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The Next Step

Nov 07, 2008
Charter schools, vouchers, school choice, No Child Left Behind, blah, blah, blah. We are awash in jargon and unfunded mandates and a generalized sense of desperation surrounding the state of K-to-post-grad education in America, and with good reason. (See our Panic Time for a few good reasons.) The question is, “What Next?” Because the time for “next” is most emphatically now. As we contemplate a new administration in January, we have an opportunity for a new vision and a new direction in American education. There are people and programs that are already living that new direction, and we will go in search of them between now and inauguration day.

We start with the Progressive Policy Institute and its memo To: The Next President; Re: Closing the Graduation Gap by Giving Schools Greater Autonomy (.pdf), by Doug Ross, Superintendent of the University Preparatory Academy in Detroit, Michigan.

Detroit has an abysmal graduation rate of only 25 percent for its boys, and only 32 percent overall. Better inner-city schools catering to poor Black and Hispanic students still enjoy graduation rates hovering around 50 percent.

Ross’s charter school, on the other hand, which he helped start eight years ago, “graduated 93 percent of its entirely African-American, overwhelmingly poor senior class in June 2007, and enrolled 91 percent of those graduates in college or technical school.” They have now re-enrolled for their second year at rates above the statewide average for all freshmen.

How does he and the 50 other similarly constituted schools throughout the U.S. do it? Ross points to four characteristics they all have in common:

  • The schools take full responsibility for motivating urban students to learn, doing what it takes to create powerful relationships between students and teachers.
  • They create a school environment where achievement, aspiration, and hard work are socially valued, by obsessively emphasizing that all of their students will learn and that, of course, all will graduate and go on to higher education.
  • They make it their business to know how each student is doing academically and socially.
  • They do whatever it takes to make sure every student succeeds.
What does it require to empower schools to take on this intensive, hands-on approach? Two things, says Ross, both of which are political landmines: absolute autonomy, shifting power from the large central bureaucracies that currently direct every big-city school system; and the abolition of tenure as we know it, with the principal able to hire and fire at will.

Ross calls on the next president to speak up from his bully pulpit in favor of reform; to supplement the penalities in No Child Left Behind with positive reinforcements and more money; and to bring together coalitions of interested parties to devise strategies for overcoming bureaucratic opposition from local boards and teachers’ unions.

Ross doesn’t underestimate the challenges involved in turning American education upside down; however, he has seen the value of doing it first-hand, and his example deserves study and emulation.
tags: Education

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