This paper is a result of that meeting, but is not a report of the discussion.

The Cross Cities Campaign for Urban School Reform will publish a report this fall on how its member districts are dealing with failing schools.

At its simplest, a failing-school strategy decides how "failure" is to be defined and measured, and how the causes of failure are to be identified and corrected. The operating premise is that the worst schools will be identified, a plan for improvement will be adopted and pursued until the school improves, and the district or state will provide substantial assistance toward that end. If the school does not improve after a reasonable period of time, it will be reconstituted-a new principal and new teachers will replace all or most of the existing staff and will vigorously pursue an agreed-upon blueprint for improvement. The district and/or state will provide technical assistance.

The use of reconstitution as a reform tool has spread rapidly in the past few years. Since 1994, San Francisco has reconstituted 10 schools. Chicago reconstituted seven last year. Rudy Crew, head of New York City's public education system, created the "chancellor's district" that comprises six elementary and six middle schools which he says will either be fixed or shut down. In Detroit, a clause in the district's contract with the union allows reconstitution of schools that have lost state accreditation and failed to improve despite additional help. Last year, newly reconstituted schools opened in Prince George's County (Md.), Denver, Chicago, Cleveland, as well as in San Francisco. But the process is controversial among parents, students, and, especially, teachers. The teacher unions have opposed reconstitution even to the extent of filing lawsuits to prevent it. Last year, an arbitrator sided with the union to overturn the Philadelphia School District's plan to reconstitute two schools. Portland's first reconstituted school reopened in September 1998 with virtually an entire staff of first-year probationary teachers because the union persuaded its current members not to apply for jobs in the school.

Those who have had the most experience with reconstitution insist that it is a strategy of last resort-an option that should be exercised only when intensive and sustained efforts to improve a dysfunctional school do not succeed. Moreover, they argue that reconstitution is not a solution in and of itself, but rather a mechanism to open a school to change by replacing an existing staff that resists change or doesn't know how to accomplish it with a staff committed to change and eager to improve. Opponents counter that wholesale "dismissal" of teachers further destabilizes a weak school, and that it makes more sense to leave existing assets, however few, in place and build around them.

Because there is little consistent evidence that reconstitution works and because it has been so vigorously opposed by the unions, parents, and students, most districts that have used it are now seeking alternative and less draconian ways of shaking up low-performing schools.

If the teacher unions cooperate to find other ways to replace incompetent or intransigent teachers in failing schools and clear the way for change, reconstitution would become largely irrelevant to the problem of persistently failing schools. The central issue is not whether schools are reconstituted, but rather what must be done to transform a failing school into an effective school. The right interventions are essential whether or not a school is reconstituted.

Dealing with persistently failing schools is a process fraught with difficult political and educational questions, but the three most important are these:

What are the definitions of "failure" and "success?"

What interventions are most likely to transform a failing school into a successful school?

And what is in the best interest of the children?

Defining Failure and Success

Depending on how a state or district defines "failing schools," a strategy to deal with them is as likely to be based on political considerations as it is on educational factors. Judging by student scores on reading, writing, and math basic-skills tests, failure is more common than success in virtually every major urban educational system. So where the line is drawn between schools that are deemed failing and those that are not is somewhat arbitrary. Most strategies target the lowest-performing schools, but for the majority of urban districts, that is a subjective decision and just a matter of degree.

Chicago, for example, placed about a fifth of its schools (109) on probation in October 1996, threatening to reconstitute them if they did not improve. The criterion for identifying the worst schools and putting them on probation was that fewer than 15 percent of a school's students were reading at grade level as measured by the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. This is a standard-ized, norm-referenced, multiple choice test. Scores on a criterion-referenced test with items pegged to high performance standards would surely be even worse.

Nobody could dispute that a school is failing when more than 85 percent of its students are reading below grade level. But what was the rationale for selecting 85 percent as the cutoff? Why wouldn't a school in which 75 percent or more of its students are reading below grade level also be considered failing? What about schools with 50 percent of their students below grade level? If Chicago had used 50 percent below grade level as the criterion to target schools for probation, close to 80 percent of its 557 schools would be on probation.

