Fixing Dayton's schools--nothing ventured, nothing gained

School reform is hard-as those working to improve Dayton's (and other urban centers') schools know all too well. By now, reformers know the challenges: high levels of poverty, children from broken homes, rapid student turnover, stubborn bureaucracies, unsettled leadership, financial challenges, and obdurate teacher unions.

Despite these obstacles, from 2002 to 2006, the Dayton Public Schools made academic progress. In four years, the district pulled itself out of Academic Emergency on the state's rating system to make the Continuous Improvement rating in 2006. Then the wheels fell off. In the past two years, the district's rating has dropped to Academic Watch. Dayton's charter-school performance is only marginally better (see here).

As a group long engaged in school reform efforts in Dayton, the Fordham Institute is deeply disappointed at the downturn, but as with a stumble by a loved one trying to shed an addiction problem, now is no time to give up. Now is the time for the Dayton Public Schools, its supporters, and community leaders to be steadfast-and courageous. We can learn from others and take inspiration from public schools that have successfully undergone what can be painful transformation. Three such examples surfaced in recent weeks. Each idea is, admittedly, too new to have yielded higher test scores or lower dropout rates-and none, alone, is capable of overpowering all the challenges urban schools face. Yet each idea is so obvious, so sensible, and so gutsy as to require any community struggling to improve student achievement to seriously pause and ask itself: "Why can't we do these, too?"

First, grade school performance and reward success. In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and schools Chancellor Joel Klein are (amid clangorous objections) assigning As through Fs to that vast system's 1,040 public schools, based, primarily, on the achievement gains made by students. The high performers are being rewarded with cash bonuses. The teachers' union is allowing this to happen with a big wink because the money goes to the school not to individual teachers, though the school may then distribute its dollars to staff members however it likes. Principals in high-achieving, low-income schools get salary bonuses of up to $25,000 each. Some 89 elementary and middle schools are sharing in this year's pot of $14 million. This is not big money in Gotham's multi-billion dollar education budget. But, to teachers in expensive New York City, the individual bonuses are not puny and have got to be appreciated. What a good idea-to grade schools as well as students and to reward educators achieving the best results (see here).

Second, give new freedoms to the best while coming down hard on the worst. Denver has a new school-grading scheme based on students' academic growth. Instead of letter grades, it labels schools from "distinguished" at the top to "accredited on probation" at the bottom. The 10 best schools (based on 2007-08 results) are enjoying cash bonuses, too, of up to $24,000 for principals and $12,000 for teachers. Just as important, the successful schools gain greater control over curricula and budgets and are less subject to the whims of the bureaucrats at district headquarters. It's a tough time, however, for the 35 schools at the bottom. They face big changes, such as being forced to adopt a mandatory curriculum, staff changes, and a lot of external expertise-or else they get closed. Five of the 35 are already shut (see here).

Third, outsource troubled schools to teams with strong track records. Los Angeles's big, 2,600-pupil Locke High School, named after an African-American writer, not the English philosopher, has a long history of violence, scandalously low achievement, proliferating dropouts, and mismanagement. The district has been incapable of setting it right so it has asked the "Green Dot" organization to run the school. Green Dot has an exemplary track record operating charter schools in the L.A. area. Its highly regarded leader, Steve Barr, now has enormous freedom to hire and fire principals, redeploy staff, and reorganize the school. He has already turned it into seven mini-schools. Green Dot also has the green light to reallocate resources, including a generous infusion of philanthropic dollars. Barr employs unionized teachers under a so-called "thin contract" that protects good teachers without handcuffing school leaders (see here). Dayton doesn't have a Green Dot-style school turnaround group. But with 76 percent of students attending a school (district or charter) in Academic Watch or Academic Emergency, now seems a propitious time to figure out how to launch such a group to assist troubled district and charter schools.

Dayton is not alone in its struggle to improve student achievement. Looking to others for example and inspiration makes sense and just might do it a world of good.

More By Author