Schools Must Set High Goals - and Achieve Them : In a Short Time, Patterns of Low Student Achievement and Negative, Debilitating Attitudes about Students Can Be Reversed

Article excerpt

When I was invited two years ago to return to school superintendency from retirement, I hesitated. Four decades of experience in public education had given me perspective on its strengths and on its weaknesses. A district like the Normandy School District, far richer in history than in tax base, required an energy I had hoped to reserve for spoiling grandchildren and rereading some of the great books.

But the challenge was there: Standardized test results were at rock bottom. Too many of the district's 5,400 children were reading and figuring at levels far below state and regional averages. Test scores had been declining for four years. Yet there was a tradition of parental and community involvement in the schools in Normandy and its girdle of tiny mun icipalities and a genuine wish for improvement.

The Board of Education charged me with improving student achievement. And they offered me what passes for a free hand in today's work-ruled, state-regulated, underfunded public education environment. Focus On The Basics In those first weeks, I visited every school in the district. To each of those 11 buildings, ranging from tiny Bel Ridge Elementary to mighty Normandy Senior High School, I carried a single message: We would improve together - immediately. My watchword was "focus." Every member of the certified staff, every administrator, every parent and every student in our schools would recover the focus on improving student achievement. That meant that a lot of worthwhile - and a few just plain silly - programs would be placed on the back burner. Roller skating, film appreciation, self-esteem mantras and even programs to discourage teen-age pregnancy were to lose precedence and resources to the task of improving basic test scores in the fundamental skills of reading and mathematics. All 11 building principals were required to develop a school improvement plan and then to "sell it" to a skeptical audience of one: me. Most of the principals immediately involved their teachers and parents in the task. It would be at this school, not some other, that students would actually have to learn. A few students were already performing well. The task was to cause the majority of students to improve their academic performance. This required the establishment of high expectations and demanding standards. It also required teachers and administrators to provide for the students the appropriate experiences to cause them to meet these more demanding standards. Parents Must Be Involved The parents were asked to donate their time and attention to two things: First, to involve themselves in the rhythms of their children's school days. They were to be reasonably certain that their own offspring reported to school each day well rested and carrying their completed homework. Second, I invited (in a few cases, cajoled and threatened) parents to volunteer time in the schools as aides, assistants and chaperones and required their attendance at conferences with their children's teachers. …