School success? Fryer finds it in Houston

While the arguments about silver bullets and secret sauces for successful schools continue, I confess fealty to Justice Potter Stewart’s observation about the definition of pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

In fact, I would wager (although I’m no Mitt Romney) that I could walk into any school in America and within 30 minutes, without looking at any data, tell you whether the students in that school are performing well – or poorly. And I’m a novice.

There is no secret sauce except what hardworking teachers, administrators, and students create.

During the last month I have been visiting high performing high schools in Ohio – high performing poor students—for an upcoming “needles in a haystack” report for Fordham’s Ohio team* (see 2010’s Needles report for a taste of what’s to come) and can confirm Justice Stewart’s aphorism. Success is in the air, the hallways, the offices, the gyms, the cafeterias. It’s on the walls—and probably in the water.  There is no secret sauce except what hardworking teachers, administrators, and students create.

It was thus not surprising to see Roland Fryer’s latest study of charter schools conclude that the key ingredients of success were “increased time, better human capital, more student-level differentiation, frequent use of data to inform instruction, and a culture of high expectations.” (See Jay Greene’s summary of Fryer’s work and Sam Dillon’s in the New York Times story last September.)

A culture of high expectations – that is what teachers and students and parents in Ohio said was a critical element in their school’s success.

Fryer’s findings should surprise no one, but they beg the question: how do you do it?  As everyone in education seems to know, plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose. (As Charles Payne titled his wonderful book So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools or Rick Hess his, Spinning Wheels: The Politics of Urban School Reform.) Here’s part of the answer, from Fryer’s study:

Finally, to instill a culture of high expectations and college access for all students, we started by setting clear expectations for school leadership. Schools were provided with a rubric for the school and classroom environment and were expected to implement school-parent-student contracts. Specific student performance goals were set for each school and the principal was held accountable for these goals.

The key terms here are clear expectations for school leadership and holding that leadership accountable. 

Visiting failing schools—I am on a school board overseeing several of them – the same Stewart maxim applies: you know them when you see them.  And the major differences between success and failure are in expectations and accountability. But mostly, it’s in the ability to do it. It’s a governance question. And after more than a decade working in my little pocket of education dysfunction, nearly seven of them on the school board, I would say that failure persists because the schools….

  • Lack the political will to change
  • Are hostage to powerful lobbying interests
  • Are tied up in a network of rules and regulations.

Christopher Cerf, the new head New Jersey’s public school system, gets it.  He has instituted a review of the state’s 2,000 rules and regulations governing public schools. These laws, including many that protect labor unions, have taken an enormous toll on our schools; mainly, by preventing the legions of well-intentioned people, including teachers, from doing what works.

In my district, which spends over $20,000 per pupil and has had proficiency rates in English and Math that have hovered for years in the 30 percent range, these three depressive factors form an iron wall of dysfunction. In a rare moment when our school board decided to allow me to attempt to improve things, we formed a Task Force on Student Academic Performance. But at about the third meeting a teacher interrupted a discussion of just those things Fryer and others have said work – longer school days, student performance goals – and announced, “Those are contractual issues.” He never came back and, because he was a union chief, we never had another teacher at our meetings.

It has taken nearly ten years for No Child Left Behind’s accountability teeth to begin to kick in, spurring schools to begin to think about doing things that work, including making teachers and administrators accountable. And the good news is that President Obama and Arne Duncan, with their Race to the Top initiative, also get it.  Here is the president from last night’s State of the Union address:

Give [schools] the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren't helping kids learn.

Can we do it?  Only serious governance reforms will help. Suggestions? What are the top five most important governance reforms that policymakers intent in school improvement should begin lobbying for?

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*Ed. note: While the Fordham Institute is based in DC, it also does education policy and advocacy work on the ground in our home state of Ohio, where our sister organization, the Fordham Foundation, is an authorizer of charter schools.

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