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The Center for Public School Renewal

Note: Published in slightly different form as "It Takes More than the Right Attitude to Fix Public Schools" by The Detroit News, September17, 2000.

Original Title:
Can Special Schools Be Replicated?
by Barry McGhan

Reporters and columnists occasionally write stories about schools that seem to be a cut above average. The most important are stories about schools that beat the odds. The students are from poor families, but, unlike most such schools, their students' achievements are more like those of middle class children. A Detroit school--Owen Elementary--was recently the subject of such a story.

These stories provoke mixed feelings in me. I like them, because they give us hope that similar blessings can be conferred on students from poor families in other schools. I dislike them because they usually imply that fixing public schools amounts to nothing more than having the right "attitude" about teaching children.

Let me make it clear that I am not skeptical about what is really going on in these schools. It's not a smoke and mirrors thing--a few schools really do beat the odds. And I love the writers' descriptions of the folks who make it all work. They are high-energy charismatic leaders who have something to say. It's easy to appreciate their no-nonsense approach to their profession.

But, is that all it takes, just the right leadership attitude?

That's what the Heritage Foundation, publishers of "No Excuses Schools," seems to think. They've included Owen, along with two other Detroit-area schools, in their profile of 22 high-performing high-poverty public and private schools across the country. According to author Casey Carter, a graduate student in philosophy at Catholic University of America, these schools have common success factors that can serve as models for other schools.

To which I say, "Maybe not."

You might think I'm being overly skeptical, but educators have known about schools that beat the odds with poor children for 30 years. A whole body of research on "effective schools"--the usual name for high-poverty high-achieving schools--has been developed. Effective schools advocates have been working for years to transform less-effective schools into more effective ones. But, we're not there yet.

Why is this kind of transformation so difficult? Well, think about other areas of life. It's common to hear that nine out of ten small businesses fail. Tens of thousands of talented high school athletes are reduced to thousands of college stars, who in turn are winnowed down to hundreds of successful pros–in any sport. Hollywood is filled with many actors and few stars.

There are thousands of scientists around the world, but only a handful of Nobel laureates. So why should we think exceptional educators can be easily replicated?

This illusion rests on several pillars. First, children represent the future, and our culture encourages us to be optimistic about that--we want to believe we can do better than we have. Second, we're all familiar with schooling from our own personal experiences, so we think we understand it well. Third, many of us have been touched by a teacher, counselor, or principal in just the right way at just the right time, so we know schools can make a difference.

But statistics reveal a harsher picture. More than thirty years ago, statistical studies began to show that family economic status was the single biggest "predictor" of school achievement. This does not mean, at all, that poor people can't learn. What it means is that many poverty-stricken families live in a morass of circumstances, including decrepit school facilities, that block them from the achievements they are capable of making. Middle-class students can be more successful, as a group, because they simply do not have as many obstacles in their way.

Effective schools proponents have been at work implementing their principles since the 1970s. In 1986, the U.S. department of education gathered a number of similar improvement ideas together into a book called "What Works" and disseminated it throughout the country. Other approaches have been developed during this period: Accelerated Schools, Comer Schools, Success for All Schools, etc. But, in spite of these efforts, level of family income remains the strongest overall measurable factor in school achievement.

We hope the Heritage Foundation study has found the key to unlocking the connection between family socioeconomic status and achievement. But we should probably take a "wait and see" position on the outcome of any attempts to bring about beneficial change in schools based on their study. For now, it seems fair to assume that "beat the odds" schools are in the hands of special people--who, on other occasions, we might call geniuses, or heroes. If the Heritage Foundation can show us how to clone them, then they'll have our attention.

In the meantime, we need to continue to concentrate on the basics--well trained teachers in every classroom, a modern, coherent and focused curriculum, adequate texts, supplies, facilities and equipment, supportive administrators, and concerned parents. Those are the basics of education.

[Author's note: The Heritage Foundation report "No Excuses" can be ordered at www.heritage.com/bookstore. Gerald Bracey's critique of the report, "No Excuses, Lots of Reasons," can be found at www.uwm.edu/Dept/CERAI]

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