Urban School’s Disappearing Act

The media reports that decried the ineffectiveness of large urban school districts were fast and furious. David Brooks, New York Times columnist, labeled the entire post-Covid-19 achievement debacle “the scandal of the decade” by recommending a School Revolution that focuses on schools reinventing themselves.


Initially, it was reported that student proficiency in 23 Baltimore Schools was zero percent. Those reports were furthered fueled by results from the National Assessment of School Progress (NEAP) indicating that Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Detroit were not much better, with scores ranging from a low of 3 percent to 20 percent. Astonishingly, in defense of its scores, Chicago argued that they were commensurate with most urban areas’ scores.


While it is understandable that schools may want to compare themselves to others with similar demographics and challenges, at what point is it acceptable to be satisfied with mediocrity, let alone failure? Yes, an organization can learn a lot from failure, but in this case, the failures are decades long. Even more tragic is that governmental oversight continues to reinforce these outcomes with a continuous stream of funding without any serious attempts at eliminating the “root cause” of the problem. Unfortunately, parents often realize too late that ineffective educational practices do little to prepare their children for life, and tragically these failing practices restart the cycle of failure over again.


Parents were also surprised to learn that many local schools were failing. In one study, ninety-two percent of surveyed parents were alarmed to learn of their student’s low proficiency levels in reading and math because they were receiving an “A” or a “B’” in those subject areas. One parent was amazed that her son was promoted annually through high school despite lacking proficiency in reading and math.


Even more shocking than these results is how apparently tone-deaf governmental agencies have become. The government’s answer is “throw money” at a problem, often without any plan on how to solve the problem. Most recently, the Department of Education displayed its problem-solving ability by allocating over $190 billion to mitigate COVID-19’s impact on achievement with little or no success.


Too often in failing districts, nomenclature like outcomes, assessments, standards, homework, and accountability is avoided in lieu of more acceptable, less objective social and emotional terminology. No one disagrees that poverty and socioeconomics play a major role in impacting performance, but almost everyone agrees that family, values, and resilience are critical for educational success. Understanding the importance of education and valuing it as the primary vehicle to success is an underpinning to a pathway forward, along with rigorous standards that hold students, teachers, and our leaders accountable.


The culminating effect of poor achievement and the current “curriculum wars” have resulted in a nationwide enrollment drop of 240,000 high school students. Inner city high schools which once proudly graduated large numbers of students have consolidated or closed. Even with such drops in enrollment, the funding and district-wide staffing remain almost the same. Schools justify the expenditure and staffing due to their unique and exceptional challenges. Specific outcomes must be attained to justify their existence in the real world. Proficiency and achievement must be priority one. Failure to deliver will result in their irrelevance and slow disappearance because parents will seek value elsewhere, as demonstrated by a migration of 710,000 students from the public sector since 2019.


A shift in paradigm to one that clearly focuses on achievement as well as one that effectively deals with chronic behavioral issues and rewards success is necessary. It is a time-proven strategy. The shift may require reworking the delivery method, but fundamentally, these principles remain sound and require integration into the fabric of all schools.


Producing and recognizing great athletes or musicians is wonderful, but more is needed to justify these failing schools. These schools must produce highly proficient and skilled students who can enter a highly technical and complex world. We also need educational leaders at the local, state, and federal levels of government who have experience in turning around failing schools rather than pseudo-politicians who “glad hand” constituents while handing out diplomas with no real-world value.


The equation for survival is clear: Reinvent or Disappear! It is also clear that reinvention begins with standards that “sets the bar high.” Eliminating evaluative assessment criteria, whether it assesses grade level growth or is a component of the admission process to a college or university, is a mistake that will haunt education and mitigate our country’s ability to function at a high level. Ultimately, we must decide: Do we want to become a country of bluster and sizzle or one of substance and meaning?


Dr. Vincent F. Cotter

Dr. Vincent F. Cotter, as Superintendent of Schools, was the primary innovator of a unique school improvement program. “Reaching Above and Beyond,” which dramatically improved student performance. For his efforts, he was awarded the prestigious Juran Medal (2011) for sustained systemic improvement by the American Society for Quality in the field of education. Dr. Cotter also co-founded the Exemplary Schools Organization which was created to improve school performance and leadership capacity.

Based on over forty years of success in the field of education as a teacher, principal, superintendent, professor and consultant, three leadership books that focus on school improvement, performance and leadership were released by Rowman and Littlefield publishers, “Leaning into the Future: Building Beyond the Post-Covid-19 New Normal” (2022), “Igniting School Performance: A Pathway from Academic Paralysis to Excellence” (2019) and “Performance is Key: Connecting the Links to Leadership and Excellence” (2018). Dr. Cotter has been a periodic contributor to the Smerconish website on the topic of schools and achievement.

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