Educational Excellence: Trying What Works

by Robert Maynard

Back in November we published a commentary about a Burlington School District Report actually plans to take an  “anti-racist stance against the conventional white, middle class, Judeo-Christian culture that invisibly permeates the current social environment that exists in the Burlington schools”, as a means of closing an achievement gap.  Needless to say, closing such a gap is certainly a worthwhile goal.  It is also a goal that appears to have been eluding our efforts here in Vermont.  In 2006 the Fordham Foundation produced a Report on the student achievement gap and reform efforts aimed at fixing that gap. Vermont got an F and ranked dead last at 50.  With this in mind we should take any efforts at reform seriously.

According to our November commentary: “The goal posited by this plan is to bridge opportunity gaps in the schools-gaps caused by racial and economic inequality.”  The question that everyone concerned with true reform should be asking is “What evidence is there that the proposed approach to reform actually will produce results?”  It is bad enough that the approach suggested actually involves undermining the historical role that the Judeo-Christian culture has actually played in our history, but no evidence is offered that such an approach is actually going to raise the educational performance of those on the lower end of the gap.  At a time of scarce resources we can ill afford to waste taxpayers’ money and teachers’ time on unproven schemes.  It might be a good idea to actually investigate past attempts to raise such gaps and see which approaches worked and which ones did not.  This link  is to a report on the most popular test case of an attempt to force a court ordered plan on a school district that would both achieve integration and raise student scores. It details the miserable failure of a “Cost is No Object” attempt to raise the educational standards of inner city minority children.  The school district was in Kansas City, Missouri and the attempt did nothing to raise the achievement of those who were underperforming.  It did, however, consume a lot of the taxpayers money and the teachers time.

For examples of what does work, we should consult the “No Excuses: Lessons from 21 High-Performing High-Poverty Schools” by the Heritage Foundation’s Samuel Casey Carter.  The book takes a look at 21 schools from impoverished areas around the country.  In each school at least 75% of the students were from families below the poverty line.  Each of these schools was a success in raising the educational achievement of the students who attended.  While each school has its own story to tell, there were some common themes that were seen as critical to the success of all of them:

1. Principals must be free to establish curricula, hire faculties and set the direction of a school’s teaching style.

2. Principals use measurable goals to establish a culture of achievement.

3. Master teachers bring out the best in a faculty.

4. Rigorous and regular testing leads to continuous student achievement.

5.  Achievement is the key to discipline.

6.  Principals work actively with parents to make the home a center of learning.

7.  Effort creates ability.

Another shining example of educational success is the inspiring, but little known struggle of Black Americans to acquire a decent education under the regime of slavery and following the period of Reconstruction. This struggle is dealt with in the fourth chapter of Dr. Alan Keyes’ book “Masters of the Dream: The Strength and Betrayal of Black America” entitled “Those Who Would be Free”.

Under the regime of slavery it was illegal for slaves to be educated, yet some blacks pursued whatever education they could. By 1850 Frederick Douglas could say that “literate slaves appeared everywhere, no matter how unfavorable the atmosphere”. They often did so in the face of extreme persecution.

During the period of Reconstruction, blacks continued to pursue education by every available means. Many went to freedman’s schools run by northern missionaries, both black and while, and supported by northern philanthropy and some federal funds. The black church played a central role in this.

Of course, there was a backlash against all this when the Reconstruction period ended which brought with it a resurgence of anti-Black repression. Public support and funding dried up and the public educational services provided for black (and white) children in 1900 and 1910 were in many ways inferior to those public services provided back in 1890. Given the lack of public support and any formal schooling structure, one would of expected the educational achievement of blacks to have stagnated in the post Reconstruction period. Interestingly, that was clearly not the case. According to many sources, including the U.S. Census Bureau officials, the black illiteracy rate in 1880 was 70 percent. By 1910 the black illiteracy rate had dropped to 30 percent. In each decade from 1880 to 1910 the black population increased, but the number of illiterates in each age group decreased. Given the hostility to any form of black advancement, this achievement is nothing short of amazing.

According to Dr. Keyes, the driving force behind this success was the moral values promoted by the black churches and the black family. Those values included personal dignity and responsibility and the capacity for self-government as the necessary prerequisites to become a free people. Their biblical based beliefs pointed to the importance of freedom in the realization of their dignity of beings created in the image of God. They also stressed educational achievement as a path to those goals. In summary, though they had few physical resources and were facing considerable obstacles to advancement, they progressed because of their spiritual resources. The striving for excellence and the recognition that a quality education is a path to that excellence is a much more important factor in educational achievement than money spent, public support, or one’s parent’s socio-economic background.

Perhaps the Burlington School Board should ditch the report and spend a little time reviewing examples of actual success in closing achievement gaps.