When it comes to education policy, inconstancy is the only constant. During the past generation, self-styled reformers have pitched such nostrums as vouchers, charter schools, high-stakes accountability for teachers, and a near-total emphasis on reading and math. Nothing seems to be working, though: American students continue to lag on international tests and racial and ethnic achievement gaps stubbornly persist.
Here's the good news: From Houston to Long Beach, Charlotte to Brownsville, school systems across the country—big and small; generously and meagerly funded; mainly Latino, mainly black, or heterogeneous; with elected school boards and mayor-appointed school boards—have figured out how to boost reading and math scores and shrink the achievement gap.
The public has never heard about these accomplishments, and it’s easy to see why. Journalists thrive on color, and there’s nothing jazzy to report. Each of these districts has identified a few evidence-based strategies like high-quality early education, heavy emphasis on reading and writing, and frequent assessments to address students' weaknesses, and has stuck with them
These strategies will be obvious to any educator with a pulse. The trick is to keep doing them well, year after year, while tinkering at the margins. The process takes time, because complex organizations like school systems cannot be remade overnight. Aesop had it right—in education, slow-and-steady wins the race.
You wouldn’t anticipate finding an outstanding school district in Union City, New Jersey. It's a poor, densely-packed community, four miles and a light year removed from Times Square. Most of the residents are Latino immigrants who came to America with no money and little formal education; the unemployment rate is 50 percent higher than the national average. School officials estimate that three-quarters of the youngsters grow up in homes where Spanish is the language of the dinner table. At least a quarter of them are thought to be undocumented, living in constant fear that they or their families will be deported.
During the 1980s, the Union City schools, which had never been particularly distinguished, degenerated into an outright embarrassment. The buildings were falling apart and the teachers were demoralized. What mattered most, the students weren’t learning. In 1989 they bottomed out, failing 40 out of 52 items on the state’s checklist, the second-worst result in New Jersey. The situation grew so dire that the state threatened to inflict the ultimate sanction—seizing control.
Over the course of the past quarter-century, the situation steadily improved. Now Union City is the poster child for a successful urban school system. From third through eighth grade, students' scores on the state's reading and math tests are as good as or better than the statewide average. In 2011, 89.5 percent of the students graduated from high school—more than 10 percentage points better than the national average—and nearly 75 percent of them enrolled in college. Top graduates regularly win state science awards and scholarships to the Ivies, and the school runs a nationally known program for the newest Americans. Some of these kids do remarkably well—two of the top ten graduates in the Class of 2013 came to the U.S. just four years ago, speaking no English.
I spent the better part of a year in Union City writing a book about these schools. I hung out in classrooms, walked the corridors with principals, and sat in on the superintendent's strategy sessions. I came away convinced that what's happening there offers a usable approach for reforming education nationwide.
When boiled down to its essentials, what Union City is doing sounds so obvious that it verges on platitude. The curriculum, crafted by the district’s best teachers, emphasizes problem-solving, not memorization. It includes lots of writing, pushing the students beyond “bad, sad, glad” to richer modes of expression. It flows seamlessly from one grade to the next, so that students don’t read The Old Man and the Sea or study the solar system three grades running. Since poor families frequently move among neighborhoods, every school teaches essentially the same material. Close-grained analyses of students’ test results are used to diagnose their individual problems. Immigrant kids develop a solid foundation in their native language before learning English. Beleaguered teachers and struggling students get hands-on help. The schools reach out to parents, providing school uniforms to families that can’t afford them, helping them through the public bureaucracies that distribute welfare checks and green cards, enlisting them as partners in their children’s education.
The administration sets the bar high. But rather than trying to spur improvement through intimidation and humiliation in the manner of a Michelle Rhee or a Joel Klein, it leads by enthusiasm. The prevailing culture of abrazos, or caring, generates trust among the students, teachers, administrators and parents.
In any school district, there’s no declaring “mission accomplished,” for the challenges never end. Although most Union City students do well enough on the state tests to be rated “proficient,” relatively few perform outstandingly. Consequently, many high-school graduates must take remedial courses before being ready for college. That’s not a sign of failure, but an indicator of a problem that the district recognizes and is tackling.
