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 35th percentile.
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 standards.
The schools highlighted in "No Excuses" hold all students to high standards and expectations - and then make sure they succeed.
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 over.
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 curriculum.
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 achievement.
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 opportunity.
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.