Innovation spreads across U.S. in campaign to reinvent public schools


Dr. Sylvia Rousseau, who heads a nonprofit overseeing reform efforts at
Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles, explains how each partner plays a role
and why it's so important they succeed.
School reform efforts can usually be found where the children of color are; the "broken" schools where not all children are learning, the schools that need to be "fixed" to perform. Often the worst-performing schools are in poor urban districts, reinforcing the disparity between the haves and have-nots.

But across the United States, in a campaign steeped in innovation, public school systems are trying their hands at various reforms in an effort to remedy the situation, allowing non-profit school takeovers, reconfiguring beastly large schools into smaller learning communities, reorganizing or replacing staff, tying teacher pay to performance, at times even encouraging free competition among multiple reform models to see what works.

“There’s probably some type of reform effort under way in every state and every city,” says Robert Rothman, editor of Voices in Urban Education, a quarterly produced by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.

Despite a heavy dose of recent press and a general fear—perhaps fueled by the media—that school systems nationwide are on the verge of collapse, the concept of school reform is neither new nor a sign that public schools are necessarily getting worse.

Dr. Sylvia Rousseau talks to reporters Amber Mobley and
Brian Frank about the quality of media coverage and
its impact on how citizens vote education issues.

A string of laws and court decisions have steadily raised expectations, culminating with the No Child Left Behind Act, the famously controversial law enacted in 2001 in an effort to improve the performance of primary and secondary school students by increasing accountability standards for states, school districts, and schools, in addition to providing parents more flexibility in choosing which schools their children will attend.

“In some ways schools have done better than ever,” Rothman says. “If you look back through the 20th century, high school graduation has gone way up, until the ’70s when it kind of plateaued to the level where it is now.”

But school districts also face greater challenges than ever before. Much of modern school reform is about helping schools deal with issues that are outside their immediate control, Rothman says. Aggressive technological advances that call for frequently updated curriculum, an increase in violence in urban schools and their communities, and parental support represent just a few such issues.

So what are some of the different models operating in our schools today, and how are they faring? In this four-part special, we take a closer look at a few comprehensive reform efforts—in Los Angeles, where a non-profit charter school organization took control of Locke High School, and where a civil rights organization teamed with a private university and a foundation to manage Crenshaw High; in Chicago, a city that has tasted many flavors of school reform over several decades, from grassroots management to strong central authority; and in Chelsea, Mass., where Boston University assumed responsibility for the daily management of an entire district.