At first glance, it would appear there is little to cheer about with America's urban schools. Results from the "Nation's Report card," released Nov. 1 by the U.S. Education Department, were disappointing: no true narrowing of the black/white achievement gaps. High school graduation rates are shockingly low, especially among the most academically fragile students. Only 47 percent of black males, for example, graduate from high school.
And the most academically ambitious of these urban students who do graduate are likely to struggle at community colleges and state universities, which report remediation rates ranging from a third to half of all students. If you can't take courses for credit, why persist? That partly explains why, as of 2008, only 30 percent of African-Americans and 20 percent of Hispanic- Americans ages 25-34 have an associate degree or higher, compared with 49 percent of whites and 71 percent of Asian-Americans, according to the College Board.
Consider New York City, an urban district that over the past decade has been the target of some of the nation's most ambitious and controversial reforms. Only a quarter of the students entering New York City's high schools emerge four years later ready to take college courses, according to report cards released in October. If these students are not capable of taking community college classes for credit, chances are they are not capable of enrolling in an industrial training program.
In education, however, changes in outcomes, such as graduation rates and college remediation rates, take years to show improvements. Closer to the ground, there is reason for hope.
Consider one data point: Doug Lemov's 2010 book, Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College, has sold nearly 400,000 copies. Those are teachers buying that book, teachers who believe in the power of effective instruction. Nationally, educators have settled on a primary strategy and (this time) the strategy makes sense. At the school level, this strategy has a bureaucratic name -- "human capital." But everyone knows what it really means: vastly improving the quality of teaching and learning, which is exactly what Lemov sets out to do in exacting detail.
For decades, school districts benefited from a private-sector workforce that discriminated against both women and minorities. Hence, the best and brightest of both groups went into teaching. Then, about 30 years ago, the private-sector discrimination eased, slowly at first, then rapidly.
Almost overnight, school districts lost their "best-and-brightest" pipeline. And yet, in what business schools should rank as one of the biggest human capital boondoggles ever witnessed, the school districts, pretty much all 14,000 of them, never seemed to notice. Worse, the school districts never seemed to notice that the institutions responsible for shaping these candidates (fewer of whom could now be described as best and brightest) into effective teachers, the national network of teachers colleges, were failing at their jobs. In this case, "failing" is a kind word.
The result of this human capital decline is most evident in urban school districts. In 2007, when Chancellor Michelle Rhee arrived in Washington, D.C., both insiders and outside consultants concluded that no more than a third of the teachers were capable of boosting the district off the bottom. The controversies over the firings and push-outs that ensued accounted for much of the reason why the mayor who appointed her, Adrian Fenty, lost his re-election bid and Rhee had to leave the district.
Sound hopeless? Not necessarily. The real story in Washington is what happened next. Not only did the new mayor, Vincent Gray, appoint Rhee's friend and deputy, Kaya Henderson, to take over as chancellor, but he stepped aside to allow Henderson to continue Rhee's push to improve teacher quality. In July, Henderson announced she would fire another 206 teachers for poor performance.
Why would Gray, who accepted $1 million from the American Federation of Teachers and the full embrace of the Washington Teachers Union -- all offered, presumably, with the goal of dismantling the Rhee reforms -- allow this to happen? Because Gray knows what every urban mayor knows: The children are getting stiffed by low-quality teachers too quick to blame poverty and poor parenting.
What is true in Washington is true in many urban school districts, especially the bottom dwellers on the federal academic performance surveys. There is no reason to assume teacher quality in Washington is any worse than what is found in Detroit, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Dallas, Kansas City ... the list goes on.
What has changed is the willingness to confront the problem. In cities such as Hartford, Conn., and Pittsburgh, some promising district-union collaborations on teacher evaluations are emerging. And Rhee's IMPACT teacher evaluation, at the time considered either impossibly daring or tragically misguided, depending on your perspective, is becoming the norm. In October, the National Council on Teacher Quality reported that 24 states and the District of Columbia now require annual evaluations for teachers, up from 15 in 2007. Of those, 17 states and D.C. require that student achievement be weighed in those evaluations in a "significant" way.
