Urban Education: A Radical Plan

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The saga of public education played out on both sides of the Hudson River this fall. At the IBM Conference Center in Palisades, N.Y., the nation’s self-proclaimed education governors and corporate leaders convened to take stock of the education accountability movement and map plans for improving the caliber of public schools.

What’s urgently needed is truly radical reform that structures public education so that its raison d’être is student success.

Directly across the river, the city of Yonkers, N.Y., was roiled by a rancorous school strike. At issue was an instructionally sound proposal by the new superintendent to devote more classroom time per day to fewer core subjects. The local teachers’ union cried foul, the school board called their bluff, and the union walkout was on. So the grown-ups in charge of the school district made a sorry mess of a solid idea that principals and teachers probably could have sorted out rather easily in their respective schools.

These days, it seems that tough love is about the only remedy for low achievement that impatient politicians and anxious school administrators can come up with. End social promotion, they proclaim. Send the laggards to summer school and hold them back if they still cannot cut it academically.

These tough-love measures are too timid structurally and off target pedagogically. Ending social promotion alone won’t educate all youngsters to their fullest potential. America’s most vulnerable children—in low-income urban and rural communities—will bear the brunt of this educationally bankrupt policy because, as things stand now, they’ll be left behind in droves.

Successful schools produce successful pupils. Not a smattering of superstars per building, mind you, but the bulk of the student body. After a generation of research and experimentation, examples abound of urban and rural schools that serve low-income and minority pupils quite admirably, with some even outperforming their more affluent suburban counterparts.

Yet try as big-city school boards and administrators might, few if any urban districts can honestly claim that they educate the vast majority of youngsters remotely up to their potential. For the sake of public education and, above all, for the sake of the children, what’s urgently needed is truly radical reform that structures public education so that its raison d’être is student success.

According to the longtime urban educator and leader Anthony J. Alvarado, the sole focus of the educational enterprise should be student learning. Everything else, he argues, is "details." "A typical educational system is so top-heavy with details," says Mr. Alvarado, "that learning can suffocate under the tonnage." I advocate a four-point plan for transforming all urban schools into high-performing schools:

(1) Assert no-nonsense state leadership—and responsibility.

Conventional wisdom holds that public education is a local responsibility. But the reality is that the quality of school graduates is a compelling societal concern that justifies aggressive leadership by states and by the federal government.

In the agricultural era, youngsters tended to live where they were reared. But contemporary children often grow up in one town, only to live and work elsewhere. Employers and society at large have the overriding stake in the caliber of education delivered by every school. America’s very civility and competitiveness depend on it.

In recent years, states have stepped up to the plate to impose loftier standards and high-stakes tests. Having set the bar, states now bear the primary moral, financial, and legal responsibility for seeing to it that all children have a fair chance to clear it. No longer should poor and minority children be held hostage to communities with low tax bases, weak commitments to quality education, and skinflint taxpayers who oppose providing adequate support for local schools. No longer should children be crippled by school districts saddled with unqualified teachers, insufficient books, and antiquated schools. Having imposed high standards on all children, the states must step in and guarantee high-quality education for every child.

(2) "Charterize" all urban schools.

Urban schools should be liberated from the stifling district bureaucracy and given the latitude to operate the way independent secular schools do. Under the scenario I propose, each school would be overseen by a governing board comprising, for example, local business and community leaders, educators, and alumni who view student success as the school’s paramount mission. The boards should be self-perpetuating, so that they are spared the potential turmoil and unpredictability of elections.

Each school would be run by a principal, or headmaster, hired by the board. The principal would serve at the pleasure of the board, subject to due process. The principal in turn would assemble the faculty, whose members would serve at the pleasure of the principal and board, subject again to due process.

The district superintendent would grant each school a revocable contract—or charter—to operate for 10 to 15 years. The school would be accountable for seeing that, say, 75 percent of its students meet the state’s real-world proficiency standards. If the school met this standard, it would retain its charter, which could be renewed. If the pass rate fell below this threshold, the school would be placed on a watch list and required to come up with an improvement plan.

If, after a reasonable period, the school failed to boost its performance, then the charter could be revoked without waiting for the term to expire. This means that the governing board and faculty responsible for operating the educational enterprise in that building could be dismissed and replaced with a new team. If need be, the facility itself could be shuttered temporarily or even permanently.

Given the public nature of the school, pupils should be chosen via a mix of self-selection and lottery. This would prevent the creation of what are perceived as "loser" schools that are filled with students who weren’t chosen by some other school.

