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Jewish World Review June 8, 2000/ 5 Sivan, 5760

Marianne M. Jennings

Marianne M. Jennings
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Consumer Reports

No excuses schools -- THE WRINGING of the hands over education and its funding knows no limits. Likewise, there are limitless harebrained solutions for solving education's problem, that being nitwits emerging from our nation's high schools even as their parents lobby to eliminate competency tests so that their little darlings can graduate without the Draconian requirement of literacy.

The Al Gore/Clinton solution is to wire every school for the Internet. Finally, kids will be able to sit in the library and play "Elf Elf Bowling" on the computer instead of reading. Teachers' salaries are always trotted out as the root cause of poor performance. In D.C., where low test scores are topped only by Arkansan students, the teachers' salaries are in the top five nationwide, around $50,000. Then there is the root of all evil in society: class size.

There is something more to the education problem than salaries, the Internet and class size. That something more has been uncovered by the Heritage Foundation in, "No Excuses: Lessons from High-Performing High-Poverty Schools." Samuel Casey Carter took the tired, the poor and the huddled masses in the nation's worst schools and found success. There are 21 schools in the study, all of which had at least 75% of their students from low-income families.

These are inner- city schools of Detroit, Philly, Houston, the Bronx, and Chicago. The rural schools in the study are in Arkansas and North Carolina. The schools range from 45-99% minority students and have median scores on national achievement tests at the 65th percentile or higher. Schools with demographics similar to these achiever schools were at 35th percentile. And these No Excuses schools achieved it all with a 33-student class size. Their results are even more astounding when you factor in the high mobility of their student population which sees students at different levels constantly moving in and out of the schools' areas.

The key to the No Excuses Schools is that their principals defy conventional educational wisdom. All their curricula emphasize back-to-basic skills and their libraries are exceptional, not with computers and high-tech gizmos, but rich collections of great books. Not one principal in the group saw money as the issue, but these principals spend their money differently. They focus on teachers and curricula.

Ironically, these are the two areas over which public school administrators have the least control and the principals in these schools (8 were private or charter schools) complained about the energy they expend for autonomy. Between teachers' unions and district-, state-, or national- mandated curricula, public school principals labor under educational bureaucracies burdened with nouveau texts and learning modules that find children exploring Freud, rain forests, and Woody Allen while ignoring the times tables.

These principals employ a business model, reward their teachers with bonuses for results, and pay, on average, 10% more. These principals don't demand more salary money --- they just work with their pots differently by doing without therapists, psychologists, counselors and assistant principals. In short, if you don't teach children, you are not on staff. A 1998 study in Forbesrevealed that 7 states actually have more administrators, counselors and therapists than teachers (even the best states have a 60/40 ratio of teachers to other) who do things such as self-esteem building when students are sent to the principal or grief counseling when someone falls off the monkey bars. Easing recess angst is preferable to achievement in most public schools.

The No Excuses schools work on improving teachers. Teachers who produce the best scores instruct the other teachers on techniques. No funding for meetings such as this year's "Education Now" conference where Danny Glover is the key note speaker and teachers can attend sessions such as, "Paraeducators and Teachers: Teamwork Leads to Success" or "Kindling Flames and Unfolding Wings: Breathing Energy into Learning Communities."

Despite union protections, these principals weeded out bad teachers. One principal saddled with district and union protections on termination took a poorly-performing 8th grade teacher and put her in kindergarten. "She will find other opportunities," was his delicate phraseology.

These principals also have mandatory parent communication with weekly folders of the child's work for the week sent home for signature. And they don't use their high-risk profiles for behavior issues as an excuse. They use systems with sticks in the form of the loss of privileges (everything from recess to suspension) but also carrots for rewards. One Bronx school gives students paychecks each week for good behavior. Once they have taken their paychecks home and had them signed by a parent, they can spend their school paychecks on supplies, books, CDs and other items sold at truly monopolistic but motivational prices at the school store.

These schools are successful despite being possessed of every factor politicians say is responsible for failure. This study should serve to break the tyranny of low expectations and higher dollar demands that paralyze the educational establishment and governments nationwide. Every school in America owes the No-Excuses-Schools-model at least the old college try.

JWR contributor Marianne M. Jennings is a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State University. Send your comments by clicking here.


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© 2000, Marianne M. Jennings