Does Union City's approach have legs? Skeptics can point to the considerable advantages that the district enjoys. It's relatively small—15,000 students, 16 schools—and its schools are well-funded because of a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling that brings extra dollars, including money for preschool, to the state's worst-off cities.
But the school systems in Montgomery County, Maryland—the 17th largest district in the U.S. with a populace that’s as socially and economically varied as Union City’s is homogeneous—and the sprawling, featureless suburb of Aldine, Texas are raising achievement levels for all students with the same slow-and-steady approach that works so well in Union City.
When boiled down to its essentials, these defy-the-odds districts are working from the same playbook. They start early by investing in quality pre-kindergarten education. They rely on a rigorous, common curriculum that emphasizes problem-solving, not parroting. They make extensive use of data to diagnose students’ problems and pinpoint what’s required to solve them. They encourage teachers to work together and provide coaching for those who are struggling. They build a culture that combines high expectations with mutual respect and a “we can do it” emphasis on the positive. They stick with what they know can work, while continuously looking for ways to improve.
Two school systems within one—that’s what Jerry Weast found when he became Montgomery County superintendent in the summer of 1999. That district has long been rated the best academically among the nation’s big school systems, but the glowing overall figures camouflaged an achievement gap that could more aptly be labeled a chasm.
One reason, the superintendent concluded, was the "one scholar, one dollar" funding formula. Each school, whether located in a rich or poor neighborhood— “green zone” and “red zone” neighborhoods, he labeled them—was treated identically. To Weast, this superficial equality shortchanged the kids from the red zone, who needed the most help. Ultimately, the school chief staked his reputation and his job on the promise that everyone, not just the poor and minority students, would be better off if more was spent on poor youngsters: “I’ll raise the bar and close the gap."
Reform began from the bottom up, with new preschools in the "red zone" neighborhoods. A district-wide K–12 curriculum, carefully aligned across schools and sequenced across grades, was devised and a system for regularly monitoring students' progress was implemented. Meanwhile, the number of Advanced Placement classes was increased, and that gave the well-off schools something to cheer about.
The size and diversity of Montgomery County doubtlessly affected Weast’s approach. Still, the district followed much the same course as Union City: setting high expectations; sticking to long-term goals; developing a common curriculum; expanding pre-kindergarten; emphasizing early reading; increasing collaboration among teachers and making sophisticated use of data to figure out what kind of help would benefit students and teachers the most.
Across the district, students' performance has consistently improved, even as the achievement gap has steadily narrowed. In 2003, only half the district’s black and Hispanic fifth graders passed the state’s reading test; by 2011, 90 percent did. In 2011, 62 percent of Montgomery County eighth graders passed algebra, one of the benchmarks on what Weast called the “roadmap to college,” and enrollment in Advanced Placement classes, another benchmark, doubled.
The school system isn’t standing pat, for like the other odds-defying districts it learns from experience. Under Weast’s successor, Joshua Starr, it has junked a three R’s emphasis in its “red zone” schools, opting to include more science, history, sports and art. And more attention is being paid to high school students who are barely scraping by. In Montgomery County, as in other successful school systems, the grunt-work never ends.
Chances are good that you’ve never heard of Aldine, Texas, an unincorporated territory outside Houston, all strip malls and tract homes, where the per-capita income is barely half the statewide average. But its schools enroll more students than Boston or Washington D.C. Two-thirds are Latino, many of them new immigrants, and almost all the others are black. Whether because they’re poor, having a hard time mastering schoolwork or don’t speak the language, 70 percent are drop out or flunk out. But Aldine, with only half the per pupil funds of Montgomery County or Union City, is also beating the odds.
In the mid-1990s, Aldine’s schools were a mess. State achievement tests showed that many high school students were barely literate and local businesses found them unemployable. “We’re tired of this,” Wanda Bamberg, the district's superintendent. “Our kids can do as well as anyone else’s.” Aldine’s administrators adopted a course similar in outline to Montgomery County and Union City.
In Aldine, as in other poor communities, families move frequently. As all these high-performing districts have realized, to assure that these transient students don’t become hopelessly confused, every school has to cover essentially the same material. Some teachers initially balked, the superintendent acknowledges, regarding it as too constricting. “But after the first year they saw that all children truly had access to the complete curriculum, and our test scores reflected that. When we [received plaudits from the state], teachers were willing to do even more.” Achievement scores steadily climbed, and now exceed the state average.
