Can Big City Schools Be Improved? (Opinion)

By Casserly, Michael | Nation's Cities Weekly, February 3, 2003 | Go to article overview

Can Big City Schools Be Improved? (Opinion)


Casserly, Michael, Nation's Cities Weekly


Every debate about how to reform America's schools is a discussion--at its core--about how to improve public education in our cities.

It is surprising, then, that so few people have bothered to ask whether any of the reforms being pursued in cities are actually working.

But these questions are being raised--if only by urban schools themselves--and the answers are proving useful as the big cities struggle to meet the goals of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

New state assessment data are starting to show that progress, however fragile, is being made. About 40 percent of the nation's 60 largest urban school systems have improved their reading scores in every grade tested since the states began assessing local performance. Some 83 percent of the cities have improved in at least half of their tested grades. And, seven cities (11 percent) improved in every grade faster than their respective states. Gains are stronger in math.

That there were cities improving at rates faster than their states and simultaneously narrowing racially-identifiable achievement gaps is very encouraging news. But the progress begs the question, "How did they do it?"

A new analysis, "Foundations for Success," by the Council of the Great City Schools and the MDRC research group looked at some of the faster moving cities--Charlotte, Houston, Sacramento and New York City's Chancellor's District--and found some strikingly similar strategies that could prove useful to big city schools nationally.

Overall, each district took a comprehensive, systemwide approach to reform rather than relying on each school to figure it out individually. This approach helped spur improvements across the district, rather than in pockets of schools.

In each city district, reform was initiated and led by a superintendent and school board who were in sync about how to boost student performance, who did so in a steady but relentless fashion over an extended period, and who minimized the political game-playing and zero-sum decision-making found in some districts.

It took community-wide meetings to build support for the reform initiatives. In Sacramento, former mayor Joe Serna Jr. …

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