It is reasonable to conclude that Chicago's criterion for defining failure was based on what officials perceived as "doable"-what they could afford in terms of time, money, and expertise-and what would be politically acceptable. Intervention is expensive and time-consuming. Working with the staff in a failing school to develop improvement plans, providing special training for teachers, bringing in outside expertise, finding more money and strong leadership-all are formidable challenges. Doing that in 109 schools, let alone four times that number, would strain any large urban system.

The decision to put the 109 lowest-performing schools on probation was intended to shock the system and send a clear message to all schools that the district was deadly serious about improving failing schools or reconstituting them. It was also intended to reassure a worried public that this seemingly intractable problem of endemic failure was at last being seriously addressed. By setting a standard for failure that encompassed one-fifth of the schools, officials were acknowledging the scope of the problem. But by setting the cutoff point so low, they also fostered at least an inference, if not an illusion, that the other four-fifths of the schools weren't failing.

Had Chicago used a tougher definition of failure and put half or three-quarters of its schools on probation, attention would surely have shifted from failing schools to a failing district. That would have raised different, but equally perplexing, questions. Is the problem with the schools or with the system? Do schools become dysfunctional because of something they are doing wrong, or because the system has failed to provide the means they need to develop the capacity to succeed? Can individual schools be transformed without transforming the district?

Consideration of those questions would force state officials to conclude that the rate of failure and its concentration in major urban systems is too great for the cause to be found only in schools. The roots of the failure have to be in the larger institutional structures and the power relationships in urban districts that allow it and, indeed, cause it to persist and recur.

For educators and political officials, it is obviously easier and more practical to address the problems of a failing school than a failing district. Most districts have been struggling for more than a decade, with little success, to raise student achievement substantially. Few districts have the funds and the personnel to minister simultaneously to the needs of every low-performing school. And few states have adopted urban-education policies that recognize the special problems confronting big-city systems and provide programs and resources to assist them. So the districts define failure in a way that reduces the problem to a practical scale that central-office officials can do something about. And state officials rarely press the point.

Understanding the reasoning behind a district's failing-school strategy, however, does not make it more acceptable. If every child has a right to attend a successful school, then a policy that focuses only on some but not all low-performing schools is inherently unfair to some children.

A few states have attacked the problem at the district level. Both New Jersey and Kentucky have exercised the authority to take over school districts. Though their efforts have largely focused on eliminating corruption, nepotism, and bad management, there's an obvious link to school quality.

Maryland began placing schools on probation five years ago and almost a third of Baltimore's schools have made the list, which triggers a timeline requiring the district to propose and implement a plan to turn the schools around. The district's financial mismanagement and the existence of so many identifiably failing schools prompted a state-city deal to appoint a new governing board in place of the Baltimore school board and require a change in district leadership. It remains to be seen whether the shake-up at the top will lead to a substantially different approach to school failure in Baltimore.

The way states and districts define success is just as important as their definition of failure. Presumably, the goal of an intervention strategy is to turn failing schools into successful schools where students are actually learning at high levels. There are enough examples of failing schools being transformed into effective schools to prove that it can be done. But it is difficult, expensive, and time-consuming work.

The 109 schools put on probation in Chicago could get off the list if they increased the percentage of students reading at grade level to 20 percent or showed two consecutive years of gains in test scores. District officials were jubilant when the 1997 ITBS scores were markedly higher-especially among the schools on probation. The scores were offered as evidence that the strategy was working. The elation was not diminished by skeptics who noted that scores did not increase in half the probationary schools and argued that the increases were more the result of teaching to the test than any increase in real learning. As one Chicago reformer put it: "Getting less than a quarter of the kids reading at or above grade level is not anything to write home about."

Chicago recently removed 28 schools from probation because they raised reading scores to above the 20 percent level.

