Making Schools Work with Hederick Smith lessons learned

lessons learned

Written By Hedrick Smith

Susan Agruso and Hedrick Smith

Assistant superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Susan Agruso, with Hedrick Smith.

In 1983, a blistering report called A Nation At Risk told America that our school systems were failing most of our children. The shock of that wake-up call fired public concern, and for more than two decades this nation has been on a quest for better schools for all of our children.

Four presidents from Ronald Reagan through George W. Bush have declared education a high priority, driven by the ever-rising demands of a high tech economy, by global competition and by the poor showing of American students on international tests.

Initially, the challenge was to educate Americans especially in mathematics and science. It was a Cold War response – “we were still in the Cold War,” recalls Lauren Resnick, Director of the University of Pittsburgh's Institute for Learning. “There were three things propelling this push for reform. Could we compete with the Russians? Could we compete with the Japanese, the Germans and certain rising economies in the rest of Asia? And could we take care of all of our kids and bring everybody into this opportunity structure?”

The American effort took off with typical American optimism. In 1989, the first President Bush, joining the nation's governors at an education summit, proclaimed that American students would become “world champions” in math and science by the year 2000.

But reality proved tougher. Despite the clarion calls for improvement, our students have continued to trail global competitors. In 2003, our 15-year-olds scored below average among 38 nations on international tests; our fourth graders scored lower than 11 other countries in math, and our eighth graders scored lower than 14 other countries.

The danger of second or third-rate academic performance in a global economy, where capital, technology and information leap oceans and continents virtually at a computer key-stroke, is a future American economy weakened by the steady drain of jobs – blue collar, white collar, then technical and intellectual jobs – lost to Japan, Europe, India, China – and future generations of Americans left lacking sufficient skills to hold their own.

A second powerful force driving educational reform in America is the recognition that the economic and social gap between haves and have-nots in American society is deepened and sharpened by the different quality and level of education that different groups of American children receive.

From World War II into the mid-1980s, America was content to prepare 25% of our children for college and put the rest on a general education track that often led nowhere in particular. Our system was mass education for a mass production economy. But the new economy demanded much higher performance from all.

No Child Left Behind, the law passed by Congress in 2002, sought to erase distinctions and level the playing field. It made more explicit than previously the promise that all children are entitled to good schooling and all school districts are expected to deliver quality education to all groups, regardless of race or financial status.

“For the better part of the 20th century our schools were designed to educate students to reach different standards,” observed Warren Simmons, Executive Director of the Annenberg Institute at Brown University. “And now, since 1983 but more recently with the enactment of No Child Left Behind, we are asking that same system to turn on its head and stop educating students to meet different standards and educate the vast majority of students to meet one high-level standard. So that's a sea change with respect to our nation's goals.”

The challenge to spread high quality teaching and strong student performance across the board is forcing radical changes in schools and school districts that take it seriously, such as Corbin High School in the Appalachian hills of Eastern Kentucky.

“You have a certain percentage of students and they are going to learn no matter what – probably about 20% of the kids – you know whatever you throw at them, they're going to love,” observes Joyce Phillips, Corbin High's principal. “But then we have about 80% of the kids that need some kind of a hook, something to get their interest, something that will make them want to come to school and want to learn and want to do their best.”

It's that 80%, whom reformers have focused on. When Eric Smith took over as superintendent of North Carolina's Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system in 1996, he was troubled by the disparities he found between suburban white schools and inner city black schools.

“We found that the expectations were different for inner city kids versus the suburban,” said Smith. “We found that the pace of instruction, the speed with which content was being delivered was different – totally different expectations.”

The heart of Smith's strategy was to deliver “equity” education to all – to use the best-performing suburban schools, with their experienced, high quality teachers, good resources, demanding curriculums and textbooks, as the yardstick for inner city schools, and then he set out to deliver the same quality of education in high poverty communities.

In New York's District 2, Tony Alvarado was animated by a similar ambition for his reform. “The values that we hold dear are that public education is most important for the weakest students in our society,” Alvarado explains. “And what we did in District 2 was to pay lots of attention to the leaders and the teachers that had to serve these students.”

The architects of school-by-school reform also voice similar objectives for reform. Bob Slavin of Johns Hopkins University was asked by the City of Baltimore to create his highly scripted reading program, Success for All, especially for inner city students at low-performing schools. In 1968, Dr. James Comer of the Yale University School of Medicine took his ideas for holistic child development and school development into troubled schools in New Haven, Connecticut. When Mike Feinberg and David Levin generated KIPP – their Knowledge Is Power Program, they targeted kids from high poverty neighborhoods who were falling behind on the academics. And Gene Bottoms designed High Schools That Work for teenagers who were lost in high schools and falling through the cracks.

The determination to overcome these disadvantages and the optimism of the reformers are widely shared by advocates of educational reform, whether in government or in non-profit organizations such as The Education Trust. Two decades of effort, they contend, have now accumulated enough evidence of improved student performance to answer critics who say the public school system itself cannot make the grade.

“Number one, it is very clear that even poor kids and kids of color who come from difficult neighborhoods can, in fact, achieve,” declares Kati Haycock, Director of The Education Trust. “Number two it is very clear that there are some public schools – even now some districts – that have figured out how to do that. Our task has to be to help other schools and districts achieve those same ends…and the evidence again suggests we can do this if we don't get distracted, if we learn from the high achievers, and if we act with dispatch.”