The state would allocate an annual amount to each school based on its enrollment. The allocation formula should be sufficiently generous to guarantee small classes, modem facilities and equipment, sufficient supplies, and abundant high-quality professional development.

The state education agency could negotiate purchase agreements with vendors of textbooks, food, and supplies, so that individual schools get an advantageous price. The states would also assume responsibility for ensuring that individual schools were properly sized and furnished, and for guaranteeing that there was no disparity—in resources, teacher quality, or physical plant—between urban, suburban, and rural communities.

Once each school’s allocation was set, the actual utilization would be left entirely to the board and professional staff of each school. In other words, schools should be accountable for how many students they graduated, not for how many gallons of paint they purchased.

(3) Professionalize the teaching profession.

Given the projected shortage of principals and teachers, plus the need to increase teacher quality in urban and rural schools serving low-income children, the compensation offered educators must be improved dramatically in order to create a strong demand for these jobs.

This can be done by increasing salaries to levels comparable with other professions and by offering attractive inducements like generous student-loan write-offs for graduates who enter the profession. Why not offer starting teachers with master’s degrees the same initial salaries as young M.B.A.s, attorneys, and engineers? Since most urban and rural districts are strapped financially, the federal and state governments should take the lead in financing the economic incentives needed to attract stronger educators to these districts.

These special incentives should only be available to educators with master’s degrees who are certified by the state and who sign up to teach for at least five to 10 years in low-income communities. If they left the profession early, the loan relief would cease.

The critically important quid pro quo for paying educators like real professionals is that they in turn must relinquish those contract-based protections that other professionals do not enjoy. I speak of tenure, seniority, overtime, guaranteed class size, length of class periods, and other provisions that severely impede the ability of principals to run their schools in the best interests of children.

Unions should be allowed to bargain districtwide, indeed statewide, over salaries and fringe benefits. But, subject to appropriate oversight by their boards, principals should make all personnel decisions, such as whom to hire and for how long, as well as the standards for measuring staff performance and the consequences if staff members fall short.

It isn’t realistic politically to expect districts to redefine the scope of union agreements this radically. So it’s up to governors and state legislators who proudly claim to be the engines of education reform to muster the political courage to override existing agreements and grant individual school boards and principals the discretion they need to run their schools in the best interests of the children.

(4) The 21st-century superintendent—accreditation, not operation.

Local school boards and central administrators represent a major source of the "tonnage" that cripples the schools. Rare is the board—elected or appointed— that would be considered an asset to the educational process from the perspective of poor and minority children. Superintendents come and go so quickly that they seldom leave a lasting mark, much less a favorable one. Just below the surface, the central school bureaucracies rule—and stultify.

So what is the solution? The oversight of public schools needs to be professionalized and depoliticized. To cite Anthony Alvarado again, his experience indicates, he says, that urban youngsters can learn at high levels. But, as he cautions, "it takes time, continuity, concentration of focus."

Revolving-door superintendents, ongoing rhetorical battles between mayors and superintendents, mayoral use of fiscal support to hold school boards hostage—all contribute chaos and confusion, instead of continuity and concentration, to the educational enterprise. Children in low-performing schools are the primary victims.

The role of the local superintendent should be converted from operations to accreditation. In other words, the superintendent should be responsible for awarding—and revoking—school charters and reporting to the public on whether the individual schools meet their targets.

If a school does, the superintendent can extend its charter. If it falls short, the superintendent can monitor the school’s revitalization plan, revoke the charter if need be, and award it to a new educational team.

Given the state’s dominant role in ensuring education quality, local superintendents should be appointed by and ultimately accountable to the state education agency. The superintendent in turn can be assisted by a local board of advisers, chosen by the superintendent and drawn from such sectors as parents, business, organized labor, the religious community, higher education, and community organizations.

This school reform agenda is premised on what we know can work—individual public schools that are given the wherewithal and the room to succeed. It parts company with the failed efforts to reform urban school systems.

When the clock strikes midnight this New Year’s Eve, the policymakers, administrators, educators, and unions that share responsibility for public schools had better leave all those excuses—and all that bureaucratic tonnage—in the litter baskets along with the noisemakers.

It will be a new millennium for humankind. If urban public education is to survive in the 21st century, it had better be a new day for urban children.

Hugh B. Price is the president of the National Urban League in New York City.

Vol. 19, Issue 15, Pages 29, 44

Published in Print: December 8, 1999, as Urban Education: A Radical Plan
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