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Articles: Reform

For Michele Hancock, the recently hired superintendent of the Kenosha (Wis.) Unified School District No. 1, her job is not business as usual. When she took the position last summer, she had a vision to transform the district, including questioning all practices, programs and policies to ensure they meet the needs of all students.

At education conferences, as well as in professional association reports, as a target area of funding for nonprofit foundations and in the literature of industry vendors, the term, "personalized learning" has taken center stage in an arena already crowded with complex and long-standing issues and concerns.

Why personalized learning? And why now?

I've been personally and professionally blessed to have had the opportunity to serve some very diverse and large urban school communities in several states as superintendent of schools. These varied locales have given me the unique opportunity to look at the world of system reform through a broader range of lenses. These multiple perspectives have provided me with insights into the role state policies and infrastructure play in the pace at which systemic reforms can be implemented and accelerated.

The No Child Left Behind Act dates back to Lyndon Johnson's 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, part of that president's ambitious signature policy, the War on Poverty. After a 36-year conflict, however, poverty was officially declared the winner in 2001. As a result, the ESEA was revamped and renamed the No Child left Behind Act by George W. Bush in 2002, and was apparently part of the president's ambitious signature policy, the War on Terror. After nine years of terrorizing schools nationwide, however, the bill is about to be reformed, but even more importantly, renamed.

There is nothing new about the fact that school superintendents come and go. Some retire, and some are recruited into other school districts or opportunities. But let's face it, some are let go.

As the incoming New York City schools chancellor was gearing up to take office, a state senator suggested in December that Chancellor Cathie Black consider establishing an immigrant school in Queens to solve overcrowding in nearby Newtown High School, which is also on the state’s persistently lowest-achieving school list. “With immigrant English-language learners who would otherwise attend Newtown receiving the intensive language- development help they need in a different setting, Newtown could provide more individualized and direct services to students,” Sen.

Under No Child Left Behind, the federal government requires school districts to use 1 percent of Title I money to fund programs that involve parents in the schools and provides another $39 million annually for 62 Parental Information and Resource Centers (PIRCs) that provide training and information for both parents and district personnel to bolster family engagement in schools.

Back in the 1990s, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) in Charlotte, N.C., were plagued with racial equity issues and low academic performance. In 1996, only 66 percent of the students met state reading standards and just 40 percent of the district's black students performed at grade level in reading and math.

That same year, the board of education and school administrators started to map out a turnaround plan to ensure that all CMS students would have the chance to receive an education that would prepare them for college or for success in the workforce.

"In our district, every four years we lose 45 percent of our students, Mr. Chairman," Western Heights (Okla.) Public Schools superintendent Joe Kitchens testified in April before a U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor hearing entitled "How Data Can Be Used to Inform Educational Outcomes." "We have to do something about this. We have to retool America's schools to deal with this issue of mobility," he urged the committee. Over the past five years, Kitchens and the administration of Western Heights have done just that.

If you didn't get the raise you were hoping for recently, you're certainly not alone. Almost every day, it seems, school districts coping with budget shortfalls are announcing freezes or cuts to administrative salaries and benefits as part of the solution, a trend that began during the past school year and is becoming more prevalent around the country.

Detroit is the next city to throw away the administrative reins and open the doors for an all-teacher-led school. Serving pre-K through eighth grade and roughly 450 students, the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy (P3A) will open in Detroit Public Schools this fall— sans principal—replacing the Barbara Jordan Elementary School, which closed in spring 2010 to become a turnaround school after being identified as low performing. The school, which DPS students and families will apply to, is modeled after similar schools in Boston, Milwaukee, Denver and Los Angeles.

Offering innovative choices to students and families is at the heart of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District's Academic Transformation Plan. Spearheaded by Chief Executive Officer Eugene Sanders, the Whatever it Takes blueprint offers what he calls "a gamechanging opportunity" for improvement through academic and non-academic strategies.