Lessons from a pioneering school district on simple truths and positive attitudes.
When policymakers say that “all children can learn,” or that we should “leave no child behind,” what some of them secretly believe is that certain kinds of children will never learn as much as others. In their simplicity, these idealistic phrases belie the difficulty of reducing the stubborn achievement gap between students of privilege and students who live in poverty.
Even so, in my final year as the superintendent of the Long Beach Unified School District in California, I can say with personal knowledge that poverty is no excuse for poor performance. It wasn’t for me, and it isn’t for kids in our schools. With persistence and tough love, students who live in poverty can learn just as well as other students.
Long Beach, perhaps the most ethnically diverse city in the nation, offers some compelling evidence. More than a third of its 97,000 students are designated as English-language learners, and more than 60 percent live in or near poverty. Even so, the dropout rate has fallen by more than half in recent years, and 50 schools (more than half) won the Governor’s Performance Award for exceeding growth targets on the state’s most recent Academic Performance Index. Reading and math scores in the crucial primary grades have risen tremendously in the past two years and now surpass national averages. These heartening improvements did not happen by accident. They are the result of a districtwide effort to transform our schools.
Every school district operates with a unique set of challenges, but all have some problems in common that the Long Beach experience might help inform. Here are some of the ways that Long Beach goes beyond the rhetoric—and that others can, too:
- Present a United Front. The school board and the staff must hold fast to their resolve to offer all students the opportunity to perform at the highest levels. They must work as a team. This means that when pushing forward a major initiative, there can be no split decisions. Unanimity sends a signal that a newly established direction is more than a passing fancy, and is meant to outlast any individual member of the board—or the superintendent.
- Be Guided by Simple Principles. In Long Beach, the commitment to helping all children learn rests upon the following pillars of truth: All students have the right to learn in a safe and supportive environment; standards must be high for all children; and reforms cannot take hold unless students have the resources necessary to assure success.
- Secure a Safe Environment for Children. In 1994, Long Beach instituted a first-in-the-nation requirement that all K-8 students wear uniforms. The maxim was “dress better, behave better, and achieve more.” The requirement reduced gang violence and helped remove a barrier between rich and poor students. One year after its implementation, fights dropped by 50 percent and suspensions fell by a third. We had no idea that our uniforms would start a national movement, but they did. Today, millions of public school students wear uniforms to classes.
- Teach Them to Read. The uniforms bought time to institute more substantive reforms. You cannot talk about high standards for all students unless you put an end to social promotion. Research underscores the critical need for children to learn reading by 3rd grade, so we set minimum reading requirements for 3rd graders. Those who failed to meet the standards went to summer school, where they received intensive instruction to prepare them for 4th grade. Several other checkpoints now make certain that students are ready to move to the next grade level.
- Buck the Opposition. In 1997, two years before California required all schools to develop a retention strategy for failing students, Long Beach devised its own strategy to address the critical transition between middle school and high school. Eighth grade students who received more than two failing grades had to take an additional year of instruction before moving on to high school.
Although the opposition was stiff from many quarters, we held fast. In the first year, we sent 400 students to the Long Beach Preparatory Academy for an intensive year of instruction in smaller classes. The move sent some shock waves through the schools, but students in 6th and 7th grade knew they had to take their work more seriously. We closed the Prep Academy last school year as originally planned, after reducing the number of failing students to fewer than 200. Today, those students gain additional preparation at small academies located on high school campuses.
- Buck Tradition. Two years ago, Long Beach took another pioneering step and opened the nation’s first public middle school with single-gender classes. Sixty-five percent of parents surveyed had said they would send their children to such a school if we built it. The students showed significant achievement gains after one semester, with 7th graders improving their grade point averages by 0.45 points. State testing data also showed significant gains last year. Today we have a waiting list for the Jefferson Leadership Academies.
- Cultivate Gifted Students. Each year, students at our high schools earn millions of dollars in scholarships to attend prestigious colleges and universities. Many of these students are the first in their families to attend college. Long Beach shows that we can make substantive and lasting changes in America’s large, urban high schools.
Thanks to an array of innovations at Polytechnic High School, for instance, that school has triumphed over its decline of the early 1970s. With a racial-understanding program, two nationally recognized magnet programs—the PACE college-preparatory program and the Center for International Commerce, which focuses on participation in the global economy—and a number of academies (fine arts, business, math, and science), Poly now boasts more than 1,100 students taking Advanced Placement exams, with a 78 percent pass rate. That’s the highest rate of any large urban high school in the country. The number of students taking the PSAT has soared from 200 to 750 a year. More of Poly’s students were accepted in the last two years by the California Institute of Technology and the University of California, Los Angeles, than from any other high school in the nation.
After many years of hard work on everyone’s part, Long Beach students are proving that our faith in them has been well placed. Although the learning gap between white students and students of color is shrinking more slowly than we would like, every child is getting a shot at a lifetime of opportunity. The progress we have made, and that we will continue to make, all began with a genuine conviction that all children can learn. With full faith in the truth of this phrase, we can transform rhetoric into the magic words that improve children’s lives.
Carl A. Cohn has been the superintendent of the Long Beach Unified School District in California since 1992 and last month was awarded the Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education for 2001.
A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as Turning Education’s Rhetoric Into Reality