If the 1990s can be characterized by any single trend in public education, it would be this: Holding schools accountable for their students' performance.
In the last six years, 22 states have passed laws that allow mayors and state officials to intervene in struggling districts and hold schools to rigorous new standards. Here in Chicago, for example, one-fifth of the city's public schools have been placed on academic probation. If a school fails to improve student test scores, it faces a range of penalties including the replacement of its entire staff.
To date, this tough approach has been applied mainly to troubled schools, but there is evidence that this may be changing. Last week, Chicago's Board of Education ruled that all schools whose test scores decline, regardless of their overall performance, could face intervention.
Educators in Minneapolis unveiled plans requiring teachers at all schools to assign an hour of homework each night and spend specified amounts of time teaching basic skills. Officials in other cities are establishing grade-by-grade standards and ending the practice of promoting students for "social" reasons.
It's the latest sign that American educators are serious about standards and working to ensure that schools with good
Cities Get Tough With Schools - Even Good Ones
records don't get complacent. "In a nutshell, we've adopted a policy of no excuses," says Phil Hansen, chief of the Chicago board's Office of Accountability. "We believe that teachers need to stop teaching to the lowest performing students, and that our kids will respond to higher expectations."
According to the Education Commission of the States in Denver, academic and financial deficiencies have prompted officials in 22 states to take over about two dozen districts - most of them in inner cities like Cleveland, Dallas, Baltimore, Washington, and Newark, N.J. In most cases, state laws offer supervisors broad powers to set academic targets for schools and punish those that don't attain them.
At present, school districts from St. Louis to Jacksonville, Fla., are preparing to implement tough new standards. Despite some encouraging student test results, the Minneapolis school board last week set districtwide policies that will affect even the most successful schools. Among the new requirements are Saturday classes for low-achieving students.
To observers, this tough new approach reflects the perceived depth of the problems facing America's schools. It's an urgency borne of declining enrollments in some cities, the increasing diversity of student populations, and the threat of more radical reforms like charter schools and vouchers.
"Lawmakers have decided they can no longer abide having kids in schools where there's no intellectual acceleration going on," says Kathy Christie of the Education Commission of the States.
By all accounts, Chicago's experiment is one of the most extensive in the nation. In the wake of research that ranked the Windy City's schools among the nation's worst, the Illinois legislature responded with thunder. A 1995 law gave Mayor Richard M. Daley broad power to intervene in the city's public schools. Mr. Daley replaced Chicago's elected school board with a five-member board of trustees and drafted former city budget director Paul Vallas as its chairman.
Since then, Chicago has balanced its schools budget, placed one-fifth of its 559 public schools on academic probation, removed 11 principals, and reconstituted seven high schools.
BUT the linchpin of the program, Mr. Hansen explains, is the creation of specific districtwide standards. Graduation requirements have been strengthened and students must now follow a core curriculum of algebra, English, biology, and world studies. If eighth-graders don't attain a 7.0 reading level, they aren't allowed to advance to high school. Students whose scores remain low are enrolled in transitional schools and after-hours tutoring programs.
The same tough standards pertain to schools themselves. Under the new plan, schools will be grouped into five grade levels depending on student performance. If schools show more than a 3 percent decline in reading scores over three years, they will be given one year to improve. If they fail, they'll face an academic audit that could lead to probation.
Although Hansen notes that enrollment in Chicago schools rose last year and test scores increased slightly in some categories, it's still far too early to determine whether the city's experiment with standards will work, and whether other districts will be eager to adopt them.
The initiative does have its critics. Some wonder what will happen to the kids who don't meet the new benchmarks. There are economic costs, too: Chicago ended up with a large summer-school enrollment this year because of the more rigorous promotion standards.
Indeed, in a nation with 15,000 school districts, 95,000 elected school officials, 2.3 million teachers, and a long tradition of local control, experts say, there's a lot of natural resistance to any innovation - academic standards included. "School governance in America is very fractured," says Michael Kirst, an education professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. "There's a lot of political inertia, and a lot of parental opposition to change."