Close 'em down and start over


IT IS TIME to close down some of our largest urban districts and start over.

From one end of the country to another, governors, legislators, mayors and educators struggle to make sense of and create direction for troubled urban districts.

In Hartford, the school board is begging for solutions and the mayor wants to take over. If the trend in New Jersey continues, the state Department of Education will be running every major urban district through takeovers. After four years of frustrated negotiations with the Baltimore school district over its inefficient management and poor student results, Maryland's governor and General Assembly want to control and reorganize the system.

A congressional budget resolution bogged down last spring over proposals to institute a voucher system in the District of Columbia, where student achievement continues to trail the nation's big-city districts. In Chicago, the mayor recently assumed greater control and accountability for the schools. In Los Angeles there are demands to break up the school system. New York's new chancellor staved off the possibility of drastic action by taking over the worst schools himself.

Other urban leaders are equally concerned. In Denver last spring, big-city mayors studied city takeovers of failing school districts. Probably none of these remedies will get the mayors what they need -- young urban dwellers with skills and knowledge to contribute to a brighter city future.

While charter schools, magnet schools or vouchers might help some students and some schools, they do not get near the core problem -- a malfunctioning school system where educators are not able to make a difference for kids. Changing governance structures just rearranges the chairs.

If simply putting the mayor in charge is the solution, then why is the Baltimore school system so troubled? Mayor Schmoke appoints the school-board members; thus, in effect, he selects the superintendent. And if state takeovers are the remedy, why hasn't student achievement in Paterson or Trenton made some significant improvement?

These efforts to reform urban education, sincere as they are, have almost no chance of working. Despite their promises of greater accountability, state and city political leaders are mostly tinkering around the edges of urban school reform, with little hope of turning in a better long-term performance than those from whom they wish to wrest control. Here's why:

They still treat urban systems as isolated operations, disconnected from all the other services and educating factors TTC that influence the education of children. School systems cannot ignore their interdependence with other systems that affect the lives of children -- health, social supports, recreation, the juvenile-justice system, employment training and economic development.

Power to the families

The attempts at urban school reform do not really empower those with the most at stake -- families and children. Charter schools may give authority to small groups of parents, but ultimately either the state or the school district remains in control. State takeovers, as in New Jersey, or the "reconstitution" of failing schools, as in Maryland, might temporarily lead to some improvements, but ultimately they do not give families information and support so that they can help hold schools accountable.

The urban school reforms are predicated upon punishment and remediation, a deficit model of improvement. They fail to consider the possibilities for designing new collaborative modes of education within urban communities that could break down walls of isolation and failure.

School policy is ripe for change. It is possible under current federal law, for example, to obtain waivers that allow collaborative funding, joint planning and single eligibility requirements for services. The barriers that keep supports for children and families apart can be torn down.

Education should go to families, not just children. Education resources -- school buildings, teachers, program specialists, hospitals, early childhood sources, public libraries and adult literacy and training investments -- ought to serve everyone in a coordinated, focused manner.

It is inane, wasteful and tragic that students in the District of Columbia are virtually within walking distance of the richest education resources in the country -- museums, galleries, Capitol Hill, historical sites -- and yet probably use them less frequently than visiting high school classes. Every major urban area can offer high-caliber cultural, scientific, technological, business and historical resources that could become satellite classrooms rather than episodic field-trip experiences.

The great cultural diversity in urban schools -- so often used as an excuse for failure -- could be turned into a tremendous asset, producing future generations of multi-lingual, culturally savvy citizens able to function competently in a global economy.

If a big city's education, health and social support systems do their jobs well enough, schools might cease to exist altogether and in their place would be community learning centers, catering to the specific needs of their surrounding neighborhoods. That's a decision, of course, best made with parents and community people at the table.

A redesigned system could be built upon accountability for results. Everyone who agreed to work in it -- teachers, health workers, job-training experts, businesses pledged to economic growth in inner cities and others -- would be committed to certain goals and responsible for them.

Let the people on the front lines take over the schools. Families want a future for their kids. Social workers are frustrated with a crumbling social ladder. Teachers believe their students are capable of much more. Let's give all these players a chance to change urban schools for the better.

Anne Lewis is a Washington-based education writer. A slightly longer version of this article appeared in the Phi Delta Kappan.

Pub Date: 8/28/96

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