Thursday, April 20, 2006





Part IV: What Inner-City Schoolkids
Really Need

Fourth in a series.

In 1974, the average score on the statewide reading test at Bennett Elementary School in inner-city Los Angeles was in the 3rd percentile. That means 97% of the kids in California did better.
In a devastatingly poor neighborhood pestered by drugs, violence and crime, with a student population that was 50% Hispanic with weak English language skills, most people thought there was little or no hope for improvement.

Principal Nancy Ichinaga turned that around in short order. For over 20 years, her school has been among the highest-performing in all of Los Angeles County.

How did she do it? By doubling or tripling the amount of money spent per pupil? With tiny class sizes? Fabulous new buildings? Lots of specialized English-As-a-Second-Language staff?

Nooooo. Her school switched to phonics-only reading instruction beginning in kindergarten so that 100% of the kids were reading before the end of the year.

It switched from “progressive” curriculum to the “old-fashioned” Open Court series for reading and systematically-taught, drill-heavy Saxon Math.

It completely rejected bilingual education and taught all kids in all classes in English only.

It promoted kids to the next grades only if they deserved to go.

It maintained frequent testing schedules, especially in math, to catch weaknesses early and give teachers plenty of feedback about whether kids were learning what they intended to teach.

It set up enrichment for the 25% of the kids, who turned out to be gifted – but who were mired in the same failures as everybody else, for one simple reason: not because the kids were poor, but because there was poor school leadership.

Did you catch that?

Poor school leadership.


Oh, my goodness gracious, Nebraska. Can’t you see it? THIS is what we need to do in the Omaha Public Schools. This is what we’ve ALWAYS needed to do.

NOT neo-segregation. NOT busing. NOT magnet schools. NOT a Brave New World learning community. And NOT nuclear war against each other.

Old-fashioned, common-sense school leadership is what we need. We need principals who are empowered and able to make the changes necessary to give needy kids what they need and deserve: a chance.

Who said that? W.E.B. DuBois, founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, many decades ago: “The Negro needs neither segregated schools nor mixed schools. What he needs is education.”

The key reason for school underachievement is disenfranchised parents, who aren’t engaged in their children’s educations. They don’t know and don’t care. So their kids just float . . . and, very quickly, sink.

That’s what we have in inner-city Omaha. The reason parents are disenfranchised and disengaged is that the schools are failing. Turn that around – make the schools succeed – and parental involvement revives. Once that happens, you’re home free – and it doesn’t matter one bit what the annual income is in the households whose children you’re serving.

That’s what the evidence shows, from all around the country.

It doesn’t take a horribly divisive, earthshaking split-up of OPS and enormous new bureaucratic infrastructures, despite what State Sens. Ernie Chambers and Ron Raikes say. It doesn’t take a stick-up of taxpayers or a shake-down of surrounding school districts for gobs more money: “your tax base or your life.”

It DOES take some kind of leverage over the education bureaucracy and union, though, to allow some of the common-sense changes to be made that can give needy kids the structure and curriculum to bring them up to speed.

Friday’s GoBigEd story will describe that leverage, and several plans that will work.

The best news of all is that those common-sense changes don’t cost a dime more than what we’re spending now. Actually, in most cases, they SAVE an incredible amount of money by removing the need for remediation, extra staff, extra oversight and so forth.

Why? Because the kids’ academic achievement is brought up from the basement, which is where it now is stuck in about 23 of those Omaha Public Schools buildings.

Significantly, common-sense changes save taxpayers far more than just reducing the cost of K-12 schooling, by helping us prevent the inestimable social costs of educational underachievement. The worse kids do in school, the less productive Omaha’s workforce, the more crime we have, the more welfare and the worse the quality of life.

But OPS is NOT “stuck.” It CAN change. And so can we.

The story about the L.A. school comes from the book No Excuses: Lessons From 21 High-Performing, High-Poverty Schools, by Samuel Casey Carter and published in 2000 by the Heritage Foundation,

The book concluded that these seven factors characterize successful inner-city schools, those that are high-achieving despite serving high-poverty student populations:

-- Principals must be free to spend their budgets their own way, free of central-office micromanagement and pointless mandates, and free to choose the curriculum and instructional methods they think are best even if they are “classical” and “old-fashioned” rather than “progressive” and “in style.”

-- There must be tangible, unyielding goals, such as 100% attendance and 100% of the students working at above grade level.

-- There must be freedom for principals to hire master teachers, chosen for quality and not just seniority, and rewarded financially for improving student performance, with “freedom to fire” also granted under relaxed tenure restrictions.

-- Regular, frequent diagnostic testing and personal monitoring of each student’s progress by the principal helps nip problems in the bud, combined with high-octane staff development directed by the principal, not the district office.

-- Achievement is used as the key to discipline, with self-control modeled and taught, not self-esteem.

-- Principals work actively with and communicate effectively with parents, clarifying expectations about school and behavior with written contracts, engaging parents in such practices as checking homework, scheduling three or four times as many parent-teacher conferences and open houses than in the typical school year, and arranging adult literacy help or other social services for parents if necessary in order to improve the learning environment at home.

-- Principals should be free to set up longer school days, longer school years, after-school programs and weekend hours if they feel they are necessary, and they should be free to arrange personnel practices so that that can happen, without union interference. Where will the money come from? By wisely avoiding wasteful expenditures on the things that DON’T work: better fiscal management by school leadership free to BE better at it, in other words. Teachers in inner-city schools may make substantially more than teachers in suburban schools, for example, but they work longer hours per day and/or more weeks per year, without the union pitching a hissy fit . . . because that’s what inner-city student populations NEED.

Simple? Common sense? You bet. And these ideas WORK.

The 21 schools are all as inspiring as the Los Angeles example:

-- Healthy Start Academy, Durham, N.C., was 99% black and 80% poor . . . but scored in the top 1% on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Methods include frequent testing, five parent conferences a year, and traditional curriculum such as Saxon Math. A charter school that is part of, but separate from, the public-school district, it operates in a bare-bones, 75-year-old building and spends significantly less per pupil than regular public schools even though it is open for 11 months per year. It pays its teachers $10,000 a year more because it doesn’t have to pay for central-office bureaucracies, and offers merit-pay bonuses to teachers every year based on improvement in student test scores.

-- Morse Elementary in Cambridge, Mass., was 75% poor with many first-generation immigrants, and in danger of closing because it had lost so many students to magnet schools in the Boston area. The school changed to the Core Knowledge curriculum (
www.coreknowledge.org) and now is the highest-performing grade school in Cambridge, with a median reading score in the 72nd percentile, and median math in the 84th percentile.

-- Mabel B. Wesley Elementary in Houston, named for a slave girl turned school principal, had 87% low-income students and 99% minority. Years ago, most students were reading several years below grade level. But with old-fashioned curriculum called “Direct Instruction” – heavy on phonics, quality literature, strong teacher modeling and lots of speaking and listening practice -- now almost the entire school scores two years above grade level, and half of the second-graders can subtract seven-digit numbers.

Friday: Five great alternatives to LB 1024.

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