This ques­tion is very much on the minds of edu­ca­tors across the coun­try. Many strate­gies are being test­ed. Guess what? There are no sil­ver bul­lets! Charter schools have been tout­ed as the solu­tion, but it is now clear that sim­ply being a char­ter is no answer. There are good ones and bad ones—just like oth­er pub­lic schools. Publishers offer fan­cy and expen­sive instruc­tion­al pack­ages, but they offer lit­tle improve­ment if they are not effec­tive­ly imple­ment­ed by a com­pe­tent orga­ni­za­tion. Educational tech­nol­o­gy cer­tain­ly has a role to play, but it can­not com­pen­sate for poor teach­ing. However, some schools and dis­tricts are find­ing effec­tive approach­es.

Three recent arti­cles pro­vide exam­ples of schools and sys­tems that are effec­tive­ly edu­cat­ing their stu­dents. An arti­cle in the New York Times (2/9/13) enti­tled “The Secret to Fixing Bad Schools” doc­u­ments the strik­ing suc­cess of Union City, New Jersey, a dis­trict in a poor com­mu­ni­ty with most­ly immi­grant stu­dents. The pub­lic schools have moved from being “fac­to­ries for fail­ure” to a dis­trict where achieve­ment scores approx­i­mate the statewide aver­age. David Kirp, the author, says, “As some­one who has worked on edu­ca­tion pol­i­cy for four decades, I’ve nev­er seen the likes of this.”

Some major ele­ments of the turn­around:

  • Pre-kinder­garten that enrolls almost every 3 and 4 year old.
  • An instruc­tion­al core that includes the skills of the teacher, engage­ment of stu­dents, and a rig­or­ous cur­ricu­lum that make stu­dents thinkers, not just test tak­ers.
  • High expec­ta­tions, a “can do” atti­tude and a belief that edu­ca­tion can be a tick­et out of pover­ty.
  • Principals as edu­ca­tion­al lead­ers, not just dis­ci­pli­nar­i­ans and paper-shuf­flers.

Union City and oth­er effec­tive dis­tricts did not become exem­plars by behav­ing like mag­pies, tak­ing shiny bits and pieces and glu­ing them togeth­er. Instead they devel­op goals and long-term strate­gies for reach­ing those goals.

Kansas City Star writer Joe Robertson describes the work at Boone Elementary School in the Center School District (4/6/13), one of eight schools in the nation to earn the National Center for Urban School Transformation’s Silver Award for National Excellence. A school in which 70 per­cent of the stu­dents qual­i­fy for free or reduced-price lunch has achieved test scores that exceed statewide aver­ages.

The team from the nation­al cen­ter found a rig­or­ous cur­ricu­lum, teach­ing excel­lence, a sup­port­ive envi­ron­ment, par­ents and stu­dents who felt val­ued, and sys­tems and beliefs that fos­tered con­tin­u­ous improve­ment. Leadership had a sin­gle focus on what they want­ed to do, from the super­in­ten­dent to the prin­ci­pal to the teach­ers. Teachers have access to data about each student’s progress through “bench­mark­ing” strate­gies that allow deal­ing with each student’s indi­vid­ual needs. Strong com­mit­ment to major change was born out of cri­sis. Earlier fail­ing per­for­mance brought about threats of “dra­con­ian” mea­sures. The prin­ci­pal and her team of teach­ers pulled togeth­er with the sup­port of the dis­trict admin­is­tra­tion.

New York Times inter­na­tion­al affairs writer Thomas Friedman recent­ly dis­cussed the glob­al pub­lic edu­ca­tion pic­ture (4/5/13). As every­one who has been pay­ing atten­tion knows, America’s pub­lic schools do not rank well when com­pared with schools in oth­er devel­oped coun­tries. Educational suc­cess in many coun­tries has been the sub­ject of inten­sive study. What brings around suc­cess? The secret, accord­ing to Friedman, is that there is no secret. “The best schools have strong fun­da­men­tals and cul­tures that believe any­thing is pos­si­ble with any stu­dent. They work hard to choose strong teach­ers with good con­tent knowl­edge and ded­i­ca­tion to con­stant improve­ment. “

Friedman says, “The chal­lenge is that changes in the world econ­o­my keep rais­ing the bar for what our kids need to do to suc­ceed. Our mod­est improve­ments are not keep­ing pace…The truth is that America has world-beat­ing K-12 schools. We just don’t have near­ly enough”.

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