Some of the most dramatic changes are taking place in right-to-work states, where school chiefs always had the power, but not always the stomach, to confront the human capital challenge. The easiest path for those superintendents was to embrace what the unionized districts up North did: treating teachers as "widgets" who were rewarded and promoted based on time on the job and degrees earned. Real evaluations aimed at improving instruction just didn't happen.
Consider what happened after Peter Gorman took over Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools in North Carolina. Gorman concluded his worst-performing schools were suffering from a "cycle of failure," where poor performance prompted the best teachers to leave.
To break that cycle, Gorman launched a "strategic staffing" initiative, starting with seven underperforming schools. Gorman's team chose seven high-performing principals to take over those schools, and each principal (here's the key ingredient) was allowed to pick a team of five teachers (all of whom receive bonuses of $20,000 over three years) who had proven themselves in other challenging circumstances. The new team, it was hoped, would inspire the other teachers.
The infusion of quality proved to be infectious. The number of students scoring the proficient level at Devonshire Elementary, a school in East Charlotte serving a mostly Hispanic population, soared from 43 to 75 percent. Significant progress was made at all seven schools that were part of the staffing experiment.
Another example comes from Houston, where Superintendent Terry Grier has waded in with dramatic changes he dubbed the "Apollo 20" schools. Grier tapped Harvard consultant Roland Fryer (a winner in the recent round of MacArthur "genius" grants) to design the interventions around what Fryer identifies as the five ingredients common in successful "no excuses" charter schools - extending learning time, changes in school leadership and school staffing, extensive tutoring, teaching strategies shaped by student outcome data and a culture of high expectations.
Recently, I toured Lee High School, now in its second year as an Apollo school. Principal Xochitl (pronounced So-CHEE) Rodriguez-Davilla walks with me through orderly hallways devoid of roaming students. The year before she arrived, the school could have been described as a drop-in community center, with students doing as they pleased. Academically, it was one of Houston's lowest-performing schools.
What I saw was impressive, with tutors working one-on-one with students. But a key reason for the turnaround was less visible -- a rapid staff changeover. Last year, Rodriguez-Davilla's first year at Lee, she was able to pick only 40 percent of the staff. This year, however, she was able to pick more teachers based on their high expectations for students and to ease out staffers she felt were cheating students of an education.
Picking new teachers, and then teaching them how to teach, she realizes, is her most important job. Every teacher gets both a copy of Doug Lemov's book and professional development on using its techniques.
Says Rodriguez-Davilla: "I look for teachers who are relentless, teachers who are never going to give up. I'm more interested in the passion for teaching than skills. We can teach skills."
Rodriguez-Davilla has learned a lot about avoiding the types of hires that hurt the school in the past. In interviews, she describes a hypothetical student not learning and asks the candidate for some probable reasons. If the candidate replies, "because they are poor" or "because their parents don't care," she rejects the candidate. The correct answer, from her perspective, is: "Because I wasn't teaching in the way they learn." The second hard-learned lesson, she says, is to never rush the hiring process. "I have to take my time, despite being close to a deadline. You can't get to the point where you hire someone just because you need a body in the classroom."
Rodriguez-Davilla appears to be outperforming what I've come to think of as the "Rhee rules" in Washington. The first year reform principals took over an out-of-control school, Rhee expected them to achieve "lockdown," meaning orderly hallways and classrooms. Academic gains were expected in the second year. At Lee High School, both happened in the first year: All students there achieved modest gains, but African-American students showed sharp gains, especially in math.
In Charlotte and Houston, the strategies were the same: Find talented and motivated teachers, give them the tools they need to succeed, and get them into the schools that need them the most. It works. And that's reason to be hopeful about where urban schools are headed.
Whitmire is author of Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System That's Leaving them Behind and The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation's Worst School District.