Fixing America’s worst schools

Fixing “America’s worst schools” is no picnic, even with federal grants, reports the Christian Science Monitor.  Most of the story deals with Wendell Phillips Academy on Chicago’s South Side, where 27 percent of ninth graders read at the third grade level or below.

With a U.S. history class of only 10 juniors and seniors, Joyce Randolph has spent weeks discussing: Just how revolutionary was the American Revolution? She asks students to rephrase the question.

Finally she gets a response from one young man: “Did the Revolution bring about significant change?”

“Awesome!” says Ms. Randolph, as she points to another student. “Curtis, what does ‘significant’ mean?”

She’s met with a blank stare. Silence.

Last year, less than 5 percent of Phillips students met state academic standards. Fights were frequent.

Chicago Public Schools gave control of the school — and $5 million in federal turnaround grants over the next five years — to the Academy of Urban School Leadership (AUSL).  The principal and all the teachers were fired. The new principal, Terrance Little, rehired only the two ROTC teachers. He instituted uniforms and a dress code, and a zero-tolerance policy for fighting. When he visited Phillips last year, it was a “zoo,” Little says.

“There was food fighting in the cafeterias, and kids were always fighting in the hallways,” recalls Eric Darko, a soft-spoken senior from Ghana, as he builds a complex tower after school for a Science Olympiad. “It was horrible bad. We didn’t learn anything.” This year, he says, things are better. “The teachers are always on time and on track.”

Freshmen now stay at school an extra hour each day. Little also made the grading scale tougher after seeing A students with abysmal ACT scores.

I used to be an AP student on the honor roll, and now I’ve got an F,” says Tyrice McClaren, who is eating an unappetizing looking chicken sandwich from the cafeteria.

The new teachers have agreed to common teaching practices, such as starting each class with a “Do now” assignment and ending with an “exit slip” on which students are asked how well they understood the material. They try to keep their expectations high.

In her class, Randolph uses a “document-based questions” curriculum, which asks students to examine historical papers for evidence. Originally designed for Advanced Placement students, it is a rigorous program that she believes pushes them to think critically. On the other hand, she notes, her class is still on the American Revolution in February . . .

It seems hopeless.  Twenty-seven percent of the ninth graders read at the third grade level or below.

Update:  Student misbehavior pushes teachers out of the profession,writes Will Fitzhugh. Students who want to learn are cheated, because their teachers have to spend so much time trying to control disruptive students. He wants to push out disruptive students.

It should be easy to send disruptive students home with access to online classes. They’re not likely to learn much, but their former teachers and classmates would benefit.

Phillips Academy’s new principal abolished in-school suspension and boosted the expulsion rate to control fighting and other zoo-like behavior.

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Comments

  1. MagisterGreen says:

    As much as I admire the often Herculean efforts those devoted souls make in such horrendous circumstances, addressing the problem at the 9th grade level and up is largely a lost cause. Without fixing the elementary grades and the failure at that level anything we try to do at the higher levels is just papering over the hole.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    As somebody said, fire the kids. If you’re not going to do that, you have to admit–which will get you into all sorts of PC trouble–that the kids are severely damaged by their parenting and/or their culture and something has to be done starting a good deal prior to conception.
    Luck with that. Who wants to write that grant?

  3. Genevieve says:

    I agree that trying to fix the problem at the 9th grade seems almost impossible. I also wonder about the teacher that has mostly given up on the students learning American History (they are still on the Revolutionary War in Feb.) but hopes that the students will have learned critical thinking and reading comprehension skills. High schools that serve students that are this far behind may need to plan on the students spending more than 4 years there. Where I live students can be enrolled through the semester they turn 21. Maybe this should be a plan for students that enter high school with elementary school skills. This would give students enough time to reach at least functional literacy skills and maybe learn American history through at least WW2.

  4. If you’re not going to do that, you have to admit–which will get you into all sorts of PC trouble–that the kids are severely damaged by their parenting and/or their culture and something has to be done starting a good deal prior to conception.

    Or at least be allowed to teach the kids at their ability level. I mean, good lord. Why not let them learn how to read at the sixth grade level? Wouldn’t that be a step up?

    But no, we have to pretend that that grade level work is just good teaching and a Hallmark movie away.

  5. Applauds Cal for speaking the truth.

    Look folks, if you’ve got kids with a reading impairment of some sort, either from lack of instruction or from disability, and you want them to get the content, you can either beat their heads (and yours) against the wall getting them to read it at grade level. Good luck with that. You’ll still be at the Revolutionary War in June, and I’ll bet the student reading level isn’t that much more advanced.

    Or you can drill and kill with deadly boring and insulting low level readers aimed at elementary school readers. Nothing happens.

    Or you can figure out what the basics are that you want the kids to learn, combine content information with basic literacy and numeracy skills instruction, written well but at a lower reading level that ISN’T juvenile and insulting, and maybe they’ll actually learn something, with less pain for you AND them. I’m working with a remedial reading program (Anita Archer’s REWARDS PLUS program) that does an excellent job of breaking down skills instruction while supplementing content instruction. Not seen the social studies version, but the science version rocks. So far.

  6. We can’t fire the kids, but we shouldn’t allow them to run the roost either.

    The biggest thing is concentration – I call it the Fresh Prince Theory of education. In “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” Will Smith’s character of the young ne’er-do-well was forced to improve because he was outnumbered 6-1 by those who take education/work seriously. Had his aunt & uncle taken in several of him, it’s doubtful they could have accomplished anything.

    For the kids who are behind, there are two ways to solve it. Some kids can be sprinkled into groups of serious students and will rise to the occasion. Others simply need to be separated out into a dedicated intensive environment. Unfortunately, such places are hard to come by since nobody wants to admit that there are as many kids as there are who need it.

  7. Obi-Wandreas wrote:

    Some kids can be sprinkled into groups of serious students and will rise to the occasion. Others simply need to be separated out into a dedicated intensive environment. Unfortunately, such places are hard to come by since nobody wants to admit that there are as many kids as there are who need it.

    Absolutely. Additionally, dedicated intensive environments are wicked expensive because they require small student-to-adult ratios in order to be effective, and a certain additional amount of money for effective supports for those adults (curriculum, technology, materials). Most general education administrators don’t understand those environments, and tend to brush them off as “too expensive” to run within a district setting. However, keeping these programs in-house is often cheaper overall than paying for a private setting…and can have additional benefits for the schools in which they’re housed.

  8. The real question is, why spend that kind of money for what will be very limited success? Why not change the economy by restricting immigration and making more jobs available for the uneducated–because no matter how much we spend, most of our efforts will end in failure or minimal improvements.

  9. Michael E. Lopez says:

    We can’t fire the kids.

    This is what people say.

    But why not? I’ve said before and I’ll say again, being able to fire JUST A FEW OF THEM would have an immensely salutary effect on the rest. You wouldn’t even need to fire all the troublemakers: merely having the ability to fire them would drastically reduce the number of troublemakers.

    Police can’t ticket every speeder. But that doesn’t mean that the number of speeders isn’t reduced by the police ticketing a few speeders. It’s intuitively obvious that it is.

    Nor would firing of kids have to be permanent. Fire them for 6 months and then let them start again at the next beginning of a school year. Those who return would know what they have to lose.

    People simply do not value that which they cannot lose.

    None of this is controversial in terms of truth, only in terms of policy.