Schools Monday: Eliminating the Excuses
For as long as I can remember, the mantra from the people in charge of the D.C. school system has been that we're really doing quite well--it's just that our schools are filled with kids from dysfunctional homes, kids who come to school with so many problems that it's unreasonable to hold them up to the same expectations and standards we have for suburban children.
That rhetoric--that long roster of excuses for failure-- appears to be in its dying days. This change is taking place not only in the District, where the new schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, is changing expectations by the minute, but also in the suburbs, where--perhaps in reaction to too many years of mealy-mouthed excuses about how some people learn differently from others or how some people arrive in school with such enormous deficits that they cannot be expected to achieve--the language and therefore the behavior of schools chiefs is changing.
"When schools ignore race and poverty, that's when achievement takes off," said Jack Dale, superintendent of schools in Fairfax County, at a think tank seminar in Washington earlier this month.
Dale, Rhee and Montgomery County superintendent Jerry Weast all agreed that systems must funnel extra resources to add teachers, teacher-mentors, class time and other extra help for students who come from poor backgrounds. No one is denying that there are vast differences in the preparation kids have gotten before they first come to school. But this trio of schools chiefs seems united in believing that the days of harboring lower expectations for such children must end. Assuming from the start that some kids just can't hack higher-level work turned out to be little more than poison poured into the educational banquet spread out before these kids.
In Fairfax, Dale says schools serving students from poor or non-English speaking backgrounds are getting instructional coaches, a modified (longer) calendar, and added staff in arts, math, science and advanced courses. Summer school, which is available to all students, is being pitched hard to kids who need to get a leg up, and the county is bringing in children who might struggle with advanced materials for two or three weeks of pre-school in mid-August. The idea is to get students "familiar with a course's vocabulary and nuances before they join the regular class," Dale says.
Fairfax now has 24 schools in which some or all teachers are working on 12-month contracts, enabling teachers in those schools to take on multiple roles "as part of a systematic, continuous improvement" of teaching, Dale says.
In the District, Rhee says, it's time to stop using the poverty prevalent in so many city neighborhoods as an excuse for poor achievement. "People talk about kids who arrive in school with no breakfast, come from violent homes, get no sleep," she says. "We're not going to be able to change those factors." She cited Weast's success in boosting test scores for kids who come from poor neighborhoods "even with zero change in the kids' circumstances."
Rhee's strategy is to focus on fixing the buildings and streamlining the central office in order to free up principals to become much more active in encouraging parent participation in the schools.
Weast warns that low expectations saturate much of the nation's approach to schooling--whether it's states trying to water down the tests they use to see who qualifies for high school graduation, or the No Child Left Behind law pushing schools to focus only on the narrow areas of learning on which kids are tested. Weast believes the country can no longer afford to fool itself on student achievement. The goal, he says, is to create schools where "race, gender and socioeconomic status are no longer predictors of a student's academic success."
That may sound like pie in the sky, but Montgomery County is making real progress toward that goal, with almost all of its students now reading in kindgergarten and about half of the county's students now completing algebra by eighth grade.
Can the District get to that kind of point? Stay tuned. The next telling moment will be when the D.C. Council decides whether to grant Rhee the authority she needs to sack large numbers of people in the central office who are holding back the system and preventing the reallocation of resources to the schools themselves.
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