Outdated Facilities and Technology
With respect to school facilities and resources, there are abysmal facilities in communities around the nation and, while they are certainly substandard and contribute to an overall unfavorable atmosphere, replacing these facilities with modern state-of-the-art physical structures will not result in a dramatic turnaround. Fort Wayne Community Schools (FWCS) provides a marvelous example. Two of the eleven FWCS schools that were identified by the State of Indiana as at risk of takeover because of their performance as measured against a number of criteria, had been renovated, in the recent past, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. These two schools are, arguably, two of the finest high school facilities in all of northeast Indiana. Quality buildings are a real positive but they do not alter the level of student motivation and they do not alter the recipe for educational success.
Should we continue to improve school buildings and technology? Absolutely but it must not be our first priority.
While many advocate curriculum reforms, most schools within individual states are held to the same educational standards and have curricula that vary minimally with other schools, irrespective of the performance of those schools. Can we do a better job at the development of curricula that are well-suited to the needs of the Twenty-first Century? Yes, we can and we must do better but curricula alone do not explain divergent results within schools of the same community and a focus on curriculums must not be our highest priority.
Often, lowered expectations account for curriculum variances as underperforming schools often lower their expectations in an effort to make gains in competency test results and graduation rates. Even more critically, expectations correlate to our perception of relative disadvantage with respect to a child’s circumstances. Whether we admit it or not, there is a tendency to consider it unfair to expect as much from disadvantaged students as we do from their counterparts.
Another common assertion is that we must extend the number of hours in the classroom and increase the proportion of those hours devoted to math, language arts, and science. It is unrealistic to think that this is anything other than a small part of the solution and certainly not one at the top of our priority list. In schools comprised of large populations of unmotivated students, such initiatives will only serve to prolong the daily agony of students and teachers alike
Race and Ethnicity
Is the problem race or ethnicity? The most glaring fact in all of public education is the performance gap between African-American and white students. It is a fact of which we all are aware but about which few will talk, candidly. For many experts, it is safer to cling to the idea that poverty is the culprit. Sadly, there are some Americans who are content to believe that the performance results of black children are the best that we can expect. Some actually believe that black children are predisposed to fail. That the majority of Americans are unwilling to talk about this issue openly and frankly contributes greatly to the persistence of such ignorance.
The performance gap between white students and Hispanic and other ethnic and racial subgroups may not be as glaring but it is every bit as disconcerting. The indisputable fact is that students from a wide range of racial and ethnic backgrounds excel academically and that some white students fail just as badly as their minority counterparts. When will we wake up to the fact that the issue is one of culture rather than of race or color, and then act accordingly? One of the most important lessons to be gained from the success of the “model” schools about which we have talked is that kids from diverse backgrounds can and will learn.
Is the problem behavior? There is no doubt that teachers who labor in under-performing schools spend a disproportionate amount of their time striving to restore order. Stories of teachers who have time for little else are well documented. Disruptive behavior is nothing other than a manifestation of a lack of motivation, which we believe to be a symptom of a counter-cultural devaluation of education, and a system that is focused on failure.
Finally, we return to the subject of supportive families. The single greatest advantage enjoyed by high-performing schools, of whatever genesis or jurisdiction, is the support of the parents of their students. The more a parent values education and the more he or she wants the best possible education for his or her children the more involved and supportive he or she will be and it does not seem to matter whether it is a one or two-parent home. What matters is that parents truly consider themselves to be partners who share in the responsibility for the success of their children. The more relentless these mothers, fathers, and grandparents are with respect to academic expectations, the more successful the child, whatever his or her racial, ethnic, or economic circumstances.
One of the more interesting developments since the emergence of charter schools is that many of these schools have failed to produce significantly better results on competency examinations than their public school counterparts. While we encourage research into the dynamics of this phenomenon, we think we can predict one of if not the biggest contributing factor.
Parents who make sacrifices, both financial and otherwise, to enroll their children in private, parochial, or charter schools are typically invested in the education of their children. They are motivated to see a positive return on their investment and they accept responsibility as partners in the education of their children. Unfortunately, some parents take advantage of vouchers but think, having made such a choice, their job is complete. Such parents are not invested and may not accept responsibility as partners in the education of their children. The students of such parents will be no more likely to succeed academically than they were in their former school. As is so often true, when people get something for nothing, they have an entitlement mentality. We repeat our assertion that, it is not the school that makes the difference in education and that vouchers are not the solution.
If educators could have just one wish, and truly took the time to think about it, the overwhelming majority would wish that each of their students had parents who care, who want to be involved, who truly accept responsibility for their kids, and who support the teachers and principals. Proving this assertion is the greatest single contribution special schools make in an aggregate sense. Creating such a reality in every school in the United States of American is the categorical imperative of our time.