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School & District Management Opinion

A Quantum Leap in Urban Education

By Irving Hamer — October 25, 2005 7 min read
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In July of 2004, I left my home, my family and friends to support Rudy Crew as the superintendent of Florida’s Miami-Dade County public schools.

In July of 2004, I left my home, my family and friends, and a professorship at Teachers College, Columbia University, where I taught about the linkages among theory, policy, and practice. I did so to support Rudy Crew, a former chancellor of the New York City schools, in his new role as the superintendent of Florida’s Miami-Dade County public schools. My unplanned, perhaps impetuous, plunge into the life of an educational practitioner in an urban school system felt like being drafted into the military, or dropping out of college to do voter registration in the Mississippi Delta. Mystified and angry, my family and friends wondered what I was doing and why was I doing it.

There are no easy answers. Miami is a new, polyglot enclave of communities seeking an image more substantial than the sun, sand, and tiny bathing suits of South Beach. The communities of Overtown, Liberty City, Little Haiti, Homestead, and Little Havana are parts of Miami that get no mention in the brochures soliciting tourists from the Northeast and South America. They are, however, the blood relatives of East Los Angeles, Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York City, the west side of Chicago, and Boston’s Roxbury district. The need for high energy and vibrant leadership to lift such pockets of economic and educational deprivation is legendary. I imagined that such a social-justice agenda needed me. And here was an opportunity to bridge theory, policy, and practice for the purpose of transforming education in an urban center. So, off I went to the Deep South.

The task was to improve the performance of 39 schools serving 44,000 children living in poverty and attending public schools. For years, efforts had been made, without much success, to get the most vulnerable students to meet state and local standards. Now, the school board had hired a black Yankee to fix the failing schools. And Rudy Crew, in turn, had hired me. My task: to design, organize, and implement a school improvement initiative that would yield significant outcomes—in one year.

At least two veteran practitioners had been asked to serve as the deputy superintendent for school improvement before Crew invited me to take on this responsibility. The seasoned veterans declined. A one-year imperative seemed unreasonable, given the mantra in education circles that real change in low-performing schools requires three to five years.

But with the hubris of a young, naive idealist, I backpacked into Miami and proceeded to engineer an intensive response to the nearly 10 percent of schools in the district that were chronically low-performing (for at least three consecutive years). The School Improvement Zone is a facsimile of the Chancellor’s District in New York City, created by Crew in 1996. But though similar in mission, Miami’s zone differs from the now-defunct Chancellor’s District in size, scope, implementation schedule, accountability indices, and politics.

The Florida legislature, for example, had begun discussions about downsizing Miami-Dade County, the nation’s fourth-largest school district, because of the persistent failure of schools serving the most vulnerable. A bevy of charter schools had opened or were being planned as a response to chronically low-performing schools. And, ironically, local politicians teamed with their counterparts from other jurisdictions to redistribute state aid destined for Miami to other districts in the northern part of the state. All of this seemed justified because the district had consistently failed to show progress on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, the high-stakes test designed to make schools, administrators, and teachers accountable for student outcomes.

—Brian Jensen


There was no three-year window of opportunity for school improvement. There was no time for pilot projects. The improvement zone had to be planned in the morning and implemented in the afternoon. Neither was there to be any new funding or personnel. What needed doing had to be done with existing resources, human and material. Moreover, nearly every key constituent thought that what Rudy Crew and I were trying to do, though important, was not possible.

That disbelief was manifest at a board meeting in August of last year, where I announced that by the end of the next school year, 10 schools would improve by a letter grade. I also said that by that time 3,002 students would improve their FCAT scores by one performance level. Board members proclaimed their appreciation for the clarity of the objectives and the capacity to measure progress. But these honeymoon strokes were followed by a declaration that the metrics I forecast were sharp objects pointed at my vital organs. It was going to be very painful when I missed the targets.

A similar skepticism was expressed by school administrators and teachers. In fact, more than 500 teachers requested to be transferred out of their “zone” schools when they learned what the expectations were for the academic year.

The conditions for driving deep and sustainable school improvement were not ideal. But the need was urgent, even if the school bureaucracy evidenced no support for the extended workweek that would be essential to improving performance. As in other urban districts, prior improvements had rested on the shoulders of middle-class children performing at or above the state standard. The idea that the entire school system could be lifted on the backs of the lowest-performing students in Title I schools was alien and scary, and the fuel for resistance.

For me, the work encompassed the most poignant social-justice issue of the era. As the old industrial enclaves of the country try to rebound from decades of decay, public schools are a centerpiece of the desired resurrections. Miami is not one of the old bastions of power and leadership represented by Detroit, Chicago, New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia, but it is a new urban center whose public schools mirror those of the older cities. Getting public schooling right in Miami seemed fundamental to the success or failure of the new millennium. Still, my carpetbag was offensive to the locals.

Getting public schooling right in Miami seemed fundamental to the success or failure of the new millennium. Still, my carpetbag was offensive to the locals.

More time on task is a cornerstone of student improvement. Asking children to do and know more is ludicrous with a system of class time and sequence inherited from the 1940s. Yet the prospect of an extended day and school year brought cries of punishment from students and their parents.

Installing a common literacy initiative from kindergarten to 12th grade violated nearly three decades of school-based management that had entitled principals and teachers to do their own thing, despite 23,000 students’ reading below grade level. It also generated lots of hostility. So did the requirement that each school revise its schedule midyear, so that there would be 100-minute blocks of instruction every day.

The outcry about the redeployment of psychologists and social workers to a prevention model was deafening. And the demand to put student work, not the FCAT, at the center of the transformation effort was described as burdensome. The negative response and resistance to these and other initiatives seemed certain to sabotage our efforts.

But the outcomes speak volumes about what can be done in urban centers. In the 2003-04 academic year, the district’s accountability grade was a C. At the end of the 2004-05 academic year, the state department of education graded the district B. This was, in part, because the lowest quartile of students in Miami made the fifth-largest gains in performance among the 68 school districts in the state. The four other improving districts statewide were small and suburban.

We did not move 10 schools one letter grade forward, as we had promised. Instead, 15 schools improved by a letter grade or more. One became an A school, after four years of languishing as a D school.

In July of 2004, nine Zone schools had been graded F by the state. Four had been F schools for two or more years. By the end of the 2004-05 academic year, six of these F schools had improved a letter grade. All of the gains rested on the backs of 8,532 students who improved their FCAT scores by at least one performance level—a significant increase over the 3,002 students projected to do so at that August 2004 board meeting. Beyond everyone’s expectations, the children in the lowest-performing Title I schools lifted the Miami-Dade County school system to unprecedented levels of achievement in one year.

Clearly, principals, administrators, teachers, students, and parents stepped up and embraced these reforms. In school buildings and classrooms and communities, the clarion call was heard and the people in the trenches did the work essential to improving achievement.

The buzz about the work in Miami is full of acclaim, disbelief, and anticipation for sustained progress in year two. The implications of what has been done challenge the conventional wisdom about school improvement in urban centers. Perhaps most compelling, it gives us a body of quantifiable data proving that quantum leaps in education are possible.

Years ago, the late founder of the “effective schools” movement, Ron Edmonds, told us that we knew all we needed to know to educate poor children. “What is missing,” he said, “is the will.” Gone are the days when small, incremental gains are acceptable for the most vulnerable students.

A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2005 edition of Education Week as A Quantum Leap In Urban Education


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