Hope for America's Schools: Lessons for Ohio

Kati Haycock

This essay is authored by Kati Haycock, director of Education Trust, and presents an overview of the themes she will discuss on May 10 at her an address in Columbus. The event, which is open to the public, is sponsored by KidsOhio.org. To register, click here.  

Every year countless children enter America’s schools lacking the knowledge and skills we expect of them. Sometimes it’s poverty that’s to blame. Other times, there is a language barrier or family problem. Regardless of the reason, however, the fact remains that they’re behind.

If we were to organize our K-12 educational system to attack early on the gap between those who enter school prepared, and those not prepared, we could lift these children up. Yet we’ve done the opposite. Instead of giving those children lacking fundamental skills more of what they need to improve, we give them less

How does that happen? Sometimes policymakers' decisions affecting the education of poor and minority children are to blame. For example, policies that send fewer state and local dollars to schools serving advantaged children than to those serving concentrations of poor children. 

But other times, it’s the decisions made by educators and school boards—especially in Ohio, where spending on high- and low-poverty schools is more equitable, and where high-minority-population schools receive a little more per student than low-poverty schools—that can be most influential. These include choices about what to expect of whom, what to teach to whom, and perhaps the most damaging choice of all, the choice of who teaches which children. 

Poor choices by educators and school boards are simply devastating. Kids who arrive a little behind leave a lot behind. Indeed, by the end of high school, black and Latino students in this nation, on average, are achieving at about the same levels as white students at the end of middle school.

The good news here is that we’re finally beginning to get a handle on these problems. In urban school districts across the country, we’re ratcheting up expectations for low-income and minority students, putting all students in more rigorous curricula, and at least beginning to provide incentives for strong teachers to teach the students who need them most.

The city of Columbus is a good example of this. Because the district has decent choices for its low-income students, achievement there is rising faster than in the state as a whole. And achievement gaps are narrowing. Since 2000, for example, fourth-grade math performance in Columbus has grown at an average of 4.6 points per year, compared with 3.3 in Ohio more generally; at the sixth-grade level, Columbus students grew 2.9 points a year, compared with 1.6 in the state as a whole. In reading, the gains among Columbus fourth-graders were a bit below the state as a whole (3.5 points versus 3.7 points per year), but the gains for sixth-graders were larger (4.5 versus 3.3 points). Moreover, while both black and white students improved, the gaps between the two declined in both subjects and at both grade levels.

Gains aside, no one who has examined the data can be satisfied with the rate of progress. This is especially true at the middle and high school levels, where we are losing the ground we are gaining in our elementary schools. Somehow, we have to move further, faster.

The question is how best to do that.

Our answer as an organization has been to look closely at the practices of schools and districts that are on the performance frontier to understand what they are doing differently.

How is it, for example, that University Park Campus School in Worcester, Massachusetts, which serves a student population that is overwhelmingly poor and at least half English-language learners, manages to get 100 percent of its tenth graders to pass the Massachusetts Exit Exam on the first attempt, not the twelfth? How is it that 87 percent of those students don’t just pass, but pass at an advanced or proficient level? How is it, indeed, that this school ranks number five among all Massachusetts’ high schools, far outperforming schools that serve more affluent students?

Or what about Elmont Memorial Junior-Senior High in New York, which serves a student population of about 2,100 mostly black and Latino, blows the top off of the New York State Regents Exams? How does this school, whose demographics would make those who predict these things guess that its achievement would rank in the bottom third of the state, actually rank in the top 10 percent?

When you spend time in these places, the answers are pretty clear. 

  •  They aim high for all of their students. Instead of focusing on the minimum requirements for a high school diploma, they prepare all of their students for college AND careers.
  • They put all, rather than just some, of their students in a rigorous core curriculum.
  • They deliberately arrange schedules so that students who arrive behind in reading or math receive extra instructional time. And they make sure that students who need tutoring actually get it.  
  • They create a school culture in which “acting stupid” is deemed dysfunctional, indeed, embarrassing.  
  • And they work very hard to get their strongest teachers to the students who most need them. Teacher assignment is not, in other words, a matter of seniority.  

None of these things is magic. They’re mostly common sense. But they’re not, by and large, things we have typically done in our secondary schools, especially schools serving concentrations of poor children.

The good news, though, is these young people absolutely can achieve at high levels. And they will, if we follow through on these simple lessons.

Kati Haycock is Director of the Education Trust

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