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Fixing urban schools will be a long trek, not a flashy sprint

By KENT GARDNER
Policy Wonk
Rochester Business Journal
December 14, 2012

The 1983 publication of "A Nation at Risk" underscored the gap in educational outcomes between the nation's disadvantaged and the rest of society, while challenging the nation's confidence in the entire K-12 educational system by unfavorable international comparisons. We have made little progress in closing either the gap between America's rich and poor or the gap between our students and those of other nations.
 
Since 1983, we've been looking for a "silver bullet" solution, the one Big Thing that would close these gaps. This is lazy and ultimately fruitless. Superintendent Bolgen Vargas of the Rochester City School District seems to have taken this lesson to heart. As noted in a recent City Newspaper interview, he studiously avoids the temptation to predict speedy, miraculous success while imposing bold new policies bundled up with a clever name.
 
This indefatigable man has been focusing on the simple building blocks of education. If he has had a "signature" initiative in his short tenure, it is his effort to get children into the classroom. This is hardly an innovation that will win him a prize for creativity. Yet attendance is surely fundamental.
 
Of course, any do-it-yourself plumber will tell you that one repair begets another. Vargas learned that the district was incapable of accurate attendance reporting. So he fixed the policies and systems that stood in the way. Knowing who is truant-and why-is not enough to get those students into the classroom. That's the next challenge. And after that we must acknowledge that students who have been attending are not achieving what they should and must. One repair begets another.
 
In this context, I'm confident that Vargas understands that participation in the Ford Foundation's Time Collaborative, a partnership with the National Center on Time & Learning, is no more a silver bullet than is attendance (or a new curriculum or school choice or more testing). The Ford Foundation's Expanded Learning Time effort is partly a response to the success of some of the charter school models including KIPP Academies, Harlem Success Academy and, in Rochester, Uncommon Schools' Rochester Prep. But it is only partly so: A longer school day and longer school year were recommended in 1983 by "A Nation at Risk."
 
And that's the conclusion I draw from a study of the Expanded Learning Time model implemented in Massachusetts beginning in 2005. Abt Associates reported the findings of a careful and detailed analysis of the first four years of program implementation (http://goo.gl/92Mb9). Abt compared a range of outcomes: student and teacher perceptions, student behavior and, of course, student achievement. Although student achievement varied among schools, students attending the ELT schools as a group did not outperform students attending schools in the control group.
 
Common sense-which should never be suppressed in abject deference to statistical analysis-suggests more learning time is a good thing, provided that the extra time is productively spent. That average student achievement among schools in the Massachusetts experiment did not improve reminds us that a longer school day is not enough. Rochester Prep and KIPP Academies are successful for a variety of reasons, not just because the students have more time in the classroom.
 
The charter school as a reform tool is no more a silver bullet than attendance or more time on task or better tests. Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes, led by former Rochesterian (and former CGR staffer) Margaret Raymond, shocked some reformers in 2009 with a study of charter schools in 16 states that concluded these schools as a group did not outperform traditional public schools (http://goo.gl/mzlSZ). Sound familiar? Yet a CREDO study released a few months ago found that charter schools in New Jersey-with a consistent and disciplined chartering authority that closed poorly performing schools-did provide a better educational outcome for their students (http://goo.gl/BW22K).
 
I don't do justice to any of the three careful research studies I've cited. They do underscore a simple truth about education: The problem, particularly in schools with students who bring the results of persistent poverty and social dysfunction to the classroom, is complex and not susceptible to easy solutions. We can't slay this particular monster with a sniper's precision and a miracle cure.

Kent Gardner is chief economist and chief research officer of the Center for Governmental Research Inc.12/14/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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