Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

Our Best Hope

November 01, 2003 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print
Small schools are often held back by uniform standards.

If you look closely at what is happening in New York City, you’ll get a glimpse of what could be an exciting and promising future for public education. New Visions for Public Schools has put in place more than 30 of the most exciting nontraditional schools in the nation. The Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Schools for a New Society is blazing trails in creating a different kind of high school. The city is establishing 200 small charter schools and might even create a “charter district” to support and oversee them. And the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has given New York $51 million to fund 67 new, small thematic schools.

A year ago, I wrote that a handful of reformers and policymakers were embarking on a bold new strategy to improve public education by building a kind of parallel system of small, innovative schools on the margins of the current system. That movement is gaining momentum, and it may be America’s best hope for giving our children the kind of education they need to become competent young adults and the skills and motivation to be lifelong learners.

New York City is in the vanguard, but not by itself. Nontraditional schools are springing up all over—in Providence, Rhode Island, San Diego, the District of Columbia, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Chicago, and other major cities. Many of these are charter or contract schools that are different from conventional schools in almost every way.

Promising as the small schools movement is, the odds against its success are formidable. First, many who feel threatened by what they perceive as competition are trying to smother the movement in its crib. Second, existing policies and practices in every state put the new schools in constant jeopardy and make it extremely difficult for them to flourish. And No Child Left Behind has now raised the stakes by creating an even more rigid and punitive environment.

Schools like Urban Academy in Manhattan, the Met in Providence, and the Minnesota New Country School in Henderson are in peril because they march to different drummers. They personalize education and try to tailor curricula and schedules to the specific needs and circumstances of each child. Instead of using standardized tests and letter grades to assess student progress, they rely on multiple measures that include work and performance, community service, and personal growth. Although these schools often place virtually all of their students in college or postsecondary study, they may be judged “low performing” because they don’t do well on the Trivial Pursuit tests that now dominate students’ lives.

To survive, these schools could be forced to abandon or compromise the very philosophy and practices that make them successful. The Beacon School in Manhattan, for example, has led the nation in the use of student portfolios for learning and assessment. But in the name of uniformity, Commissioner of Education Richard Mills decided two years ago to cancel the exemption from the Regents exams that his predecessor gave Beacon. Now that its students are compelled to take the Regents, Beacon has been forced to modify its curriculum and cut back its portfolio program.

If the promise of the small schools movement is to be realized, we must create an open sector where innovation and experimentation are encouraged and protected. Instead of being held to the rigid standards of the conventional system and judged by the test scores that drive it, the new schools should be required only to meet their own goals and accomplish their own missions. And they should be evaluated by methods and measures that are compatible with their practices. Invariably these new schools have higher attendance and lower dropout rates, and they send more young people to college than traditional schools do. That says something positive about the attitudes, motivation, and performance of their students.

Today’s students are incredibly diverse in every way. Why not try to provide them with an educational system that matches that diversity and accommodates their needs and talents?

—Ronald A. Wolk

Related Tags:

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Law & Courts Webinar
Future of the First Amendment: Exploring Trends in High School Students’ Views of Free Speech
Learn how educators are navigating student free speech issues and addressing controversial topics like gender and race in the classroom.
Content provided by The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Start Strong With Solid SEL Implementation: Success Strategies for the New School Year
Join Satchel Pulse to learn why implementing a solid SEL program at the beginning of the year will deliver maximum impact to your students.
Content provided by Satchel Pulse
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Webinar
Real-World Problem Solving: How Invention Education Drives Student Learning
Hear from student inventors and K-12 teachers about how invention education enhances learning, opens minds, and preps students for the future.
Content provided by The Lemelson Foundation

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Hour by Busy Hour: What a Principal's Day Actually Looks Like
From the time they wake up until they set the alarm at night, school leaders juggle the routine, the unexpected, and the downright bizarre.
Left, Principal Michael C. Brown talks on a radio at Winters Mill High School in Westminster, Md., on May 17, 2022. Right, Boone Elementary School principal Manuela Haberer directs students and parents in the pick-up line at the conclusion of the school day on May 19, 2022 in San Antonio, Texas.
Left, Principal Michael C. Brown talks on a radio at Winters Mill High School in Westminster, Md., on May 17, 2022. Right, Boone Elementary School principal Manuela Haberer directs students and parents in the pick-up line at the conclusion of the school day on May 19, 2022 in San Antonio, Texas.
From left, Steve Ruark and Lisa Krantz for Education Week
School & District Management Photos What School Leadership Looks Like: A Day in the Life of a Principal
A look at a typical day for one elementary school principal in Texas and a high school principal in Maryland.
1 min read
Principal Michael C. Brown, from left, talks to seniors Brady D’Anthony, 18, and Sydney Dryden, 17, at Winters Mill High School in Westminster, Md., Tuesday, May 17, 2022.
Principal Michael C. Brown, from left, talks to seniors Brady D’Anthony, 18, and Sydney Dryden, 17, at Winters Mill High School in Westminster, Md., Tuesday, May 17, 2022.
Steve Ruark for Education Week
School & District Management Schools Can Access Tons of Money for Electric Buses. Will They Use It?
Electric buses are growing more appealing as fuel prices rise, but some districts remain wary of the cost and logistics.
5 min read
Stockton Unified School District's new electric bus fleet reduces over 120,000 pounds of carbon emissions and leverages The Mobility House's smart charging and energy management system.
The new electric bus fleet at California's Stockton Unified School District is projected to reduce the district's carbon emissions.
Business Wire via AP
School & District Management Explainer Who Are Paraprofessionals and What Do They Do?
Paraprofessionals are a vital part of the classroom team with a wide range of responsibilities and skills.
1 min read