Defining success to be progress-raising test scores a few percentile points each year-sets a goal that may well be attainable and politically popular, but not necessarily very worthwhile educationally. Real success would require intensive and sustained assistance and resources. The Chicago district provides each probationary school with a "probationary manager" and requires it to partner with an "assistance organization" like a university. Plans and budgets have to be cleared with the probation manager, who reports monthly to the district. Each school receives from $40,000 to $75,000 in the first year, but the amount is reduced by half in the second year, and to zero in the third year. In addition, the district provides help with business matters to each probationary school and assistance teams of 13 people each are given responsibility for 10 schools. Whether a probationary school improves or doesn't over a three year period, the district's assistance tapers off significantly, and the burden shifts back to the school. Is that effort likely to build the capacity necessary for a school to succeed?

Although there are dramatic examples of failing schools being turned around, there is still great doubt about whether it can be done on a large scale, say, for most of the schools in a district. Given past performance, to believe that the interventions being undertaken in most districts will truly transform the worst schools is probably the triumph of hope over experience.

Again, Chicago illustrates the point. It launched one of the most sweeping system overhauls in the nation about a decade ago. Then, in 1995, in a brilliant political coup, the mayor took control of the district and appointed his chief budget officer as the district's chief executive officer. Despite enormous effort, Chicago has not yet been very successful in transforming even the best of its low-performing schools into truly effective schools.

Chicago is not exceptional in claiming success for its failing-schools strategy. New York City officials expect the schools in the chancellor's district to be returned to their own districts within the year. In Miami-Dade, the list of critically low-performing schools is down from more than 45 to 11. All but 17 of Kentucky's original 53 schools identified as in decline have met their benchmarks. Houston identified 68 low-performing schools in 1992 and now only 10 are so designated under state system. These are impressive statistical gains, but the key question is where the standard for success is set.

How Is a Failing School Transformed Into a Successful School?

There are no quick fixes for low-performing schools. Indeed, the only sure way to transform dysfunctional schools into effective schools is to build capacity in them-to provide smart, strong leadership, a mission clearly and intensely focused on children's learning, highly competent committed teachers, clean lines of responsibility, adequate financial resources, and an environment that fosters collaboration, trust, and continuous learning.

That kind of capacity is not built overnight on the cheap. The process is underway in several districts, including El Paso and San Antonio. But the most notable example in the United States of an urban district completely committed to the strategy of capacity building is Community School District 2 in New York City.

With 22,000 students in 24 elementary schools, seven junior high schools, and 17 alternative schools with different grade configurations, District 2 is one of the most diverse in the city. The student body is 29 percent white, 14 percent black, 22 percent Hispanic, and 34 percent Asian; 20 percent speak English as a second language and 50 percent of the students come from families below the poverty line. In 14 of the schools, more than 70 percent of the students are poor, and in five schools, poor students constitute more than 95 percent of the enrollment.

As District 2 Superintendent, Anthony Alvarado spent 10 years transforming a rules-driven bureaucratic system into a very human, performance-based system that focuses almost exclusively on children and teachers continuously learning. By placing unwavering emphasis on professional development, Alvarado worked to build professional competence at every level of the system. In his first four years, he replaced 20 of his 30 principals. By 1995, he had replaced about half of the district's teachers. Every position was filled only after the most careful appraisal of the candidates. If no candidate met the high expectations of the staff, the search was reopened. Prospective principals were taken into schools and classrooms to observe teaching and asked to comment on what they saw; not uncommonly, they were asked to teach a class. Alvarado's careful attention in selecting principals reflected his belief that they are key to a school's success if they are given the responsibility for their schools and autonomy to lead. The central administration in District 2 is smaller than it was 10 years ago and leaner than in most other districts and made up of people who must justify their jobs to Alvarado in terms of the services they provide to schools.

From the outset, District 2 gave great emphasis to literacy and reading, and determined that every child would learn to read well. Outside expertise was hired from wherever necessary to work with teachers in school for as long as it takes. The premise is that the key to improving student performance is to improve teacher performance.

