April 27, 2000
By Adam Meyerson
But across America, a growing number of schools are proving
there is no excuse for this educational malpractice. P.S. 161 in
Brooklyn, where the student body is 91 percent black and 98 percent
low-income, recently came in second in the entire state of New York
in sixth-grade reading. KIPP Academy in Houston is 90 percent
Hispanic and 95 percent low-income, yet its math scores are among
the highest of any middle school in Texas. At Portland Elementary
in the impoverished Mississippi River Delta of rural Arkansas,
sixth graders score in the 72nd percentile in reading and the 84th
percentile in math on the Stanford-9 achievement test.
These are not isolated examples. In a new book, "No Excuses,"
The Heritage Foundation reports on 21 high-poverty, high-performing
schools that are putting the public school establishment to shame.
To qualify as a No Excuses school, 75 percent of the students must
be eligible for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program,
and the school's median math or reading scores must meet or exceed
the 65th percentile on nationally standardized tests. Nationwide,
test scores at similarly impoverished schools are stuck at the
One of the nation's highest priorities should be to replicate
the best practices of these high-performing schools, which offer
policy-makers three critical lessons:
1) Children of all races and incomes can meet high academic
The schools highlighted in "No Excuses" hold all students to
high standards and expectations - and then make sure they
No Excuses principals reject the ideology of victimhood that
dominates most public discussion of race and academic achievement.
They do not dumb down tests and courses for black and Hispanic
children; instead they prove that children of all races and incomes
can take tough courses and succeed. They recognize that some
children may learn at different paces, but they make sure that all
children master key subjects, especially reading, math and fluency
in English. They test constantly, because No Excuses principals see
testing as an instrument of diagnosis, not of discrimination. And
they do not hesitate to require students to repeat grades, if
necessary, to master the material.
2) Running a high-poverty school is one of the most important
leadership positions in America.
No single curriculum or teaching methodology is the secret to
the success of high-poverty, high-performing schools. What they all
have in common is excellent leadership. Almost every one of
the No Excuses schools created a culture of outstanding academic
achievement within four to five years. Some were new schools that
started from scratch. In most cases, they were low-performing
schools that became high performers once the right leadership took
High-performing principals have a number of distinctive
competencies. Many are superb at working with parents and enlisting
their active support for the school's mission. Others are skilled
administrators and problem-solvers who stretch the dollars in their
meager budgets and create happy, orderly environments in old
worn-down buildings. But above all what distinguishes the No
Excuses principals is their skill in finding, training, and
bringing out the best in teachers. No Excuses schools are schools
where good teachers become great teachers.
3) High achievement requires freedom.
High-performing principals enjoy unusual freedom to make
important decisions for their schools. They hire and fire teachers.
They set their own budgets. In some cases they choose the
If we want to attract exceptional leaders to high-poverty
schools, we have to free principals from micromanagement, and give
them the freedom No Excuses principals have enjoyed. Principals can
excel if they are given the opportunity to do their jobs as they
see fit - while being held strictly accountable for academic
Increasing educational choice in low-income neighborhoods means
more than opening up access to private schools. It means freeing
inner-city public schools so they can compete effectively for
parents' support. No Excuses schools have won the enthusiastic
commitment of parents who want their children to succeed. It's time
for the public education establishment to give all parents the same
Adam Meyerson is a former vice president of The Heritage
Foundation. "No Excuses" is available online at www.noexcuses.org.
Distributed nationally by Knight-Ridder Tribune News Service.
Low-Income Schools that Work
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