Many schools are just as mediocre as the public perceives them to be. But these schools can be better.
There’s good news and bad news this year for the teachers, administrators, and superintendents in our schools. The good news is that most Americans today have more faith in their public schools than they do in two other American institutions—big business and organized religion. The bad news is that this isn’t saying much.
Despite decades of ballyhooed reform, Americans’ opinion of public education has remained constant, according to the latest Gallup “confidence” index, released in June. At present, we’re considered more trustworthy than HMOs, but less estimable than the military or the presidency. In short, we’re in the middle, neither loathed nor lauded, just as we have been for years. Think of it as the equivalent of a Gentleman’s C.
The sad truth is that perhaps we deserve it. Many schools are just as mediocre as the public perceives them to be. But these schools aren’t forever doomed to middle-of-the-road performance. They can be better.
Why some school systems improve and others don’t is a subject I’ve been thinking about as I moved from the Charlotte- Mecklenburg County school system in North Carolina, where I was the superintendent for six years, to the Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Maryland’s fifth-largest district.
In Charlotte, we managed to turn around a 109,000-student district that was awash in lawsuits, appeals, and court decisions on desegregation issues. When I arrived, only 35 percent of African-American 5th graders read at grade level. I actually met kids who had never heard their first and last names pronounced until they came to school, because they had been known only by nicknames at home. By the end of the 2000-01 school year, 78 percent of African-American 5th graders scored at or above grade level in reading. The percentage of 5th graders scoring at grade level in math shot up from 66 percent to 79 percent.
How did this dramatic progress occur? And what lessons are contained therein for other districts? There are no magic formulas, but here are my “back of the envelope” conclusions. Every school system must have the following:
• Measurable standards for excellence;
• A clear strategy to achieve these standards; and, most importantly,
• Commitment from all involved—parents, teachers, administrators, and members of the community.
In Charlotte, I decided that while our district might be troubled, we could not afford to tolerate failure. It was that simple. We established five clear goals: increasing student achievement, providing safe schools, improving community collaboration, achieving equity, and enhancing business operations. And then we wasted no time in making each one a reality.
To get kids off to a good start, we launched a literacy-based preschool program called Bright Beginnings. We lowered class sizes, and provided inexperienced teachers with instructional assistance and subsidized master’s-degree programs. Using the twin carrots of financial incentives and better working conditions, we recruited new teachers to low-performing schools. Both moves paid dividends in the classroom.
The best way—perhaps the only way—to improve schools is through goals, standards, commitment, leadership.
While raising the floor, we also raised the ceiling. Enrollment in Advanced Placement courses increased by over 150 percent, and we encouraged students to participate in the International Baccalaureate program, regarded by many as the most challenging curriculum offered in the United States. Between 1996 and 1999, the number of Charlotte-Mecklenburg students taking International Baccalaureate exams more than doubled. On a majority of those tests, students scored high enough to earn college credit.
At every step of the way, local parents, political leaders, and businesses were our allies. We raised over $17 million in business and community partnerships, and an astounding 33,000 volunteers every year gave us their time, talent, and expertise. In short, all of us were committed to excellence, and together, we made a conscious decision not to settle for that Gentleman’s C.
Since joining the Anne Arundel County school district on July 1, I have worked with staff members to establish ambitious goals, such as ensuring that 85 percent of 3rd graders will be reading at grade level; increasing the number of 8th grade students enrolling in and successfully completing Algebra 1; improving SAT performance; and increasing participation in Advanced Placement courses.
The difficulty of these standards, and the timetable by which we intend to achieve them, have shocked those used to a more deliberate pace. But to me, this is the best way— perhaps the only way—to improve schools. Goals, standards, commitment, leadership—the words have a corporate, management-by-objectives ring. But education isn’t a business. It’s a profoundly human process. We’re not churning out widgets, after all. Schools do have a profit-and-loss statement, and we see it every day in our students’ ability, or inability, to learn and to experience success. Each of us should be held accountable for what that statement says.
Eric J. Smith, the superintendent of the Anne Arundel County Public Schools in Maryland, is a recipient of this year’s Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education.
A version of this article appeared in the November 27, 2002 edition of Education Week as Good-Bye to the Gentleman’s C