Told Urban Schools Need to be "Blown Up" to Improve
Gongwer News Service, August 18, 2003
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(Indianapolis, IN) The structure of the nation's high schools,
particularly those in urban centers with high concentrations of
poverty, need to be "blown up" in order to improve student
performance, governors were told Monday. The message at the
annual meeting of the National Governors Association came from
the superintendent of the Cleveland school district, who also
declared city elected boards do not work, and the director of
the Gates Foundation.
The session on the federal No Child Left Behind act was one of
two programs focusing on education at this year's meeting that
drew 30 of the 50 governors to Indianapolis. The opening plenary
session on Sunday involved a presentation on the support needed
to turn failing schools can be turned around.
In calling for radical change in structure and governance of
urban schools, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, CEO of the Cleveland
Municipal School District, said, "It is clear that this is the
21st century's civil rights movement."
She said the district is in the process of jettisoning its
junior high schools in favor of K-8 schools, which she said
offer a more stable environment and smaller settings for
adolescents before they move on to high schools.
And those high schools, she said, "are too damn big" and do not
facilitate the individualized attention urban students need. "We
plan to blow up our high schools," she said. "The rocket science
is how do you create a smaller focused place."
Tom Vander Ark, executive director of education for the Gates
Foundation, also called for new options for minority students,
noting one third of those entering high school fail to graduate
and about the same number get diplomas without adequate skills.
"High schools are the worst part of the system and the hardest
to change," he said. "The current model is a disaster. You need
a highly supportive environment where every student is known and
Mr. Vander Ark said specialty schools and high schools offering
college credits are needed to help boost student performance.
Brad Duggan, president/CEO of Just For Kids, added that drastic
action is needed for high schools, though he said data
collection to measure high school performance and particularly
an individual student's progress is "horrible." He said until
better data systems are fully implemented, states will be
challenged in trying to make schools accountable.
Ms. Byrd-Bennett said the school will announce Tuesday it is no
longer in financial or academic emergency for the first time
since its governance was changed to mayoral control from an
Students have met six of 22 targets set in state tests, with
overall scores up 10 percent over the past year, Ms.
Byrd-Bennett said. Furthermore, average attendance is over 95
percent, up from 80 percent when the elected board was
The district has gone from a $200 million deficit since she was
hired from New York and now has balanced the books for three
She said the Cleveland model with employees working on an
at-will basis and principals on performance-based contracts may
not work everywhere, although she added, "There may be some fine
elected school boards; I just haven't seen it."
Responding to a question by Governor Jennifer Granholm regarding
data comparing the performance of the 50 or so urban districts
with control in the hands of the mayor, the state or a
combination compared to those with elected boards, Ms.
Byrd-Bennett said the best of the new governance models besides
her district are Boston and Chicago.
In Michigan, the state turned control of the Detroit district
over to a state-mayoral governance structure, with voters
currently scheduled to decide in November 2004 whether to return
to the elected board. In Cleveland, 74 percent of the voters
opted for the mayoral control structure when the issue was
Ms. Granholm also said she was struck by Ms. Byrd-Bennett's call
for better involvement by parents. "Education is a civil right,"
she said, "and we can't let good education affect only those
children who chose the right parents."
Sunday, Richard Elmore, Harvard University professor of
education, said more schools are being identified as failing as
states step up their accountability standards, adding the
challenge for policymakers is to help states and local schools
upgrade their services.
"I think there will have to be major changes in staff and the
system," Mr. Elmore said. "Unless we invest in fundamental human
knowledge and skills we will not be successful."
Mr. Elmore said the issue facing education is a 100-year event.
"You can go to any city and find one of the best schools and one
of the worst schools," he said. "The problem is how do we
provide good education in scale?"
Mr. Elmore emphasized that low-performing schools face different
problems and are at different stages in becoming better or
worse. He also said some lenience is required for schools that
have invested heavily in change but have not yet seen results in
student performance. And he said states should develop a
structure to support low-performing schools, particularly in
helping to provide incentives to minimize teacher turnover.
Mr. Elmore noted a lot of the work states have done to pressure
schools to be accountable relate to structural changes, such as
sanctions, charter schools and where legal, tuition programs.
But he added, "Changing the system does not necessarily change
those within the system.
The governors heard from fifth and sixth graders and the teacher
of an Indianapolis elementary school, which raised its rate of
passing the state test for third graders to 73 percent from 29
percent over a three-year period.
The teacher, Karen Stuart, credited use of a rolling computer
that permits individualized testing of students several times a
year with instant feedback, better parental involvement, after
school programs and a reexamination by staff of what was not
working in a school dominated by students from low-income
A report circulated to governors by the NGA Center for Best
Practices on turning failing schools around, highlighted Ms.
Granholm's public-private partnership targeted to 216 schools
that did not meet annual yearly progress targets in math and
Each school is to submit an AYP achievement plan to the state
for approval, its administrators are being sent this summer to a
principals academy and leadership school and local businesses
and groups are recruited to provide mentors, social services and
It was one of three programs highlighted in the report.
Another was a South Carolina program that sends in an external
audit team to schools rated unsatisfactory based on test scores,
and the state provides teacher and curriculum specialists. The
troubled schools are eligible for extra funding for training and
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