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Changing urban high schools

October 17, 2008

Almost everyone interested in improving social justice and opportunity in America’s cities agrees that schooling is crucial. Urban high schools have high dropout rates and low levels of academic achievement, and the likelihood of an urban student’s continuing to college is much lower than his or her suburban counterpart. Is it possible for cities like Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles to take steps that successfully change these outcomes on a measurable scale? Or are these results determined by the larger context of urban poverty and culture within which these schools exist? Can local institutional change in the schools and their administrative settings sucessfully improve outcomes, or are the social factors of poverty and race overwhelming?

One thing we know to be true is this: there are high-performing high-poverty schools in virtually every urban community. Consider for example the University Preparatory Academy in Detroit. The school opened only a few years ago as a result of major gifts by a Michigan donor. It draws from a cross section of Detroit children. And it has achieved graduation rates and college attendance rates that exceed 80%. This shows that it can be done.

Further, there appear to be some characteristics that these schools often have in common: they tend to be smaller than traditional high schools (around 500 students); they manage to achieve a fair amount of adult presence for each student; they have high academic expectations; they often involve a system of teacher assignment that involves mutual choice; they often have counselors who stay with the student at every grade; and they involve a fair amount of autonomy for the principal.

So what are the obstacles? Why isn’t every urban school system working as hard and as fast as it can manage to create these new school environments and institutions?

The plain truth is that there is a great deal of unavoidable inertia in a large urban school system. Take the buildings and physical plant themselves: school buildings are often in a bad state of repair; but more importantly, they’ve been build according to a very different model of high school education. They are substantially larger than the size now recommended, and there is a very substantial capital cost associated with retrofitting or replacing them. Second is the existing core of teachers and principals. There is a “culture” associated with a school system — a set of attitudes about what is involved in teaching, what the expectations are for students, teachers, and administrators, and what the level of trust is between the various parties. Changing culture is difficult for any institution, and this has proven to be true for school systems no less than other major organizations. Third is the set of bureaucratic and management practices that are built into most large urban school systems. Innovation is difficult to introduce at the school level because of the need for approval extending all the way up to the superintendant’s office. Fourth, in many communities the work rules and personnel processes that are embodied in union contracts have proven to be an obstacle to fundamental reform of the public schools. For example, the model of mutual choice in which teachers and principals must agree about the placement of a teacher in a classroom runs into the seniority procedures that most contracts stipulate. And, finally, there is the question of money. Many city school systems have suffered enrollment decline, leading to a continually shrinking financial base when public funds are tied to headcount. So public school systems in large cities are often in a perpetual financial crisis, without the ability to undertake the costs that a substantial reorganization of high schools would require.

So the obstacles to innovative reform of high schools are high, even when there is a relatively promising suite of changes that could make a difference. How can an urban community break through this quagmire? Several strategies have been used: experimental or pilot schools within the existing structure; the creation of new publicly financed charter schools that are independent from the strictures of the existing school bureaucracy; and charter schools that are created through private-public partnerships between foundations and philanthropists, on the one hand, and public educational authorities, on the other.

A particularly important philanthropic player in this arena is the Gates Foundation, which has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the effort to improve schooling in poor neighborhoods. Similarly, foundations such as the Skillman Foundation and the Spencer Foundation have placed high priority on finding ways of having measurable impact on improving public schools, often with a tight neighborhood focus. And, finally, there is the mechanism of community “brokers” such as the United Way, that have come forward to help to bring schools, donors, and other interested parties together to help to create the schools that will really work for the students that they serve.

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