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Articles: Reform

In the six years since her appointment as superintendent of Volusia County (Fla.) School District—a district that has 63,000 students in 16 cities, including Daytona Beach, in the heart of Florida's east coast—Margaret Smith has had her share of success. But what makes her so different from other superintendents is her ability to reach out.

As the nation prepares for common core standards in math and English language arts, a framework to guide new science standards in elementary and secondary education—where students are showing only mediocre achievement compared to other nations—is getting closer.

Education reformer and writer Whitney Tilson, who helped launch Teach for America in 1989, has a dream: that little boys and little girls of all economic backgrounds in the United States have the same education.

He put his dream into a documentary film, A Right Denied: The Critical Need for Genuine School Reform, which was released in April 2010 and produced by documentary filmmaker Bob Compton.

"Every state is different and unique in its education system," says Don McAdams, founder and president of the Houston-based school-board training and consulting firm Center for the Reform of School Systems. "But Texas is one state that is really different and unique." The state's tumultuous history, huge size, high poverty rate and English language learner population have created "an overall sense of urgency" when it comes to education, McAdams explains.

When the Houston school board announced Terry Grier as its pick for superintendent last fall, he broke the ice with a self-deprecating joke. "There's one difference between a dead superintendent lying in the road and a dead skunk," he said. He immediately drew laughs with the punch line: "There are tire tracks in front of the skunk."

In late March, the Los Angeles Unified School District became the first of at least 32 K12 school districts nationwide to undergo federal compliance reviews intended to spotlight possible discrimination against specific groups of students that has resulted in persistent achievement gaps on standardized tests.

The Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education, which has a mission to ensure equal access to education, according to its Web site, hopes to use these compliance reviews to provide technical assistance to help districts improve their performance.

On March 15 President Obama presented to Congress his "Blueprint for Reform," which seeks to reform No Child Left Behind through four main areas of improvement.

Education professionals' response to the Blueprint ranges extensively—many disagree with the plan and largely top-down approach to reformation, while recognizing the need for change.

Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, says the Blueprint is "a vast improvement over the flawed No Child Left Behind program, which it would now replace."

When registration opened at 7 a.m. on Feb. 23 for kindergarten at the Evanston/Skokie School District 65, about 120 parents in the suburban Chicago K8 district were already lined up, as if waiting for tickets to a hot rock concert.

Shortly after the nation's governors, state commissioners of education, school administrators and education experts proposed a draft of common core standards for K12 in English and math last month, major education groups were quick to respond.

The National Education Association, the National School Boards Association and the Alliance for Excellent Education tout the new standards as promoting 21st-century skills of collaborating, problem solving and critical thinking."

Undue punitive policies are driving students down a path toward prison, according to a study from the Advancement Project, an organization founded by veteran civil rights lawyers dedicated to racial justice. "Test, Punish, and Push Out," released January 20 as part of the group's Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track project, details the impact that high-stakes testing and zero tolerance policies have on graduation rates and students that enter the criminal justice system.

"We've got to be willing to do something about test scores and to deal with ineffective teachers who have tenure and are hiding behind the union. It's coming to a head where the public is saying, 'We've had it now,'" declares David Cicarella of the New Haven (Conn.) Public Schools.

Statements like this one have become commonplace among reform-minded school leaders around the country. What makes Cicarella's comments remarkable is that they are not coming from a frustrated superintendent or enterprising principal, but from the president of the city schools' teachers union.

A new report by the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality (TQ Center) highlights efforts across the nation to address a key point in the No Child Left Behind law and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARR A)—the equitable distribution of high-quality teachers across all schools.

He's patrolled the streets of Chicago, kept the local trains running on time and become a player in the highest echelons of City Hall. But at age 38, Ron Huberman—born in Israel and raised just outside of Chicago—is facing his most formidable challenge.

A first of its kind, the Preventing Harmful Restraint and Seclusion in Schools Act has been introduced to set national standards for the practices of controlling disruptive and potentially dangerous students. The bill, introduced in the House of Representatives by Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), and in the Senate by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) in early December 2009, was in response to two studies revealing hundreds of cases across the nation of the misuse of restraint and seclusion.

An unsettling trend is emerging in urban pockets across the country as some school districts are redrawing their boundary lines. As a result, many municipalities are showing glaring gaps in race, ethnicity and economic status.