The accountability system is clear and effective. It is based on as much relevant data as can be gathered-information about what is going on in each school, data about each individual student. In what resembles a medical model, the focus is on the history of the individual student and the status of each child. Students are not allowed to slip through the cracks. Principals and teachers make it their business to know each child and how he or she is progressing. The staff does whatever is necessary to help the child succeed, seeking assistance and advice, if necessary, from other teachers in other schools and even bringing in expertise from outside the district. Schools have considerable autonomy, and every adult in system is held accountable for actual performance. Like supervising physicians, Alvarado and his two top assistants "made the rounds"-visiting several schools each week in the belief that on-site observation and supervision are essential.

District 2's budget increased annually while most of the city's districts experienced serious decreases. The administration not only worked relentlessly to find outside funding, but it was ingenious in diverting every penny it legitimately could into teaching and learning. Funding for the professional development of teachers and principals, for example, increased from less than 1/10th of 1 percent of the total district budget when Alvarado took over as superintendent to about 6 percent last year.

Everyone is expected to be working constantly to improve some aspect of his or her practice, and the professional development toward that end routinely takes place in the school-in the classroom-where master teachers and principals coach other teachers. Outside expert consultants are ever-present in the schools, working with teachers and principals to help them improve their practice. Teachers work together in teams, observe each other teaching, visit other schools in and outside the district, and collaborate on ideas for reaching students or improving practice. Principals visit each other's schools and meet regularly to discuss instruction (and only instruction). In short, the uniqueness of the district is that it is a systemwide approach to school and teacher performance.

Alvarado is quoted as saying, "Our vision of instructional improvement depends heavily on people being willing to take the initiative, to take risks, and to take responsibility for themselves, for students, and for each other." He talks about hiring people who have a "deep personal and professional respect for each other" and "who are interested in making education work for kids."

"Without collegiality on this level," Alvarado insists, "you can't generate the level of enthusiasm, energy, and commitment we have. The worst part of bureaucracy is the dehumanization it brings."

The District 2 strategy for dealing with low-performing schools is to do what one would do for all schools, only do it first, do it more intensively, and do it continuously. And the "it" in this case is building capacity throughout the system. The approach might be considered "rolling reconstitution" in that the corrective interventions (including moving less effective people out and more effective people in) are undertaken continuously over a period of time in an effort to prevent the dramatic step of abrupt reconstitution from ever happening.

When one of District 2's schools was put on New York's probationary list, Alvarado took the state's judgment as an indication of district failure. He and his top aides worked with the principal and school staff to formulate a detailed plan of action to turn the school around. They implemented a new professional development approach. Every teacher in the system is constantly engaged in professional development but teachers in the probationary school received more intensive coaching and supervision. Distinguished teachers were paid $10,000 more to work with the school's teachers. The superintendent and his aides visited the school monthly instead of every four months as they do all other schools. In the case of District 2's probationary school, the percentage of students meeting New York state's standards rose from 27 percent to 74 percent in one year.

When Alvarado took over District 2, it ranked 10th among the city's 32 districts in reading and fourth in math. Last year, his district ranked second in both reading and math. So District 2 is indeed a success story. But it must be remembered that the success was a decade in the making. And Alvarado did not have to cope with the most dysfunctional of all types of public schools-the urban high school. It is also significant that as District 2 was attracting national attention for its unique model and hard-won gains, none of the other 31 districts in New York City-whatever reforms they may have been pursuing-were going all out to emulate District 2.

Last summer, Tony Alvarado left District 2. To assure as much as possible that the district would stay on course, he had groomed his successor over the years. As the new chief academic officer of the San Diego public school district, Alvarado will attempt to apply in a district six times as large as District 2 the lessons he learned and taught in New York.

What Is Best for the Children?

