Ignoring the Lessons from Cinderella School Districts

On May 23, 2001, the New York Times ran three major stories demonstrating cognitive dissonance about educational approaches. On the front page, we learned about Ms. Moffett, a first-year teacher assigned to a low-performing school who is extremely frustrated because she is required to follow lesson plans instead of doing what she wants, which is to demonstrate her creativity. Her mentor teacher advises her to adhere to the instructions that come with the "Success for All" reading program, but Ms. Moffett clearly feels cheated, and the story line implies that it's unjust to bar this novice teacher from "doing her own thing" with students.

The nearby column by Richard Rothstein, the newspaper's regular commentator on education, warns that homework increases the gap between students from middle-class and low-income homes, because advantaged parents can help their children. Rothstein warns that it is "unconscionable for educators to exacerbate inequality by assigning homework" unless government first supplies afterschool study centers.

To complicate matters, a news story on the same day contradicts both Ms. Moffett's yearning to be creative and Mr. Rothstein's dire warnings about the deleterious impact of homework done at home. Kate Zernike writes about the stunning success of public schools in Mount Vernon, New York, where fourth-grade reading scores soared between 1999 and 2001. Mount Vernon, she points out, is "a poor cousin" in a county that includes elite schools like those of Scarsdale (where many students, abetted by their parents, recently boycotted the state tests). Sixty percent of Mount Vernon's students are poor and few thought that the town's schools would ever improve, yet the district boasted three of the state's most improved schools in the state and some of its elementary schools more than doubled the proportion of fourth-graders passing the state test. The pass rate for the district as a whole jumped from 35% in 1999 to 77% in 2001.

What happened? According to Zernike, "the schools gave teachers clearer goals and firmer instruction on how to reach them." The district budgeted more professional development time and planned "districtwide lessons, right down to the work students in each grade would take home that weekend." It raised expectations and developed a standard curriculum that spelled out clearly what should be taught in each grade. Students are expected to read and write at home every night, and their parent must sign a form attesting that they have done so.

The lesson from Mount Vernon, which saw huge improvements among disadvantaged students: Improved instruction; higher expectations; consistency of instruction; well-planned lessons delivered by well-prepared teachers; consistent homework assignments; a focus on reading and writing; clarity about what is to be taught and learned.

Perhaps the New York City could send its new teachers to Mount Vernon to learn that professionalism doesn't mean giving free rein to one's idiosyncratic impulses; it means setting goals and identifying which practices are most effective, which are grounded in research, and how to do them successfully. -Diane Ravitch

"In 2 Years, Mt. Vernon Test Scores Turn Around," by Kate Zernike, New York Times, May 23, 2001

"Lessons: How to Ease the Burden of Homework for Families," by Richard Rothstein, New York Times, May 23, 2001

"Teaching by the Book, No Asides Allowed," by Abby Goodnough, New York Times, May 23, 2001

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