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Any Hope for Chronically Failing Schools?

Taxpayer patience is slowly running out for the 5,000 persistently failing schools across the country that Education Secretary Arne Duncan has identified. Before writing these schools off as hopeless, however, I think it's important to take a closer look at the reasons.

One example is Jordan High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Located in Watts, the school has an appalling track record. Only 3 percent of students are proficient in math and only 11 percent in English. More than half drop out between 9th and 12th grades ("Can Jordan High's experiment work?" Los Angeles Times, May 19). Despite these dismal numbers, Green Dot and the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, two charter school groups, want to operate separate schools on the campus. They would compete for students but cooperate in sports and in extracurricular activities. The LAUSD is not fighting the takeover. In fact, it seems to welcome it as a last resort.

I wish both groups well. But it's important to have realistic expectations about what can be accomplished. Like so many chronically underperforming schools, poverty plays an overwhelming role in outcomes. Jordan is 80 percent Hispanic and 20 percent black. Almost all students are from poor homes. I don't think reformers fully appreciate the impact that poverty has on school outcomes. For example, a study by Gary Evans, a professor of human ecology at Cornell, found that chronic stress from growing up poor directly affects the brain, leaving children impaired in working memory ("Research Links Poor Kids' Stress, Brain Impairment," The Washington Post, Apr. 6, 2009). He rated the stress using a scale known as "allostatic load." I'm sure there are some students who are more resilient than others, but they are outliers.

Even if Green Dot and the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools were to make all current teachers reapply for their jobs - called reconstitution of teaching staffs - I doubt it will make much difference in the results posted. That's because the best teachers are no match for the pathologies of the neighborhood. The success of what are known as high-flying schools is often offered as evidence to the contrary. In too many cases, however, the miracles have turned out to be mirages. Moreover, how sustainable and scalable is the model provided by a handful of such schools in a nation where the childhood poverty is at 22 percent and climbing?

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