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Jim Nelson: Basics that the best schools get right

Published: 29 September 2011 07:35 PM

Dallas Morning News

All urban districts share certain attributes (and oftentimes, certain dysfunction).

The best ones — and there really are some good ones — get some essential things right, including a board focused on student outcomes above all else; an effective use of data and technology; a commitment to teacher quality and strong leadership; and initiatives that focus on equity. Finally, they understand the importance of keeping the end goal in mind — it’s not just about passing state tests, but in creating learners who leave high school ready for college or a career path.

Now, where do you start? I would suggest the following:

Focus on the goal: Passing state tests is not enough. With rising unemployment, economic uncertainty and the loss of manufacturing jobs, students must now leave high school with the ability to collaborate, problem-solve, create and negotiate. Dr. David Conley at the University of Oregon is one of the nation’s leading thinkers on college and career readiness. He has formulated “four key dimensions to college readiness” that all DISD staff should be trained in.

Train, train, train: The urban districts I’ve seen doing the best work have a comprehensive plan to develop all professionals. Teachers, specifically, are hungry for training that truly has an impact on their work with students.

Research tells us that children who do not learn to read in the first grade are likely to struggle all through school. Texas has produced excellent training in early-grade reading instruction. DISD should have a systematic plan to access this training and monitor the results closely.

With the wide array of cultures represented in urban schools, it is essential, especially at the secondary level, that teachers learn strategies that are effective in engaging all their students in rigorous work.

Higher expectations, though important, are not enough. Educators must have the ability to support students as they engage them in more rigorous, meaningful work.

Leadership: I’ve never seen a great school with a lousy principal. Just can’t happen. Leadership matters. Great leaders attract teachers who want to succeed.

I saw it firsthand as superintendent in Richardson. We had to make some hard calls my first year, replacing ineffective leaders with effective ones, sometimes midyear. School climates and results improved quickly. One Title 1 elementary went from the verge of unacceptable to exemplary in a few years. It wasn’t just because the principal was more skilled, but primarily because he attracted a much more talented and committed staff.

Leaders can be trained, and their skills can be developed.

Equity: All too often, race issues seem to impede urban districts’ ability to progress and maintain community support. This must be addressed head-on. At AVID, we have programs that aim to confront, attack and ultimately begin to overcome the racial obstacles that often appear. One example is our African American Male Initiative. We brought together leading experts to develop new strategies for working with these young men and identified six schools as pilots. (One is Arlington’s Bowie High, where great things are happening.)

Pulling together: DISD badly needs a better sense that all the key players are pulling in the same direction. This transition is a great opportunity. The board, administrators, educators, community leaders, parents and taxpayers all need to commit to the district’s success. There will always be disagreements in strategies (and that is healthy), but the adults have to respond better if we are to expect the students to perform better.

I would urge district leaders to look at Hillsborough County Public Schools in the Tampa, Fla., area. It is larger than DISD, equally diverse, with significant language and poverty issues. Through consistent leadership and teacher support, they are building a district with a united front.

None of this is for the faint of heart, but it can be done. I’m convinced DISD’s foundation is there, with better financial management and an uptick in student performance. All of us who care about the future of Dallas — and, most importantly, the tens of thousands of students who aspire to a better life than their parents had — must get engaged.


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