Aldine, like the other successful districts, has stuck with a few basic strategies. It invests in pre-kindergarten, consistently works to boost the skills of its teachers and closely tracks students’ performance. That strategy is working, as achievement scores have steadily climbed, and now exceed the state average In 2010, 91 percent of the students were judged proficient in reading on the state’s exam, up from 61 percent in 2003, and during this period the percentage of students who passed the math test for their grade level doubled, to 81 percent. Aldine ranks second-best in the state for black students and third-best for Latinos in terms of achievement—remarkable results for a place without so few resources.
Still, money matters. With nearly $18,000 to spend on each of its students, Union City can offer preschool to all its three and four-year-olds, slash class sizes, provide custom-tailored bilingual education, hire coaches and community outreach workers, buy user-friendly technology—even offer three years of Mandarin Chinese. In Montgomery County, Superintendent Jerry Weast could persuade the board of education in his well-off community to commit an additional $60 million to the red zone schools, because of the county’s enviable tax base and its tradition of generously underwriting its public schools. Now those schools spend about as much for each student as Union City. Aldine, which has neither a generous state nor well-off citizens to rely on, spends less than half as much.
Those facts of life have forced the district to move much more slowly on key initiatives. Consider what’s happening in early education. Like all the other effective school systems, Aldine shares a commitment to preschool—even when its budget was being cut, it preserved full-day pre-K for four-year-olds because of its proven long-term benefits. But Union City delivers full-day prekindergarten for all its three- and four-year-olds, while Aldine can only afford to help its poorest families, and that sparks tensions “Why them and not us?” complain parents, themselves barely above the poverty line, whose children are denied this opportunity.
Moreover, well-off districts don’t have to make hard choices among priorities—rather than either-or they can do both-and. Montgomery County had the resources to invest on several fronts at the same time, reducing class sizes in the red zone elementary schools and simultaneously expanding its Advanced Placement program. Aldine, obliged to triage, opted to focus on its most vulnerable students at the expense of the brightest.
In 2012 the dropout rate among Aldine’s Latino students rose significantly. “More and more we have kids coming from Mexico with spotty schooling,” says Superintendent Bamberg.. “Their families are into survival—they don’t see much value in education.” At the other end of the academic spectrum, little energy has been devoted to the Advanced Placement classes; and while more than half of the graduates start college, an abysmally low 17 percent of them earn a degree. These items are on the school chief’s to-do list, for she understands that although the district has come a long way, a lot remains undone.
I didn’t cherry-pick these districts, looking for places that were following the Union City model. Instead I worked backwards, drawing on a variety of sources to identify school systems of varying sizes, demographics and funding where achievement has steadily risen and the achievement gap narrowed, and then examining their approach. As you'd expect, the particulars vary, but they all rely on “old school” system-building. Teachers aren’t dismissed en masse, “failing” schools aren’t shuttered or "reconstituted," superintendents aren’t issuing ultimatums, and charters haven’t proliferated.
Studies that pinpoint the common characteristics of high-performing school systems provide another source of information. Although the measure of “success” differs—one study examines districts that do an especially good job of implementing a new math curriculum, for instance, while another looks at the high-poverty districts that fare better than predicted on the state’s reading and math tests—the explanations could almost be Xeroxed from the playbook of the high- flying districts.
Another way to identify successful districts is to look at the winners of the Broad Prize. Since 2002, half a million dollars has been awarded annually by the Broad Foundation to the urban district that has shown the greatest improvement in student achievement while narrowing the achievement gap for poor and minority students—the same criteria that I’ve used. The foundation is looking for evidence of sustained improvement, not too-good-to-be true, instant turnarounds. Sound familiar? Aldine won this prize in 2009 and Montgomery County was a finalist in 2011. You’d nod off if I detailed the approaches that the prize-winners did to merit the award. You’ve heard it all before.
Critics contend that the public schools are irretrievably broken and charters or vouchers are the only answer, but the remarkable accomplishments of these districts show that there's no reason why communities nationwide cannot learn from their successes—no reason why they cannot build systems that give America's worst-off kids a decent shot at success.