Turning around a school district is never a small task. But when the nation's urban centers also happen to house the worst public schools, these gigantic districts require equally massive reform efforts.
Within Oklahoma City Public Schools, the puny solutions offered in the face of these towering challenges give a foolish appearance not only to the reform plans, but also to the leaders who propose them. In a move illustrative of the district's style of reform, it recently proposed fining parents who fail to show up for parent/teacher conferences. Any belief that the move represents a permanent fix only invites further educational backsliding in the future.
In all likelihood, the district's latest reform ploy will create more problems than it ultimately solves. The angst stirred up by the move will also send waves of disapproval to wash over an already fragile and conflict-riddled educational environment. As the parental fine measure exemplifies all too fittingly, the district's educational improvement measures to date have been all flare and no substance.
For this very reason, more than one out of four students fails to graduate on time.
Even in a world marked by boundless complexity, real reform lies in mastering the classroom basics. More to the point, the message that must be sounded within the district is one of cutting simplicity: “It's about classroom learning. Period.” Now it's up to district patrons to get the message across. Parents must stand alongside their neighbors in acting as a collective megaphone that loudly and convincingly broadcasts the theme to those who pull the district's operational strings.
Admittedly, advocating a reform focus that's centered on basic instructional techniques can seem anticlimactic. On its face, the proposal might even appear to be an outmoded 20th-century mindset in a world of new-age educational challenges. But national data from public schools of all sorts reveal that change begins at the front of the classroom.
As teachers focus on critically engaging their students, these children make higher-order, real-life connections to subject matter that too commonly disenchants young minds. As importantly, educators who take care to ensure that their students remain continuously stimulated by the content material also ensure against an otherwise devastating outcome: dropping out of school.
In the meantime, district officials will continue to grope for answers to seemingly intractable educational challenges. Now, however, district leaders are on notice that the most potently viable solutions remain at their fingertips. But reformers shouldn't be fooled by the low-cost, high-yield luster of the reform proposal — the task will require far greater levels of sweat work than are currently poured within the district.
The good news is that the hard work will pay off. But even the most right-minded reform requires determined action to get potent results. Only then will leaders better the standing of the district and the lives of the students.
Collins lives in Columbia, Mo. He has a doctorate in K-12 educational administration and is writing two textbooks for Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group.