Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Guest Column: Advice to Michael Poore: How to Make LRSD Great

By ROBERT MARANTO AND ROD PAIGE Special to the Democrat-Gazette.

This article was published May 15, 2016 at 2:02 a.m. and shared by permission

Some charge that newly appointed Little Rock School Superintendent Michael Poore represents reactionaries out to destroy urban public education.

It’s probably more accurate to say that while most Republicans stay on the sidelines with their suburban constituents, many Democratic leaders have written off urban public schools. Check out President Obama’s autobiography Dreams from My Father, which lambasts Chicago public schools for employing the advantaged and not teaching the disadvantaged.

Many progressive reformers want urban education to go the way of New Orleans, where in the wake of Hurricane Katrina policymakers gradually replaced traditional public schools with charter schools, autonomous public schools chosen by parents. As the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans has shown in rigorous evaluations, this helped kids. Test scores, graduation rates, and the percentage of disadvantaged children who are college-ready rose far faster in New Orleans than elsewhere in Louisiana and nationally. Surveys show New Orleans parents rating the school reforms as successful.

Pre-Katrina New Orleans Public Schools were among the worst in the nation, rife with patronage and corruption. Fortunately, Little Rock is not New Orleans. We believe that Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key didn’t appoint the seasoned, idealistic Michael Poore to destroy Little Rock’s public schools, but to save them.

So what should Poore do? From decades studying urban public schools, we offer seven ideas.

Poore must stay for the long haul.
As our friend Frederick M. Hess shows in Spinning Wheels, most urban public schools suffer revolving-door leadership. Every three years a new superintendent arrives, announces flashy initiatives to get good press and pad a resume, and then moves on to the next job before programs have time to work. Then the next superintendent comes to town and the cycle begins anew. Educators react by paying lip service to new policies while quietly sabotaging them. To break the cycle, Poore should demand a six-year contract and message that he’s in this for the kids.

Shine a spotlight on successful classrooms.
As Charles Payne shows in So Much Reform, So Little Change, many urban educators do not think “those kids,” meaning low-income children of color, can learn. If people don’t think their job can be done, they won’t try to do it. When rookie Houston public school teachers Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin struggled, they copied their successful colleague Harriett Ball, eventually using her methods to build the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) schools which now educate tens of thousands of disadvantaged children. Little Rock has many great teachers. Poore must find the Harriett Balls, honor their work, and spread what they do.

Take charge of personnel policy.

In education, people make the difference. Yet in many school systems employees win jobs and promotions based on connections. Poore must assure hiring and promotion based on what one does, not who one knows. Poore must also recruit widely to get the best. The former Houston school superintendent and co-author of this piece recruited teachers locally, regionally, and nationally, including some Teach For America members like Feinberg and Levin. Long term, this helped make Houston public school teachers among the best in the nation.

Pursue integration on equal terms.
As Stuart Buck shows in Acting White, back in the 1960s “integration” meant closing African American schools, firing successful African American educators, and busing black kids to white schools. This was racist and disastrous. Today some claim that schools in which minorities achieve far less than whites and where races are segregated by course of study and even in the cafeteria are somehow integrated. That is not real integration. We must commit to doing whatever it takes to assure that by the end of elementary school, minority and white students are reading and doing math at similar (high) levels. If we close the elementary achievement gaps, we can successfully integrate secondary schools, and society.

Focus on disadvantaged kids in elementary schools.

Most disadvantaged parents had a rough time in school. Educators must build relationships with those parents to break the cycle. Do home visits starting in kindergarten to impress on low-income parents the need to keep their kids in the same school year after year rather than moving across town. Develop a year-round schedule to keep disadvantaged kids from falling behind academically over summer break. Do regular Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) testing to guide individual academic plans for every kid to achieve on grade level by fifth grade. Slash the achievement gap in elementary grades before it’s too late.

Small down big schools.
Large comprehensive high schools work well enough for advantaged kids who get their mentoring at home. They fail disadvantaged kids. They need educators to play a larger role in their lives and need schools where everyone knows their names. As numerous evaluations by Howard Bloom and others show, New York has improved achievement and graduation rates among disadvantaged kids by replacing huge high schools with small schools where the principal knows all the kids. Often a single large school building now holds five small high schools.

Involve the whole community.

Advantaged families must mentor disadvantaged kids who want it, not just with occasional tutoring but by building long-term relationships providing the connections and support to move up in school and in life. One promising, inexpensive model, Bright Futures, is credited with substantially reducing the dropout rate in Joplin. Bright Futures has not yet been evaluated, but we think Poore should try this and similar programs at different schools, expanding those which help kids.

Superintendent Poore can make Little Rock Public Schools great. All it takes is time and hard work.

Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. Rod Paige is the former U.S. Secretary of Education and former Houston Independent School District Superintendent.

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