The time has come to close down some of our largest urban districts and start all over. From one end of the country to another, the struggles of governors, legislators, mayors, and educators to make sense of and give direction to our troubled urban school districts have become steadily more difficult.
In Hartford, Connecticut, the school board is literally begging for solutions, and the mayor wants to take over the school system. If the trend toward state takeovers in New Jersey continues, the state department of education will soon be running every major urban district in the state. After four years of frustrating negotiations with the Baltimore school district over its inefficient management and poor student relations, Maryland's governor and general assembly now want to take control and reorganize the system. A congressional budget resolution bogged down last spring over proposals to institute a voucher system in the District of Columbia, where student achievement levels continue to place the District near the bottom of the list of the nation's big-city school systems.
The mayor of Chicago recently assumed greater control of that city's schools and has expected greater accountability. In Los Angeles there are demands to break up the unified school system, while in New York City the new chancellor managed to stave off the possibility of more drastic action by taking direct control of the worst schools himself.
Other urban leaders are concerned about their schools as well. At a meeting on education problems, held in Denver last spring, big-city mayors issued a document that seriously considered city takeovers of failing school districts.
Probably none of these remedies will get the mayors what they want: an influx of young urban parents with enough skills and knowledge to contribute to a brighter future for their cities. While charter schools, magnet schools, or vouchers might help some students and some schools, they do not get near the core problem - a malfunctioning school system in which educators are not able to make a difference for young people. Changing governance structures just rearranges the deck chairs on a sinking ship. If simply putting the mayor in charge is the solution, then why is the Baltimore school system still so troubled? In that city the mayor appoints all of the members of the school board and thus, in effect, selects the superintendent. If state takeovers are the remedy for the ills of urban schools, then why hasn't student achievement in Patterson or Trenton exhibited any significant improvement since New Jersey's takeover of these districts?
These and similar efforts to reform urban education - sincere though they be - have almost no chance of working because they are quick fixes for systems that no longer work for poor children and their families. Despite promises of greater accountability, state and city political leaders are mostly tinkering around the edges of urban school reform. They offer little hope of turning in a better long-term performance than those from whom they wish to wrest control. And here are a number of reasons why this is so.
* These well-meaning leaders still treat urban school systems as isolated operations - disconnected from all the other services and educative influences on the lives of children. Granted, the mission of schools is a fairly narrow one, but they are only one piece of the complex puzzle that must be put together if the problems of urban children are to be solved. School systems cannot ignore their interdependence with health services, social supports, recreation services, public libraries, the juvenile justice system, employment training, and economic development efforts. Unless the schools work closely with these other systems, they will inevitably fail. Moreover, the continuing isolation of schools allows teachers and administrators - justifiably - to blame factors other than themselves for the lack of student success.
* The attempts at urban school reform do not really empower those with the most at stake - families and children. Charter schools might give authority to small groups of parents, but, ultimately, either the state or the district remains in control. Even in Chicago, where the reforms devolved authority to local school councils run by parents, the old centralized system limited what parents could do. State takeovers, as in New Jersey, or the "reconstitution" of failing schools, as in Maryland, might temporarily lead to some improvements, but, ultimately, they do not give families information and support so that they can help hold schools accountable for the education their children and communities need.
* These urban school reforms are predicated on a deficit model of improvement. As such, they fail to consider the possibilities for designing new collaborative modes of education within urban communities that could break down the walls of isolation and failure that serve as the grim hallmarks of many of today's inner-city schools.
Public policy is ripe for change. It is possible under current federal law, for example, to obtain waivers that allow collaborative funding, joint planning, and single eligibility requirements for a variety of services. The barriers that keep supports for children and families apart can be torn down.
Another argument for fundamental change is the desperate need to educate families, not just children. The educational resources - including buildings, teachers, program specialists, hospitals, early childhood programs, and adult literacy and training efforts - ought to serve everyone in a family in a coordinated and focused manner.
The most compelling reason for change, however, is the possibility of achieving real excellence in our city schools. For example, it is inane, wasteful, and tragic that students in the District of Columbia are virtually within walking distance of the richest educational resources in the nation - museums, galleries, Capitol Hill, historical sites - and yet probably use them less frequently than visiting high school senior classes. Every major urban area can offer high-caliber cultural, scientific, technological, business, and historical resources that could become satellite classrooms rather than episodic field-trip experiences.
The great cultural diversity of urban schools - so often cited as an excuse for failure - could be turned into a tremendous asset, producing future generations of multilingual, culturally savvy citizens who are able to function competently in a global economy.
If a big city's education, health, and social support systems did their jobs well enough, the schools might cease to exist altogether and be replaced by community learning centers that cater to the specific needs of their surrounding neighborhoods. Of course, that's a change that cannot be brought about without parents and other community members at the table.
A redesigned system could be built upon accountability for results. Everyone who agreed to work in such a system - whether as teachers, health workers, job training experts, or employees of businesses pledged to economic growth in inner cities - would be committed to certain goals and held responsible for achieving them. Such a plan might be called union-bashing by some, but as Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told the National Education Summit, unions do not hire the teachers people complain about. However, they do tend to protect them once they have been hired. The union role in this redesigned system would be to welcome the opportunity to participate in an environment in which professionals applaud accountability.
Let the people on the front lines take over the schools. The families that want a future for their children, the social workers frustrated with a crumbling social ladder, and the teachers who believe that their students are capable of learning much more - give all of these players a chance to change urban schools for the better. Give those who are willing to begin again 18 months to two years for planning and the beginning of implementation. Provide them with lots of information about where the schools and other support systems are now, what they should be accomplishing, and what the possibilities for improvement are. Make sure that they have sufficient support from people they can trust.
Within a few years, such pioneers might be able to demonstrate how to transform the worst into the best.
ANNE C. LEWIS is a national education policy writer living in the Washington, D.C., area (e-mail: email@example.com).