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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