Monday, May 18, 2009

The 1% Solution

I've written before on this blog that contrary to what you might think from reading the newspapers, the school system as a whole is not failing. Public schools in suburban and other upper middle class neighborhoods are actually doing pretty well. However, schools in underserved communities are spectacularly failing. When we talk about the achievement gap and failing schools, that's what we're really talking about.

So where does that leave us in terms of school reform?

Well, it gives us a focus. Rather than running around trying to come up with new systems to measure and account for all schools, we should be looking for ways to boost those schools that actually most need the boosting. I think Arne Duncan gets this.

He just announced a plan to try to turn around the bottom 1,000 schools a year for the next five years. That's about 1% of the school system each year. On the one hand, it's not a lot. On the other hand, just imagine the difference it would make. Targeting intervention on the kids who most need would have a huge impact.

I'm a little less impressed with the means he's planning on using to achieve the ends. The plan seems to be to close down the schools and then re-open them with new leadership and a new staff. That's all well and good, but it depends on the assumption that a new group of teachers is automatically going to be better than the old group. I'm not sure that's exactly a logical assessment of things. Certainly, some schools are beyond help and probably deserve to be closed. But on the other hand, what are we doing to ensure that schools are going to be successful. It's going to take more than new faces. It's going to take an entirely new approach that involves revamped curriculum, teaching, and investment in the community. So by all means, let's focus on turning around the bottom 1% each year. But let's make sure we're actually doing some turning around rather than just taking frantic action to look busy.

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