A question that is not asked often enough is: What about the children? At worst, a failing-school strategy may give the appearance of making progress without fundamentally changing the culture of schools to enable real teaching and learning. That result would con-tinue to doom thousands of children year after year to a bleak future.

At best, a failing-school strategy will provide the resources, skills, and motivation to build capacity in dysfunctional schools and transform them into effective schools, as has happened with some, but not many, schools in urban America. But that strategy, sound as it is, takes years to produce results and requires a commitment and perseverance rarely demonstrated in urban systems.

While the worst-case scenario is unconscionable, even the best-case scenario begs the question: Is it fair to consign children to dysfunctional schools while an inept, bureaucratic, government system tries to muster the skill and the will to reinvent itself?

Fifteen years after national attention zoomed in on education (with the publication of A Nation at Risk), some reformers fed up with the lack of change are concluding that the best strategy for dealing with persistently failing schools is to help children escape from them. They argue that alternatives to failing public schools must be created as a "rescue" operation. It is immoral, they insist, to allow children to be sacrificed year after year because public education cannot fix itself and probably is incapable of being fixed without major changes in the governance structure and the power relationships that dominate it.

Advocates for market alternatives to the traditional public school system array themselves across a policy spectrum that has parental choice among public schools at one end and vouchers redeemable at private and parochial schools at the other. In between are those who favor publicly funded charter schools freed from most of the constraints that hamper public schools and advocates of contracting the operation of public schools and districts to private entrepreneurs.

Public school choice, initially resisted by policymakers and educators, is now widely accepted. Some 32 states now have legislation permitting charter schools and there are perhaps 800 now in existence. A growing number of public schools are being run by private firms like the Edison Project under contract with school districts and states. And two major cities-Cleveland and Milwaukee-have enacted limited voucher programs, the most controversial of the proposed alternatives.

All of these alternatives are part of a market-driven reform strategy. Its premise is that public schools are mediocre or poor because they are part of a gigantic government monopoly and would work to improve themselves if forced to by fair and open competition. So far, there is little evidence to support that premise, although the market strategy is still in such limited use that it has not been fully tested. It is more likely that failing public schools in a competitive situation would simply continue to decline, lose students, and eventually go out of business-which free market advocates consider a proper result.

Opponents of the market strategy argue that charters, contracts, and, especially, vouchers will drain scarce dollars away from public schools and erode the foundations of the common school, which holds a place of high honor in American mythology. And that may indeed be the hope of the most ardent advocates of a free market educational system. But there is little reason to believe that private institutions would be significantly more successful than public systems in finding the highly qualified teachers and principals who are essential to an effective school. Or that privately operated schools would somehow overcome the enormous deficits that are inflicted upon the disadvantaged, immigrant children, and special education students they would now be serving.

Opponents further argue that voucher programs would eventually end up channeling public money to parents whose children are already enrolled in private schools. But limiting vouchers to the neediest of families in urban districts would seem to avoid that problem.

The case for a rescue operation can be argued persuasively. Howard Fuller, former superintendent of Milwaukee's public schools and an advocate for vouchers, does not believe they are the answer to the problems plaguing the nation's public schools. Nor does he think that competition is likely to motivate low-performing schools to transform themselves. Even if they were motivated, they would still lack the capacity for dramatic improvement, he notes. Fuller works for vouchers, he says, because they offer the only hope of getting children out of failing schools as quickly as possible. Public education, he argues, is mainly an employment agency for adults, and children are not high on the agenda. Vouchers, Fuller suggests, would change that.

Charters, privatization, and vouchers based on need could legitimately constitute a strategy for dealing with the lowest-performing schools. And if public disenchantment with public education continues to increase, support for these alternatives might well increase proportionately. The majority of poor, minority parents, according to polls, would now send their children to private schools if money were not an obstacle.

