El Paso, Texas: a model for Maryland school reform

April 29, 1999|By Kati Haycock

SIX YEARS ago, in El Paso, Texas, local educators and community leaders, worried about a high dropout rate and low-performing students, instituted system-wide school reform.

The results are stunning. They went from having 15 schools identified as "low performers" to none. Initially, two schools were "high performers"; now there are 60.

Reading and math scores for students at all levels are up, and the academic performance gap between minority students and their white counterparts has been cut in half.

This economically poor West Texas community of 500,000 is rich in people with the drive and determination to turn around the public schools there. Such a success story is an example of what can be done in light of some disturbing national trends:

While America's elementary school students do relatively well on most measures of achievement, our youths fade to the back of the international pack by high school.

Despite more than 10 years of school reform efforts, achievement test scores remain flat.

After successfully narrowing the achievement gap between students from different racial and economic groups, the gap is growing again.

At the end of high school, poor and minority students perform about as well academically as their white, middle- and upper-class peers had at the end of junior high school. (Not because they can't learn at high levels but because they are not taught at high levels.)

Sadly, the results in higher education aren't any better:

Large numbers of entering college freshmen require remedial or "developmental" courses, and many of them never make it out of the remedial track.

More than 44 percent of freshmen at two-year colleges -- and more than 26 percent of freshmen at four-year institutions -- drop out before their sophomore year.

While about two-thirds of white and Asian freshmen manage to graduate from college within a six or eight-year period, far fewer African-Americans and Latino students do so.

A key reason El Paso has been so successful is that it took the unprecedented step of involving college and public school educators in reform efforts, a "kindergarten through 16" approach.

Under this plan, the schools set higher standards; more students were enrolled in higher level courses and the schools made sure they succeeded; college students who wanted to be teachers had to take harder courses; there was intensive support and training for existing teachers; schools were held accountable for student performance, with principals at risk of losing their jobs if student performance didn't improve.

It's clear that we're not going to fix such problems unless educators from our public schools and colleges work together to bring about reform.

To boost student performance in public schools, colleges need to offer more training for teachers to help improve their skills to the level demanded by today's higher standards.

High school students need more incentives to work hard to meet the more rigorous standards being established by states. Colleges can play a role by using the mandatory public high school exam in the admissions process.

Meanwhile, public schools must institute reforms that will better help prepare students for college.

Schools and colleges have been working together for a long time. During the 1970s, many colleges began programs with nearby schools that were designed to increase the number of minority students who went to college.

During the 1980s, many colleges added continuing education programs for teachers. There isn't a college in the country that can't point to a list of programs that it operates in conjunction with nearby schools.

But few colleges have a focused, comprehensive partnership with public schools, where both systems -- and both sets of leaders -- put their shoulders behind the same wheel.

Maryland, along with a handful of other states and about 35 communities, is an exception to this pattern. Here, the leaders of both systems are working together on common problems, not blaming one another for failures.

An example of this was the recently released report showing minority student achievement in Maryland lagging behind the general student population.

At a press conference to discuss the report, Donald N. Langenberg, chancellor of the University System of Maryland and state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick offered the type of honest, clear data about minority student achievement that most education officials would rather hide from public view.

They are working on a set of standards and assessments, including tougher certification tests for teachers and challenging high school exams necessary for graduation -- that will help ensure that Maryland high school graduates will be prepared for college-level work.

Maryland officials recognize they still have a lot of work to do on education reform.

With an aggressive kindergarten through college strategy, the state can go the remaining distance, improving student success in high school and college, and closing the alarming gaps between the races that have hobbled the state for too long.

Kati Haycock is director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit group dedicated to raising academic achievement, especially for low-income and minority students.

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