The impact of new innovations on urban school systems

The 1983 report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, entitled “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative For Education Reform,” established the need for a comprehensive assessment of the nation’s schools in order to meet the challenges of a changing national and international community. The report set off a series of reforms culminating in the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which called for increased accountability standards for schools. Although NCLB recognizes the inequities among schools and districts, it lacks the recipe to address the education gaps around the country. In response, a recent second wave of reform and innovation has sought to address these educational disparities, often greatest in urban areas. Current innovations have achieved spectacular success and are beginning to dispel common misconceptions about urban schools. Only by bringing new programs to scale, however, can innovators fully address the rampant educational disparities of urban America.

Myths of Urban Education

Urban education in America has always suffered from a self-contradictory attitude. As Dr. Christina Collins, a post-doctoral fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and scholar of the history of urban schools, noted in an interview with the HPR, “America is the land of opportunity: you work hard in school, you get good grades no matter what background you come from, and you can make it on your own; but that is in deep contradiction with the way we support public schools in this country because there is another message that if you really want your kids to go to a good school, you move out of the city.” Because of this conflicting rhetoric, one of the most significant challenges that urban education faces is changing the popular mindset.

Many people simply consider urban schools a lost cause, often without fully recognizing the specific challenges they face or the positive changes being made. Dr. Janice Jackson, former Deputy Superintendent of the Boston Public Schools, said in an interview with the HPR that there is “a sense of hopelessness that many business leaders have about whether urban schools can be successful and often it’s because they haven’t been in an urban school.” Without a change in people’s perceptions of urban education, serious improvements in the system will be slow. Despite these challenges, however, a sense of hope persists; innovations lead to new bursts of positive energy.

Innovations in Education

Overall, innovations in education are bringing new people into the field and providing different opportunities for students, parents, teachers, and administrators alike. The teacher residency model, which recruits and trains diverse and talented individuals from other careers to teach for at least several years, has been adopted in many of the nation’s major cities. In New York City, the New York City Teaching Fellows Program accounts for 11 percent of the teaching staff in the local district schools. “What’s great about the fellows system is that it’s become a competitive application process for a relatively small number of spots, so we have the ability to select the best candidates, which is obviously a positive thing for our schools,” said Anne Forte, a spokeswoman for the New York Department of Education, in an interview with the HPR. In Philadelphia this year, more than 1,700 prospective teachers applied for over 100 spots available in its Teaching Fellows Program, signaling an increasingly strong interest in urban education. By making the teaching profession more appealing to people who may not have considered teaching otherwise, these programs are effective in shaping a more positive attitude towards urban education reform.

Nevertheless, these programs are not a panacea. Tom Payzant, former superintendent in Boston, San Diego, and Oklahoma City, said to the HPR, “I don’t think it’s going to be possible particularly for large urban school districts to take a teacher residency model to scale in terms of the number of teachers they have to hire each year.” In addition to their logistical difficulties, the teacher residency programs also place so much emphasis on the teacher-student relationship that they sometimes fail to provide external motivations for success after students leave their teachers. As Tina Flournoy, Assistant to the President for Public Policy at the American Federation of Teachers, told the HPR, teacher development may be the topic of the day, but it is only one piece of the puzzle.

The Citizen Schools model targets both adult and student attitudes towards education by reforming the structure and importance of each school day. In their 44 programs in 22 cities, Citizen Schools not only provide traditional after-school homework help but also equip students with non-academic skills, such as study habits and extracurricular opportunities. These skills help students navigate the education system and, more importantly, to understand the relevance of their education. The focus is not on school or teacher reform, which has often been synonymous with education reform in the past, but rather on reforming students’ experiences. As John Werner, Managing and Chief Mobilizing Officer of Citizen Schools, told the HPR, “We try to disrupt the current equilibrium by overturning basic and persistent assumptions about how, when, where, and by whom education happens.” One of Citizen Schools’ main objectives is to bring in a second shift of educators — teaching fellows and local professionals — to teach after-school programming. These instructors lead real-world projects that connect students’ career dreams with their current education, thus changing students’ perceptions regarding the importance of education.

Success to Scale

These innovative programs are certainly helping to bring a positive story about urban education to a broader audience. Yet according to Payzant, the key to expanding upon these results is “to substantially change the way we think about building capacity and providing support for people that are already in the system and are going to be there for a substantial number of years.” Payzant and Jackson, who worked together in Boston and in the Clinton administration, both argued that, in order to have systemic impact, reforms must occur in schools, and teachers, students, and parents alike must focus on aligning resources with those approaches with the greatest positive results. Deborah Jewell-Sherman, 2008 Virginia Superintendent of the Year and Co-Director of Harvard’s Urban Superintendents Program, said to the HPR that “innovations and resources are great for those who have access to them, but urban public schools have to be a premier option for this nation’s children, and we haven’t gotten there yet.” Bringing the positive successes of the teacher residency model and Citizen Schools, among other programs, to the traditional urban school district is key to allowing all urban students to benefit from these reforms. Only in this way can America’s educational system achieve the ideal of equal opportunity for the children of its cities.

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