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Leslie Nicholson and Greg Shell

Schools struggle, students lose

By Leslie Nicholson and Greg Shell
December 13, 2009

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YOU DON’T ask a carpenter to build a house without tools. And you can’t ask education leaders to turn around failing schools while refusing to equip them for the job.

At stake in the education reform bill that will be taken up on next month is the ability of superintendents, school committees, and educators to work together to give a lifeline to poorly performing schools.

Legislators are moving quickly - and for good reasons - to lift the state’s cap on charter schools and to create new, innovative “readiness schools.’’ This is needed if the state wants to be eligible for $250 million in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top funds. Charter schools have proven they work by virtually every measure, and parents and students alike are demanding more of them: There are now as many students on waiting lists to attend charters as there are children in charter schools themselves.

But the education reform bill is about much more than charter schools. It would also give every school district the option to take a fresh look at its students’ needs, instituting more flexible schedules, partnerships with local colleges, museums or foundations, or new approaches to curriculum to meet their community’s needs.

The legislation makes this a collaborative effort, not something unilateral or dictatorial. With a majority vote from the school committee, and a majority vote from the teachers on a faculty, a school’s leaders and teaching team can revamp the way their students are taught.This state has some of the best public schools in the country. Those schools too will benefit from the bill. But the bill’s more urgent target is the schools - too often made up of minority and poorer students - where students fail year after year. That repeated failure should be an all-hands-on-deck emergency, not a chronic condition. As the House finalizes the bill, it should preserve a superintendent’s responsibility to enlist his or her school committee and local teachers union as partners in rapid transformation, while also giving them the authority to quickly resolve disagreements between stakeholders. The Senate bill’s language requiring contract arbitration is well-intended but could lead to stalemates that strand kids in poor schools. The House needs to fix this aspect of the bill.

Educators know what needs to be done to save students and schools. The latest example? Boston Superintendent Carol Johnson’s just-released Acceleration Agenda, an ambitious plan to turn around struggling schools, support improved teaching practices, creatively target dropouts, and expand school hours as needed.

It’s a promising plan and it depends on the Legislature’s next steps. Lawmakers need to realize that the status quo in no longer acceptable and pass an education reform bill that turns around failing schools.

Leslie Nicholson is the executive director of Stand for Children. Greg Shell is chair of Roxbury Preparatory Charter School and a member of Black Leaders for Excellence in Education.

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