We’re on a Long Trek to Fix Urban Schools

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff, Rochester Business Journal.

Kent Gardner

The 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk underscored the gap in educational outcomes between the nation’s disadvantaged and the rest of society, while challenging the nation’s confidence in the entire K-12 educational system by unfavorable international comparisons. We have made little progress in closing either the gap between America’s rich and poor, or the gap between our students and those of other nations.

Since 1983, we’ve been looking for a quick fix solution, the one Big Thing that would close these gaps. This is ultimately fruitless. Rochester City School District Superintendent Bolgen Vargas seems to have taken this lesson to heart. As noted in a recent City Newspaper interview, he studiously avoids the temptation to predict speedy, miraculous success by imposing bold new policies bundled up with a clever name.

This indefatigable man has been focusing on the simple building blocks of education. If he has a “signature” initiative in his short tenure, it is his effort to get children into the classroom. This is hardly an innovation, yet simple attendance is surely fundamental.

Vargas learned that the district was incapable of accurate attendance reporting. So he fixed the policies and systems that stood in the way. Knowing who is truant—and why—is not enough to get them into the classroom. That’s the next challenge. And after that, we must acknowledge that students who have been attending are not achieving what they should and must. One repair begets another.

In this context, I’m confident that Superintendent Vargas understands that participation in the Ford Foundation’s Time Collaborative (a partnership with the National Center on Time & Learning) is no more a quick fix than is attendance (or a new curriculum or school choice or more testing). The Ford expanded learning time effort is partly a response to the success of some of the charter school models, e.g. KIPP Academies, Harlem Success Academy and, in Rochester, Uncommon Schools’ Rochester Prep. But only partly—a longer school day and longer school year was recommended in 1983 by A Nation at Risk.

And that’s the conclusion I draw from a study of the Expanded Learning Time (ELT) model implemented in the State of Massachusetts beginning in 2005. Abt Associates reported the findings of a careful and detailed analysis of the first four years of program implementation (see http://goo.gl/92Mb9). Abt compared a range of outcomes—student and teacher perceptions, student behavior, and, of course, student achievement. Although student achievement varied among schools, students attending the ELT schools as a group did not outperform students attending the control group schools. Common sense—which should never be suppressed in abject deference to statistical analysis—suggests more learning time is a good thing, provided that the extra time is productively spent. That average student achievement among schools in the Massachusetts experiment did not improve reminds us that a longer school day is not enough. Rochester Prep and KIPP Academies are successful for a variety of reasons, not just because the students have more time in the classroom.

The “charter school” as a reform tool is no more a quick fix than attendance or more time on task or better tests. Stanford’s CREDO, led by former CGR staffer Margaret Raymond, shocked some reformers in 2009 with a study of charter schools in 16 states that concluded that charter schools as a group did not outperform traditional public schools (see http://goo.gl/mzlSZ). Sound familiar? Yet a CREDO study released a few months ago found that charter schools in New Jersey—with a consistent and disciplined chartering authority that closed poorly-performing schools—did provide a better educational outcome for their students (see http://goo.gl/BW22K).

I don’t do justice to any of the three careful research studies I’ve cited. They do underscore a simple truth about education: The problem, particularly in schools with students who bring the results of persistent poverty and social dysfunction to the classroom, is complex and not susceptible to easy solutions. To fix our urban schools, we’re all on a long trek, not a sprint to a miracle cure.

Originally published in Rochester Business Journal 12/17/12