But as a failing-school strategy, the market approach also faces formidable obstacles. Apart from the political opposition, particularly from very powerful teacher unions in every major city, the market strategy would be hampered by serious supply problems. If the Milwaukee voucher program, approved by the state supreme court last spring, were expanded from 1,500 to 15,000 urban students, would there be enough openings for them in private schools or good suburban public schools? If new schools were to open to meet the demand, is there any assurance that they would be effective alternatives to the low-performing public schools? Would there be an adequate supply of competent, committed teachers to staff them?

Many private schools are successful because the students who attend bring significant assets with them.

There is research that concludes that private schools are no more effective than public schools when socioeconomic circumstances of students are controlled for. Many private schools are successful because the students who attend bring significant assets with them. How would they fare when a majority of their enrollment was made up of the severely disadvantaged children who enroll in the most dysfunctional public schools? Catholic schools seem to be more successful with disadvantaged children than public schools generally, but researchers attribute that largely to the social capital provided by the Catholic religious community.

A market strategy would also be severely constrained if the dollar amount of vouchers was not large enough to cover the cost of education in private schools. The Cleveland vouchers are worth less than $2,500 and Milwaukee vouchers are worth $4,400. (The average public school per-pupil expenditure in the two districts, respectively, is about $5,340 and $5,560.) The funds available to charter schools in most states are not equivalent to the average per-pupil expenditure and do not include capital needs.

It should be clear to state and local officials that there is no strategy for dealing with low-performing schools that will do the job quickly or cheaply. Nor is there any real promise in interventions that are primarily designed to raise scores on standardized tests to some minimally acceptable level.

If policymakers and educators are serious about turning around low-performing schools they must begin by correctly analyzing the problem of failing schools and crafting realistic solutions that address that problem. They must:

* Recognize that school failure is essentially a systemic problem rather than just a school-based problem. Failing schools cannot be transformed on a broad scale without fundamental changes in the structure and political relationships of urban districts and the way their schools are governed.

* Acknowledge that failing schools lack the capacity to improve themselves and require substantial and continuing assistance and support from the district and/or state to accumulate the necessary human, social, and financial capital.

* Collaborate at the state and federal levels to formulate an urban-education strategy that gives first priority to city schools and provides the human and financial resources necessary to build capacity in the majority of urban schools that are achieving below acceptable levels.

* Create educational safe-havens for the children who are being victimized by dysfunctional schools. The plight of these children is tantamount to a national emergency and requires the same bold and timely actions that this nation takes when dealing with major emergencies.

* Change immediately the policies and practices that contribute to the problem and not to the solution, such as the practice of assigning the newest teachers to the most difficult schools, and using norm-referenced, multiple-choice tests and encouraging teachers to teach to them.

* Recognize that failing schools are as much a political as an educational challenge and enlist the support of parents and the public in solving the problem.

The National Commission on Excel-lence in Education, which first sounded the alarm in 1983 with publication of A Nation at Risk, used the metaphor of war. "If an unfriendly foreign power had imposed on America the mediocre education performance which exists today," the report declared, "we might have viewed it as an act of war." That was years before most of the public was even aware of the real pathology in poor urban and rural schools. A Nation at Risk didn't even address at-risk students or dysfunctional schools. Mediocrity was enough to justify the comparison with an act of war.

The unrelenting destruction of human potential and the constant erosion of our economic and political foundations caused by the widespread failure of urban public schools is not unlike the damage that war inflicts upon a nation. Because it is not as dramatic or as sudden, and does not lend itself to nightly horror stories on the evening television news, it persists just below the alarm threshold that would galvanize policymakers into bold action.

The greatest challenge may not be finding ways to fix failing schools but finding ways to convince those with the authority to act that creating a system of effective public schools should be their highest priority.

Ron Wolk is chairman of the board of Editorial Projects in Education and a member of the Pew Forum on Standards-Based Reform.

Reprints in smaller newsletter format can be obtained from:

The Pew Forum on Standards-Based Reform,
Harvard Graduate School of Education,
Gutman Library, Room 461,
Appian Way, Cambridge, MA 02138.
Tel: (617) 496-0947.
E-mail: [email protected].

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