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Can Troubled Schools Be Fixed?

School districts across the country are asking themselves what, if anything, can be done to fix consistently failing schools.  New York City thinks pumping in hundreds of millions of dollars annually is the answer ("'Renewal' Schools Are Losing Students," The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 6).  But so far, the strategy hasn't worked. 

Struggling schools there are called "renewal" schools. At the start of the 2012-13 school year, there were 55,820 students enrolled.  But each year since then, the total population has dropped at least 10 percent.  To date, eight renewal schools have been closed or merged. There are now 86 remaining such schools enrolling 38,000 students.

Two fundamental questions arise.  First: what criterion is used to identify renewal schools?  Is it the percentage of students who do not meet proficiency goals, or is it the percentage of students who do not demonstrate growth?  Second, what is the cut score used in either case?

Even if there is agreement on the fairest approach, the question still remains whether such schools can ever be turned around.  I think they only have a chance if they reinvent themselves. For example, turning themselves into specialized vocational schools that offer apprenticeship programs can have great appeal to students with no desire or aptitude for conventional tertiary education.

State takeovers do not work.  I wrote about this before ("When States Seize Schools: A Cautionary Tale," Education Week, Jun. 12, 2007).  I also don't believe that pouring millions of dollars more will make much of a difference, as long as a traditional curriculum remains in place. That's because the students bring the same deficits to class.  They see no connection between their lives and their courses.

I don't understand why only this country persists in the fiction that college is for everyone.  Yes, I believe that all students are educable.  The challenge is to provide them with classes that engage them. 

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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