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The Center for Public School Renewal

Note: Published in slightly different form as "Let's Give Teachers More Muscle to Fix Education" by The Detroit News, 5/21/2003.

Original Title:
Education's Failures
by Barry McGhan

You've probably heard that Michigan has more than 200 failing schools. This number, thanks to a redefinition of "failing," is down from over 1500 schools on the list last year – a whopping 87% improvement in one year! Can a mere 200 schools be much of a challenge?

Governor Granholm wants to forge a new partnership including state departments, the private sector, non-profits and faith-based organizations to deal with problem schools. Staffs in affected schools will be required to make their own improvement plans and get training to overcome their problems.

While we all hope these complicated-sounding measures will work, this may be deja vu all over again.

Schools have been required to make annual improvement plans for more than 10 years. How will this new round of planning be more effective?

One thing that does seem to be different this time is the Governor's linking of the fate of the children in these schools to "the entire Michigan community." Teachers may feel some relief to hear that they're not the only fish in the barrel this time – although, they are the only ones who have to attend "Turnaround Boot Camp" over the summer.

The truest recent comment about failing schools comes from State Superintendent Tom Watkins, who said "the [failing] school is the sign of a struggling community, with struggling families." We've known for nearly 40 years that the socioeconomic status (SES) of families is statistically the single biggest factor related to student achievement. Please, this is not an excuse for shorting the schooling of children from poor families. It's just a fact.

Because of their life circumstances, these children are harder to educate. It's an environmental-type problem, like the differences in building highways in the frost belt vs. the sun belt. We still build'em up here, we just have to work harder to get them to last.

If SES is as potent as it seems, then it makes no more sense to label some schools as failing than it does to praise others for their high test scores. Success and failure both come to schools from their families' circumstances. If anything, middle class schools simply have a larger margin for error in their programs than low-SES schools.

The still-unanswered question is "Can schools that work with students from the most squalid circumstances society imposes rise above their usual low outcomes to something near the middle?" Some education-watchers think this is possible, and point to schools with low-SES children who do have academic success. Researchers study such schools and describe what seem to be key features that make them more successful. We've known about these "against the grain" schools for roughly 30 years, yet, in general, family SES remains the biggest factor in school achievement.

One problem has been our inability to replicate successful low-SES schools. We have some hunches based on research, but no clear path to making turnarounds happen. President Bush talks glibly about the "soft bigotry of low expectations," but many dedicated teachers in low-SES schools will tell you that success is a lot more difficult to achieve than simply changing your expectations. Raising the achievement of disadvantaged children is slow, hard work, and there are no guarantees of success. Changing the name of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) to the Fewer Children Left Behind Act would express a more realistic ambition. After all, other organizations' goals are usually more modestly expressed. For example, the FBI doesn't promise to stop all terrorists, just more than before.

The situation will only get worse as NCLB standards are raised over the next 10 years. More and more currently "successful" schools will fall into the failing category. It may become too much of a problem for a voluntary coalition outside of schools to solve.

Governor Granholm is known for her interest in "out-of-the-box" thinking. If ever a situation needed it, this is it.

Here are some suggestions.

As the going gets tough and partnerships begin to falter, everything will fall back on the educators in the trenches. Give them something to fight with – something more than plans and training. Give them some real ammunition. Like the power to spend serious money at the school level, where the rubber hits the road.

Listen to the CFO of the improved Houston, Texas district who said "We decided that if we're going to hold people responsible, we should let them decide how to spend the money." Take a look at new research by William Ouchi at UCLA on how to organize school systems to improve achievement. Check out Edmonton, Canada's innovative "weighted student formula" budgeting system, which the district's teachers union president describes as teacher-empowering.

Then, not only will our thinking be out of the box, but maybe our kids will be, too.

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