What Can Be Done With Dysfunctional Urban School Districts?

A Letter To Urban School Board Members.

Martin Haberman,
Distinguished Professor Emeritus, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee

The constituencies who benefit from failing districts have proven infinitely more powerful at maintaining these systems than the transformers have been at changing them. Negative trends in achievement, dropouts, suspensions, graduation rates, violence, teacher turnover and ever-rising costs have become quite predictable. Unfortunately, learning more about the failings of urban school districts does not generate solutions as much as it spreads feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.

In spite of the powerful resistance to change from those who benefit from maintaining failure, there are things that can be done. I will propose just three which would raise student learning, contain costs and change the culture of failure which permeates these urban school districts.

First, district funds should be spent primarily in the schools and for teaching and learning in the classrooms of those schools. Typically, more than half of the urban districts’ budgets are spent on the costs of maintaining the district and support services and less than half on teaching and learning in classrooms. In some urban districts the ratio of employees other than teachers exceeds 2:1. At present, there are numerous districts where only 40 cents of every dollar in the budget is appropriated to the schools. The urban districts must move toward a “70 percent solution” in which 70 cents of every dollar is used for teaching and learning in classrooms. This would both enhance learning and downsize the bureaucracy. School boards must insist that their superintendents stop hiding central office costs in school buildings’ budgets and show them specifically how the budgets the boards are asked to approve appropriate 70 percent (or more) directly to teaching and learning in the schools.

Second, the dropout factories must be closed. A recent study by Johns Hopkins University identified over 2,000 high schools which have been failing for more than twenty five years. Fewer than half of the students graduate. In some cases and in some years as few as 25 percent graduate. Even worse, those who are “successful” graduates discover they have been pushed through with neither the skills to enter the workforce or a post secondary vocational program. Rather than face their communities and alumni with an unpopular decision, school boards back down and keep these dropout factories open. Forcing students to attend “schools” that will destroy their life chances must and can be stopped immediately.

Third, a working system of accountability must be adopted and put into place in every one of these districts. This must include those who work outside of classrooms who support and supervise teachers, and administrators. It must also include curriculum and hiring personnel. Where there is no accountability there can be no progress. How are people who supervise principals held accountable? How are those in charge of curriculum held accountable? How are those who hire the teachers and the aides held accountable? How are those who mentor teachers held accountable? How is the director of transportation, or school safety or building maintenance held accountable? The culture of these systems is that the further away one works from children the higher one’s salary and status and the greater the likelihood that there will be no consequences for poor performance. There must be accountability measures, assessed on an annual basis, to determine the retention and salaries of all these administrators, service personnel and “helpers”.

Putting the money on teaching and learning rather than on the system, closing the dropout factories and holding everyone accountable for producing real results will send a shock wave through these dysfunctional bureaucracies. Many adult constituencies benefit from failure. Children and youth can only benefit from effectiveness.