There's growing debate in Harrisburg about how to turn around troubled schools that have a long history of underperformance. As is typical when it comes to discussions about education, many experimental ideas have surfaced. In contrast, I suggest not a radical idea, but a plan that must be radical in its implementation:
Let's use proven practices that actually have a history of working in the classroom, as opposed to experiments with no documentation of positive impact. But let's be aggressive and truly committed to making the changes quickly. Act too slowly, and too many students miss out on the benefits of reform.
I am offering legislation that would invest in three proven tactics to improve student performance in struggling schools:
Smaller class sizes,
Increased time for instruction in the classroom, and
Additional support services for children who are growing up in difficult circumstances.
How do I know these ideas will work?
Franklin Elementary School in Madison, Wis., went from a 24-to-1 student-teacher ratio to a 15-to-1 ratio and watched its second graders who were below grade level in reading nearly close that gap in one year. One-third of those students advanced to above grade level in that time.
At Malverne High School on Long Island, where 45 percent of the students are living in poverty and 65 percent are African American, the message from day one is high expectations. That means ensuring that as many students as possible enroll in - and succeed in - Advanced Placement courses. The school increased instructional time by offering an additional class period every other day, and it offers an extensive, eight-week after-school review program prior to the AP tests. Since 2011, Malverne has seen a 21 percent increase in AP enrollment and a 19 percent increase in students scoring 3 or better on AP exams.
These are targeted, locally driven programs that produce results. But note that not every intervention that is necessary for struggling schools should be tied to a test score. For many students, districts have to provide the physical and emotional supports they need simply to stay in school and have the opportunity to learn.
Ninety percent of the students at Center High School in rural Colorado are living in poverty, half are English-language learners, and one-third are migrant students. School leaders recognized that their students needed more than conventional academic supports, so they added support staff, including a homeless coordinator, a nurse, and counselors. Those supports, along with academic enrichment programs, have helped move Center's graduation rate from an abysmal 33 percent to more than 90 percent. The dropout rate, which had consistently been in double digits, is now below 2 percent. A decade ago, only 20 percent of Center's students were enrolled in some type of postsecondary education; in 2013, that number had increased to 78 percent.
These are all real-world examples of thoughtful, locally controlled interventions that had a direct impact on student outcomes. These are all proven programs executed by skilled educators. No magic bullets. No secret potions. Supports and services, small class sizes, and extended learning time - these are the critical pieces to addressing comprehensive school turnarounds and putting our struggling students on the path to success.
So how do we do that here in Pennsylvania?
First, we're going to identify turnaround schools by looking at low performance over time. Once a school is determined to be eligible for interventions, local school leaders will work with school staff and parents, with support from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, to develop a comprehensive turnaround plan for their school. Some schools may decide to reduce class sizes from a 30-to-1 student-teacher ratio to 15-to-1. Others may plan to extend the school day by 40 minutes, as schools in the city of York have just done. Still others may choose to hire a nurse, a school librarian, and a guidance counselor.
Not every plan will be identical. But they all must be based on proven performance and have an aggressive implementation plan that is driven to achieve demonstrable results.
Locally driven school turnarounds must have buy-in from staff, students, parents, and community members if they are to succeed. Because every school will develop a unique plan, costs will vary. However, turning around these schools will require a commitment of resources from the commonwealth - probably in the tens of millions of dollars. And I believe a significant portion of those dollars should come from an overall boost in education funding in the state budget.
But the rest should come from the private sector, probably from a new tax-credit program targeted toward these specific schools and run through Pennsylvania's successful Educational Improvement Tax Credit program. The commonwealth's foundation community must also step up and show these children that they are just as valuable as any others. These students must have access to the resources that their schools have historically been denied.
Our children deserve what works, and we know what works. We have the tools and the knowledge to fix theses schools. It's time to act - our students can't wait any longer.