Zeroing in on what works
Educators talk about how to change the tide of educational outcomes that has perplexed the nation for decades.
By Alan J. Borsuk
Matt Cashman came to Marquette University expecting to get on track to go to law school. But influenced by some of the volunteer work he did as a student, the Arts ’07 grad tried something else first: He applied to Teach For America, the two-year program that places high-performing college graduates in high-needs schools across the country.
In June, Cashman finished his second year at Gateway Middle School in St. Louis and fulfilled his Teach For America commitment. But he plans to return to Gateway this fall. Progress has been made, but there’s more to do, and Cashman has found a career.
“I love it. I really couldn’t be happier doing what I’m doing,” he says. “I’m not ready to leave my kids and don’t feel my job is done. ... I really want to be part of continuing to move our school forward.”
Cashman is just one of many people with connections to Marquette who are tackling the challenges of America’s most important education issue: raising the overall achievement of students from high-poverty, predominantly minority communities.
Those with Marquette ties range from some of the nation’s most prominent education advocates, such as Joe Williams, Comm ’92, who heads Democrats for Education Reform and who was featured prominently in the New York Times in May, to people such as Cashman, who started with little more than a college degree and an eagerness to help kids.
How to change the tide of educational outcomes has perplexed the nation for decades. The gaps in achievement remain large between low-income students and those who are better off and between minority students and white students. In Milwaukee, where the gaps are among the worst in the nation, well under half of 10th-graders are rated as proficient in any subject tested by the state, and average college entrance exam scores are far below the level considered conducive to success.
So what works?
Leadership. There are schools that demonstrably have more success than others with children from backgrounds too often associated with educational failure.
Interviews with more than half a dozen educators with connections to Marquette provided a list of ingredients in the recipe for success.
“No. 1 is courageous leadership,” says Hosanna Johnson, Arts ’91, who served as chief of staff for Arne Duncan when he was the superintendent of Chicago Public Schools. Johnson is now executive director of social justice and innovation for Wireless Generation, a company that works with schools across the country on ways to make education more effective.
A top-notch principal or superintendent is at the heart of a high-achieving school, education experts generally agree. Get a great principal, and that person will build a great staff and the kind of education community that makes a school special.
Dr. Bill Henk, dean of Marquette’s College of Education, says, “You almost need a star” as principal, someone who is indomitable, skilled and passionate.
Johnson puts four other ingredients in her recipe for success:
- Reliable data. Teachers and administrators need to know as much as they can about how students are doing, then shape their strategies, child by child, around that data.
- Support and accountability for teachers. Schools need to do all that can be done to raise the abilities of teachers, but they also need to hold teachers responsible for doing all they can to lead children to achievement.
- Partnerships. Schools need strong partners, including par-ents, community organizations, businesses and political leaders.
- Relentless focus on execution. Johnson says, “We’ve kind of known what to do for awhile. ... The key is getting it done, and that requires discipline and focus.”
Johnson singles out Dr. Howard Fuller as a prime example of a courageous leader. Fuller, who heads Marquette’s Institute for the Transformation of Learning, was superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools from 1991–95. He is one of the nation’s leading advocates of charter schools and school voucher programs and founded the Black Alliance for Educational Options.
Fuller is also deeply involved with CEO Leadership Academy, a private high school in Milwaukee where he is a near-daily presence helping lead the school while becoming involved personally with the students.
He says his involvement at CEO brought home for him how big the challenges are. Many of the school’s students enroll with reading abilities far below high school level and many have major personal problems that interfere with their education. The level of intensity that is needed to succeed in an urban school, Fuller says, “is just unbelievable.” But he also is more committed than ever to succeeding.
For Fuller, poverty is not an excuse. He points to other urban areas such as Atlanta and Boston, where there is also intense poverty but the trends are much better than in Milwaukee. Fuller says Milwaukee needs to do more to introduce the kind of programs that are succeeding elsewhere and revamp educational policies that haven’t brought success — including ones he advocated.
The schools that are succeeding, he says, generally follow a “no excuses” approach that includes longer school days and school years, as well as an intense focus on individual students to make sure as many as possible learn at their grade level and reach graduation.
Paths to success
One of the schools well-known for fitting Fuller’s description is Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago. Rev. James Gartland, S.J., president of the school, is a member of Marquette’s Board of Trustees. Eight new graduates of the school will join campus as freshmen this fall.
Father Gartland puts safety high on his list of the key elements of success. The 520 students in his school know that the first day they exhibit any sign of gang affiliation will be their last day at Cristo Rey. And they want that sense of security.
In addition, Father Gartland says, a genuinely challenging curriculum is crucial, and teachers are expected to build strong personal relationships with their students.
Larry Siewert, Bus Ad ’63 and Grad ’72, was principal of Marquette University High School before becoming in 1993 the founding principal of Nativity Jesuit Middle School on Milwaukee’s South Side. Siewert is now director of graduates. All eighth-grade graduates are placed in Catholic high schools, and Siewert works with them and with mentors provided by Nativity Jesuit Middle School to help the teens stay on track amid the challenges of high school.
How successful is the school? Siewert points to a current statistic: There are 72 graduates in high school, none have dropped out, and 66 remain at the schools where they began ninth grade, a sign of stability and success.
What is at the heart of Nativity Jesuit’s program? “The intervention model,” as Siewert calls it. In short, going to school is a full-time job for the 80 fifth- through eighth-graders. The school day lasts from 7:45 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., and there are frequent weekend programs and a five-week summer camp in northern Wisconsin. “I think it takes that kind of intensive effort to make a difference,” Siewert says.
Trevor Sewell, Grad ’68, a professor of school psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia, says, “Poverty is not an insurmountable barrier to high achievement.”
But the difficulties of finding success with students who lack positive role models and did not grow up in environments conducive to educational success cannot be dismissed. Sewell was part of an effort in Philadelphia called Tell Them We Are Rising, in which a benefactor paid for extensive mentoring and programming for 160 children from 1987–97. There were success stories, Sewell says, but the overall results were not impressive.
By the time students joined the program, they had belief systems that did not help them in school. One important lesson, in Sewell’s view, is to provide children stimulation early in their lives, before they are school-age, and indoctrinate them with beliefs that they can succeed.
Successful schools have cultures where everyone — leaders, teachers, students, parents — are together as a community pursuing success, Henk says, and there is a positive energy humming. They are places where kids work hard but have fun doing so.
Henk points to another crucial ingredient to success: the students themselves. “I think way too often, students get a blame-waiver,” Henk says. They aren’t held accountable for putting in the effort and following the paths that lead to success. “Kids have to have some responsibilities for their own learning,” he says.
The long road to school reform
From school integration in the 1960s and ’70s to uncountable innovations in school structures and operations and curricula to complex federal laws, there has been wave upon wave of initiatives with limited overall impact.
Since 2002, much of the pressure to improve has come from the federal law known as No Child Left Behind. The law put education reform in the spotlight, but its elaborate system of identifying and sanctioning schools and districts where performance has not met requirements is regarded across the political system as generally unsuccessful.
Federal pressure to make improvements accelerated this year with the launch of Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation programs, which are awarding $5 billion to states and school districts with the boldest, and broadest, proposals for improving their education systems.
About the author: Alan J. Borsuk is the senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette Law School. Previously, he was a veteran reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, where he covered the education beat for a decade and continues to cover educational issues as a regular columnist.