The Urban Challenge

There is some indication of improvement in the level of academic achievement among urban school students during the last few years. Enough at least for The Council of Great City Schools to wonder if the schools that educate so many poor and minority students,“may be establishing a beachhead on the rocky shoals of school reform.” Of course the answer to this question lies in the future. No one should be willing to extrapolate, from the decidedly mixed results of the latest rounds of state and national tests, that urban schools and districts may soon cease their wanderings in the desert. It is, of course, good to feel that progress is being made. But it would be a big mistake to assume that there is an easy solution to making education work for the children who need it most. This is not the case. And yet there is more hope today than there was yesterday.

Some of the things that make today a little more hopeful include the following.

• Mathematics achievement is improving in urban schools and in some cases is accelerating. For example: 55.3 percent of fourth-grade students in urban schools scored at or above the“proficient” level in 2004, compared with 44.1 percent in 2002.

• Gaps in math achievement appear to be narrowing. Again, for example: 62.1 percent of all big city 4th grades tested narrowed the achievement gap between African American and white students. Reduction in math achievement gaps also appear in the 8th and 10th grades tested.

• Many urban districts showed gains in math achievement between 2003 and 2004. Slightly more than 43 percent of these districts posted math gains in all grades tested. More than 23 percent of these schools gained at greater rates than their states, on average.

• The ability to read is also improving in urban schools, at least before high school. More than 77 percent improved reading scores in all the grades tested. Fifty-one percent of 4th graders scored at or above proficiency in reading in 2004, compared to only 43 percent in 2002. Nearly 40 percent of 8th graders scored at or above proficient in 2004, compared with 37.2 percent in 2002.

• In addition, the gains in overall reading scores appear to be occurring in a way that is also showing progress in reducing achievement gaps. For example: 60.6 percent of 4th grades tested narrowed the gap between white and Latino students. 58.3 percent narrowed gaps in 8th grade reading and nearly 41 percent narrowed them in 10th grade.

(The results cited, unless otherwise noted, are taken from the Council of Great City Schools’ recent report Beating the Odds IV. These statistics report results from state testing in large urban districts. In most cases, these results are confirmed by the more rigorous NAEP results. Generally, however, NAEP results are less hopeful than those reported on state tests.)

On the other hand, a look at absolute achievement rather than relative gains reveals a different, decidedly less cheery picture of the state of urban children.

• Even though 55.3 percent of urban 4th graders were at or above proficient in math, 44.7 percent of them were below what is surely the bare minimum for the 21st Century.

• In nearly 35 percent of the urban classrooms, math scores between black and white students were not narrowing.

• According to NAEP data reported for 2003, a heartbreaking 62 percent of black 4th graders have not been taught to even the “basic” reading level. That’s by 4th grade! NAEP also reports that 57 percent of Hispanic students read below the basic level by 4th grade.

• By 3rd grade, it is said, black students can read and do math at the level mastered by whites by 1st grade.

• By age 17, black and Hispanic youngsters can read and do math at the level achieved by whites by age 13.

• By most estimates, 1 out of 2 blacks will fail to graduate high school. • According to the NAEP Long Term Trends data, black 17-year-olds read less well in 2004 than they did in 1988. And the score gap has increased.

• Out of 100 kindergartners entering school, 34 whites will get a BA degree; 18 blacks and only 10 Latino students will earn what is fast becoming the entry level degree for American success today.

• And finally, less we forget, American students do not compare very well with their competitors in the developed world. For example, on international comparisons of problem solving ability, U.S. students ranked 24 out 29. And there will be many problems for our citizens to solve in the coming year.

By Way of Review

Up until high school, we seem to be doing a bit better in our ability to add educational value to our poor and minority students’ lives. But this in no way means they are prepared for a world in which the levels of intellectual and cognitive demands are constantly rising. These youngsters are yet to be prepared for the world of 1970, let alone 2010. There is still a way to go.

As such, it is critical to review some recent findings on what the most successful urban schools and districts are doing to go beyond merely “offering” education to actually “educating” all students. What some urban districts and schools are doing to improve themselves is genuinely hopeful. If some of these challenged districts and schools can succeed against the odds, then all can.

Those strategies most strongly linked to improvement in academic achievement of our poor and minority students are noted.

• Successful districts and schools focus on achievement! They set specific achievement goals and have a definite schedule for improvement. They have consequences for achieving these goals and for not achieving them. These districts make sure that school curricula are strongly aligned to state objectives and standards. They monitor that alignment in every classroom and produce materials, lessons, and assessments for classroom use that translate state standards into concrete instructional practice.

• Successful districts and schools hold everyone accountable in ways that go beyond state accountability systems. They are serious — very serious — about ensuring that standards are aligned and that curricula, assessments, and practices are followed by every player in the system.

• Successful districts focus on the lowest-performing schools. Successful schools relentlessly focus on their lowest-performing students. Districts and schools find ways to free up additional resources for these schools.

• Successful districts and schools know that the quality of teachers and leaders is the key to ensuring a better life for their students. They will make the selection of effective teachers, their retention, and their development a top priority. They will monitor teachers aggressively, provide them with top-quality instructional materials, assessments, data, and support. These districts know that the quality of leadership will ultimately determine the quality of instruction.

• Successful districts have adopted common curricula and instructional approaches. Likewise, successful schools have insisted that in each and every classroom all students are given the opportunity to learn that curriculum. These districts and schools do not fool around with what is to be taught. They watch closely to ensure no child is left untaught. Some successful districts and schools have left actual strategies for implementing these curricula up to the school or teacher. Some have not; they have instituted common instructional practices.

• Professional development is no longer left to chance for these districts and schools. They demand that professional development be effective and that it result in improved instruction and student outcomes.

• No more “we’re central office — what can you do for me?” in successful districts. Likewise no more “I’m the office — what can you do for me?” in successful schools. If non-classroom staff can’t prove they are helping to improve student outcomes, they better begin to.

• In successful districts and schools data rules! That means that taking an objective look, no matter whose feelings are hurt, is the way it is. These districts and schools are driving ideology out their doors and welcoming a “what works” approach. These organizations give student performance data to teachers in time for them to use it to improve students’ learning. School and district leaders are interested, in using data to help individual teachers improve. They are now supervising the learning teachers produce. These districts and schools teach teachers to embrace the reality encoded in numbers, not to fear it.

• Today, districts intent upon improving the futures of their students are taking a very hard look at the quality of instruction in their high schools. High schools are looking inward, to honestly assess whether they are adding value to the gains being made by students before they enter these urban “drop out factories.” Schools and districts that are serious about this are struggling to overthrow the “I teach it; they get it if they want to” ethic of many high school “professors.” These organizations are realizing that reading at the level needed to succeed in high school and college must be taught — by them!

Okay, let’s take a moment to celebrate our gains. There! Now let’s get back to work.

Dr. Riggins is associate executive director for the Leadership Academy and Urban Alliances for the National Association of Elementary School Principals. Her e-mail is