April 18, 2000

April 18, 2000 | News Releases on Education

"No Excuses" for Poor Children Not to Learn, Research Shows

WASHINGTON, APRIL 18, 2000-While the current education debate focuses on money, a new study of low-income schools finds the key to academic excellence is not dollars, but educators who instill a passion for achievement and refuse to accept failure.

In "No Excuses: Lessons from 21 High-Performing, High-Poverty Schools" (Washington, D.C., The Heritage Foundation, 121 pages), Samuel Casey Carter, a Bradley fellow at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, highlights schools whose predominantly low-income Hispanic and African-American students score significantly above the national average in core subjects. The common thread: principals and teachers who demand excellence and reject the notion that poor kids can't learn.

Although at least 75 percent of the students in these schools come from low-income families, they score in the 65th percentile or higher on national exams, according to the report published today (see: www.noexcuses.org). Nationwide, schools with 75 percent low-income students typically score below the 35th percentile on national exams.

"No Excuses principals reject the ideology of victimhood that dominates most public discussion of race and academic achievement," writes Adam Meyerson, Heritage vice president for educational affairs, in the foreword. "They do not dumb down tests and courses for black and Hispanic children; instead they prove that children of all races and income levels can take tough courses and succeed."

But despite their accomplishments, these principals should not be viewed as isolated superheroes, Carter writes. Instead, they show what would be possible if public-school systems began to encourage and reward this level of success-success that could be replicated at schools nationwide. Despite large class sizes (35 per classroom in one school) and shoestring budgets, these educators produce outstanding students, undermining the pervasive myth that only "rich kids" can do well in school.

Take Arkansas' Portland Elementary, located in a remote region of the Mississippi Delta. Portland is home to fewer than 600 people, most of whom make their living working cotton fields and catfish farms. The nearest airport is more than an hour-and-a-half away. When Principal Ernest Smith arrived five years ago, half the students in the 4th, 5th and 6th grades were scoring two years or more below grade level.

Today, every student in those grades is performing at grade level or above. In 1999, the 6th graders scored in the 72nd percentile in reading and 84th in math. "I tell the school the 100th percentile is our goal," Smith says.

For "No Excuses" educators, high expectations aren't enough. Schools must create an atmosphere of success, holding teachers accountable for student achievement, Carter says. For successful principals believe teacher quality supersedes seniority, and they personally recruit the best instructors and make sure their hires understand the need to produce top-notch results.

"In my final interview with the candidate, I lay down the law," says Principal Gregory Hodge of New York City's Frederick Douglass Academy. "As quickly as you're hired, you can be fired. If you don't perform-you're gone." When prospective teachers ask him how they'll be judged, Hodge replies: "How will you evaluate your students? Through test scores. That's how I'll evaluate you-through their test scores."

The hard work pays off. In 1998, 93 percent of Hodge's students who took the U.S. History Regents passed, compared with 54 percent across the city. In English and pre-calculus, his students had passing rates of 88 percent and 87 percent, respectively. In the Global History Regents, a two-year survey course of world civilizations considered by many to be New York state's most challenging exam, 95 percent passed, compared with 54 percent citywide.

But to produce a "No Excuses" school, hard work must be married to freedom, Carter says. The track record produced by the men and women at these schools shows that educators must be free to decide how to spend their money, whom to hire and what to teach. It's this kind of flexibility that allows them to succeed. "Great principals often are mavericks who buck the system or low-flyers who get the job done quietly," he writes.

Alyson Barillari of Fourteenth Avenue School in Newark, N.J., is one of those who know how to get the job done. Her student body, 98 percent black and 98 percent low-income, includes a large number of special education students with severe physical and mental handicaps. Yet for the last several years, Barillari's regular education students have posted mean scores above the 90th percentile on the Stanford-9 achievement test.

Educators frequently cite a lack of parental involvement to explain student failure. That's not a problem among the "No Excuses" principals, who insist on having a home environment conducive to education. To ensure that the home is a "center of learning," these schools establish contracts with parents, who pledge to support the school's efforts by checking homework and reading to their children. At Cascade Elementary in Atlanta, for example, parents are even required to have their children in bed by 9 p.m.

Hard work breeds success, these principals say. The students at the Marcus Garvey School in Los Angeles, for example, routinely score two or more years above grade level in core subjects. In 1999, three Garvey 7th graders began attending West Los Angeles Junior College after testing at the post-secondary level in all subjects. Advanced math is customary: Pre-schoolers add and subtract two-digit numbers, four-year-olds know the multiplication tables, and 4th graders study elementary algebra.

Such dedication from educators can turn low-performing schools around in relatively short order. When Principal Alfonso Jessie Jr. came to Atlanta's Cascade Elementary four years ago, the 5th graders were scoring in the 44th percentile in reading and in the 37th in math. In 1999, they scored in the 82nd percentile in reading and the 74th in math. Students in the other grades also improved, leading Cascade to be ranked 7th out of the 1,064 schools in the state.

"No Excuses" principals also emphasize the importance of test taking. Principal Patsy Burks at Detroit's Owen Elementary directs a team approach to testing-for example, by having the 4th grade teacher help the 3rd grade teacher prepare the end-of-the-year exam for his or her future students. It works: 94 percent of Owen 4th graders passed the state math exam last year (compared to 49 percent of 4th graders citywide), while the 5th graders posted a mean score of 98th percentile in reading and 90th in math.

The education establishment can learn a lot from the "No Excuses" principals, Adam Meyerson says. "Finding the right principals, who in turn will find the right teachers, may be more important than reducing class size, modernizing school facilities, or any of the conventional nostroms for improving public education," he writes. "One of the nation's highest priorities should be to learn from the best practices of these high-performing schools and to insist that all schools serving low-income children aspire to the No Excuses standard of excellence."

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