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Improving Student Performance: Can We Get Our Arms Around It

'Arms' for the schools 

Yet another report from community leaders unhappy with city students' performance levels is making the rounds. Dubbed "A Call to Arms," the report echoes some familiar themes and adds some new recommendations.

Changing the district's culture of low expectations, giving principals greater freedom to hire and fire, increasing fiscal accountability, creating an army of volunteers: These are some of the more important measures the group, led by RIT President Albert Simone, recommends.

The report was commissioned by School Superintendent Manuel Rivera, and it credits him for some improvements in test scores and graduation rates. But it also recognizes that progress has been slow and uneven. And while it makes 63 specific recommendations, the report dodges any counsel on how to go about implementing them.

Probably the most attention-grabbing recommendation is the recruitment of 10,000 volunteers --- 1,000 a year over a 10-year period. Each would make a long-term commitment to do everything from helping students with homework to taking them to an afternoon ball game.

"This is not about getting free help for the district," Simone said in an interview last week. "It's as much about changing attitudes as it is about improving test scores. They [students] come to your home. They learn about what you do for a living. What do lawyers do, and how do you become a lawyer? We need to show them there is a reason to stay in school and there is a reason to study hard and get good grades. There's a reason why people go to college. And they can do it, too."

But the call for volunteers could also be seen as an admission that it does indeed cost more to educate children who live in poverty. And no one has called for an army of volunteers in lieu of professionals and paraprofessionals in Brighton or Pittsford.

The report goes on to say that the road to school reform is not outside the district or with City Hall. It is at the building level in the hands of capable principals. Representatives of the Simone committee visited six of Rochester's 59 schools. "We were convinced that the success we're all looking for, the key to better educational outcomes, is at the principal level," said Simone. "For example, we visited some schools and the principal knew everything and everyone in that school. They knew the students by name and exactly where the teachers were at in terms of their curriculum."

"Some principals were using every ounce of resources available to them to better manage their school," he said. "Others didn't even seem to know what resources were available. You could easily see why the test scores were up in some schools: better principals doing a better job. That's what the superintendent needs in all schools."

But the report argues that principals should not be given tenure, because, it says, too much job security creates complacency.

"I've got vice presidents and I've got deans here," said Simone, referring to RIT, "and they all know they serve at my pleasure. If they're doing a good job, they have nothing to worry about. Good principals couldn't care less about tenure because they know they're worth their salaries, and they can go anywhere at any time. Tenure doesn't prevent them from jumping to better opportunities. It only leaves the superintendent with the non-performers who are locked in until they retire. That's no good. We feel that needs to change. And if it means getting rid of the [administrators'] union, well, frankly, that's our recommendation."

Simone's recommendation may be worth further examination, but there is a fundamental difference between professors who are teaching tuition-paying college students, and principals managing a school filled with children ill-prepared to learn.

Simone also says that building the kind of strong, senior-level management that Rivera needs requires giving principals greater capacity to hire and fire teachers.

The district has procedures in place for dismissing poorly performing teachers, but, Simone said: "Without exception it was the single biggest grievance among principals. Yes, they can fire bad teachers, but it is an exhaustive and arduous process that can take months."

A recurrent message in the report is the need to change a culture that, the report says, has become more concerned with protecting adults and their jobs than with protecting children and their education.

A "Call to Arms" shouldn't be received entirely with skepticism. Rivera knows he must engage the community if he is going to get the support he needs to launch bold programs like The Children's Zone.

Still, this is not the first time the community has heard the rallying cry for the district. And Simone concedes that his task force is not there to implement the recommendations. Some, such as those dealing with the unions, will be difficult. But Simone said that public pressure could influence the unions.

The report praises the district for implementing many of the accounting recommendations from previous studies. But Simone's group has added new ones, including requiring board members to undergo 10 hours of financial management training.

Maybe the most unsettling aspect of the report is its failure to deal more directly with the true costs of educating children who live in poverty. Instead, the report relies heavily on managing public education the way businesses are managed, when the two are not the same. It recommends further review of how resources are now allocated --- even if that means increasing class sizes.

And it says that increased funding, especially from City Hall, is unlikely, so the district shouldn't bother asking for it. It's a bit like the company that temporarily protects its profitability by forgoing product improvements. Eventually customers move on. In the case of the school district, families have been moving on to the suburbs for 20 years.

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