Sunday, August 22, 2004

Schools need more coherent vision of reform

By Michael Casserly
Guest columnist

No other institution - public or private - is under more pressure to improve than the nation's big-city public school systems, including Cincinnati's. Parents demand change; businesses press for reform; and now federal law requires results.

By and large, urban public schools are responding to the pressure. The number of urban students throughout the country reading and doing math at a proficient level on both state tests and the National Assessment of Educational Progress has increased significantly over the last several years.

We are learning a great deal by comparing the reforms in major city schools around the country about why these gains are occurring and what it will take to accelerate them. A recent study conducted by the Council of the Great City Schools - a coalition of the nation's largest urban school systems, including Cincinnati - showed that big-city school systems experiencing some of the fastest gains had a number of common reforms that set them aside from districts with slower progress.

Big-city school systems seeing significant gains are more likely to have:

• A coherent vision for where they are going.

• Measurable goals districtwide and school-by-school.

• An accountability system that holds people responsible for the results.

• A single and sometimes prescriptive curriculum in reading and math,

• A method for monitoring reforms at the school and classroom level.

• Data systems that will allow the schools to catch kids before they fall too far behind.

• A clear strategy to address the lowest-performing schools.

These districts also lock their reforms together in a way that is systematic and seamless. Cincinnati is also moving in this direction.

Urban school systems not seeing much progress often do the opposite. Their leadership does not articulate a clear direction for improving academic performance. They lack districtwide achievement goals, and the individual school targets do not add up to any citywide goals. They have little way to hold administrators, principals and teachers accountable for results. They have a curriculum that is often fractured and incoherent. Their professional development is often a mixture of things that principals and teachers have little respect for. They have little way to monitor instructional quality because there are too many people doing too many disparate things to track. And they often lack the data to determine which students, groups and schools are having the most trouble.

Big-city school systems across the country are beginning to see impressive gains in student achievement because they are attending more carefully to what works. And what works cannot be bought off the shelf, implemented piecemeal, or cherry-picked from a menu of reforms. What works are reforms that are systemic in nature, high in quality and disciplined in implementation. Urban schools and their leaders - including those in Cincinnati - understand the pressure they are under to improve and are finally figuring out what it will take to give the public what it wants: higher student achievement. Our job now is to pick up the pace.

Michael Casserly is executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based coalition of the nation's largest urban public school systems.

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