Making Schools Work with Hederick Smith

This program took root in 2002 with the nation in uproar over the state of public education, with debate in full cry over charter schools, vouchers and standards and with Congress preparing a new law, No Child Left Behind, to demand that states insure better performance from all students.
Hedrick Smith Productions crew

A Hedrick Smith Productions crew prepares for an interview at Jordan Community School in Chicago.

Three years ago, we asked: Can it be done – can public schools deliver the results four presidents have called for? Is there success out there to see? Are there models that the rest of us can learn from?

We especially wanted to know what school districts were delivering the best results for the weakest students. Had any educators devised models of educational reform that worked not just for affluent college-bound students, but also for the larger mass of disadvantaged kids and struggling learners? Was anyone closing the achievement gap between minority and poor students and the middle class mainstream?

And, in a nation of 92,000 schools and 47 million students, reform needs to encompass many schools, so we also asked: Is there evidence of success, not just in a handful of schools, but in hundreds of schools or entire school districts, that are taking tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of students to new levels of performance so that America’s next generation can compete in the new global economy?

The answer to all our questions, we found, is yes. But finding the success stories took more than a solid month of talking to education specialists who had spent years tracking and studying educational results, trying to determine objectively what works and what doesn’t. We consulted studies and experts from Harvard to Texas A&M, from the University of Wisconsin and Johns Hopkins to Stanford, from the RAND Corporation and The Education Trust to the Council of the Great City Schools, from the blue book on school reform of the American Institutes for Research to the regular test reports compiled by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. We asked not

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only about traditional public schools, but charter and privately contracted public schools.

On the experts’ advice, we set tough criteria. First, reform at large scale, not just pockets of progress inspired by dynamic individual leaders. Second, reform with a proven track record over several years. No flash in the pan reforms that petered out. Third, reform with results that beat rival models, according to independent studies.

The seven examples of reform that made it into our two-hour program have had broad impact, changing the performance of up to two million students. They cover all levels, from elementary to high school, from inner city Chicago and New York to small towns like Corbin, Kentucky and Mount Vernon, Washington. And they reach from east to west in the north, and along an arc across the Sunbelt from Charlotte to Houston to San Diego.

The common denominator is results – measurable improvement, especially from kindergarten through eighth grade. High schools were a tougher nut to crack, though the one model singled out by experts has a very strong track record.

The strategies of the four models in the first hour of the program differ widely – from a highly scripted elementary reading program (Success for All) and a program focused on holistic child development (Comer Process) to a radical middle school with sharp discipline and an extra long school year (KIPP), to a program that motivates teenagers with hands-on learning (High Schools That Work).

Among the school districts shown in the second hour, one put its focus on improving teaching (District 2) in New York City; another, on a data-driven standards approach (Charlotte-Mecklenburg); and a third (San Diego) made headway but got mired in a battle between advocates of fast-paced, top-down centralized reform versus those who favored go-slow, site-based school reform.

But for all their differences, we did find common ingredients of success. You can find them near the end of our documentary and on this web site under “Lessons Learned.

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