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Seven Steps

From Failure to Success: Seven Steps for Urban Schools

The majority of schools in New Jersey’s urban systems are failing: failing to teach their students basic skills and knowledge they need, and failing to graduate as many as 50 percent of their entering classes.

Can these schools greatly reduce their failures by raising student achievement and graduation rates? Yes, we know they can, because other schools in communities with the same demographics as Newark, Trenton, and Camden are doing exactly that.

How do these schools succeed?

We recommend seven steps that are based on successful reform in other school districts.

  1. Set high expectations and commit to change.

Local school boards must express their faith in their children’s ability to learn, given appropriate instruction. They must publicly affirm their determination to reform their schools, and state exactly how they will evaluate the results.

  1. Choose experienced leadership, delegate authority, and require accountability.

School board and superintendents have far too many other duties to be able to devote the full-time attention that reform demands. The board should contract with an educator from outside the local district who is trained and experienced in urban school renewal to lead a multi-year reform effort.

  1. Reorganize programs and schedules.

Recognize that the current lockstep grade system and hours of instruction don’t work for educationally disadvantaged students. Group students by their needs and increase the amount of instruction by tutoring, computerized learning, and summer sessions.

  1. Focus first on essential learning skills, beginning in pre-kindergarten, and gradually extending to complex language and math knowledge.

  1. Match the content of the curriculum to the students’ needs.

Students who enter the primary grades with language deficits cannot be taught to read with texts and lessons designed for more privileged students. The Core Knowledge Series address these students’ need for a strong foundation in phonics, vocabulary, and the general background knowledge that they lack.

Eighth graders who are failing arithmetic or are several grades behind in reading skills are not ready to begin grade nine algebra, English, history, or science – subjects usually required in grade nine.

  1. Match teaching methods to student needs.

Extended lectures by a teacher don’t work well in any classroom.

Students in any grade who have not learned to concentrate or pay attention will learn little from classroom discussions or “cooperative learning.” These student-based learning activities lead to the distraction and disorder that characterizes many inner-city schools. Such students need a fast-paced, teacher-directed class that includes a constant flow of information, questions, and repetition by the class of key elements. Direct Instruction is one such method that has proven successful in challenging classrooms.

  1. Standards and Rules

Successful schools have standards of conduct that students, parents, and teachers agree to follow. When these parties have the opportunity to contribute to the school rules, they are more likely to adhere to them.

Setting and maintaining such standards is especially difficult when a school that does not now have them is to be reformed. School reform leaders should propose standards and rules in meetings with students, parents, and teachers. At these sessions, leaders should listen for and accept reasonable revisions to their plan. At that point, all parties should pledge their support in creating an environment in which students can and want to learn.

We believe that the approaches listed above can bring substantial progress in turning failing schools into successful ones.

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