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Articles: Reform

Failure Is Not an Option is not just the title of a best-selling book; it's a mantra for many high-performing districts. The Mansfield (Texas) Independent School District adopted this motto in 2007 and hasn't looked back.

The district—the second-largest in Texas with over 35,000 students—was far from low-achieving, although it was experiencing rapid change with the addition of over 2,000 students each year. Located outside Dallas, Mansfield has had to add a new school each year for the last 13 years to keep up with enrollment. It currently has 40 schools.

At a recent conference that I attended, I learned quite a bit about the development and implementation of online courses in public schools. However, I left the workshop feeling a bit discouraged, even disgusted. Not with regard to online learning; in fact, I am cautiously optimistic that online coursework will benefit students in many different ways. But the more I heard, the more I felt disillusioned.

In the 2008-2009 school year, Adams County (Colo.) School District 50, just north of Denver, did something only previously attempted by the small rural Chugach school system in Alaska. The struggling district with roughly 10,000 students abandoned the conventional concept of grade levels and implemented a standards-based system, which only advances students to the next level when they have mastered certain skills. Three years later, student achievement is lower than ever before, and the superintendent that guided the district through this reform is stepping down.

Arts education is being left out of the national conversation about how to reform schools, according to a report released May 6 by the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

The report acknowledges that tight budgets and high-stakes testing has placed arts education on the back burner, but it affirms that there are cost effective models to incorporate the arts across the curriculum that, when done properly, can raise student achievement, attendance rates and behavior.

Extensive media coverage of New York City's Harlem Children's Zone's cradle-to-career program over the past several years has served to focus mainstream attention on school reform in a way unprecedented in recent history.

The Obama administration has grand hopes for turning around the nation's lowest-performing schools, in part by allocating $3.5 billion for School Improvement Grants. Unfortunately, there simply aren't enough qualified principals to replace those mandated to be fired under two of the four school improvement models that the federal government says districts must follow to tap into that funding.

In March, U.S. Secretary of education arne Duncan estimated that 82 percent of schools could fail to make adequate yearly Progress in the 2011- 2012 school year. The startling statistic left many wondering whether the problem was with the schools or with the guiding policy of no child Left Behind.

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.

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