Board downshifts on high school plan

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In December, the school administration released the first draft of a sweeping plan to overhaul the city’s long ailing high schools. Hurry-up hearings were held—including one on Christmas eve—with the goal of crafting a final version by late January.

By that time, however, the administration had downshifted. A final plan is now due in March, and it will spell out changes for freshmen only, according to Chief of Staff Cozette Buckney.

Some ideas in the draft plan were “unrealistic,” some too costly, she explains. Others need more time for planning. Buckney adds that the revision will come out later than originally announced because staff needed more time to sift through the public feedback. “We didn’t want to short-shrift any of it.”

The draft plan was compiled by seven task forces, each working independently at a breakneck pace. The overarching themes are clear: more academic rigor and more personal attention. However, many of the details packed into the draft’s 79 pages have been called contradictory, incomplete and, in some cases, pie in the sky.

Buckney agrees on all points but defends the process as a sort of citywide brainstorming session. She sums up the board’s thinking: “We have to do something drastic, so lets get ideas out.”

Among other reforms, the draft calls for more math, science and foreign language; less physical education; performance assessments in place of credit hours; hands-on projects in place of lectures; a student advisory modeled after one in New Trier Township High School on the North Shore; beefed-up voc-ed programs; smaller schools-within-schools and longer class periods.

The following is a summary of major proposals, with commentary by nine individuals who reviewed the document for CATALYST. They include four nationally recognized school reform experts, three Chicago high school principals and two Chicago high school teachers. Buckney comments, too, signalling the administration’s plans in some cases.

The outside experts are Ted Sizer, founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools; Scott Thomson, retired executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals; Samuel Billups, a retired principal who reformed an inner-city school in Baltimore; and Larry Rosenstock, former principal of an award-winning, inner-city vocational high school in Cambridge and now director of the Big Picture, a non-profit education group.

The principals are Edward Klunk of Amundsen (Lincoln Square), Sharon Bender of Schurz (Irving Park) and Richard C. Smith of King (Kenwood); the teachers are Joann Podkul of Bowen (South Chicago) and John Hawkins of South Shore Community Academy (South Shore).

Curriculum and Instruction

PROPOSAL: Replace credit hours with performance standards. Instead of having to take a certain number of semesters or years of a subject, students would have to demonstrate, mainly through tests, that they had acquired specified knowledge and skills.

The outside experts agree that performance standards should replace credit hours, called “Carnegie units” after the education foundation that established them as a measure of learning.

“The Carnegie unit has almost no meaning,” says Sizer. “The kid may have accomplished nothing in math class, but the teacher is kind and gives him a C. The Carnegie Foundation itself recommended getting rid of the Carnegie unit back in 1984.”

Buckney likes the thrust of the proposal but questions its practicality. “That was a very nice recommendation, throw away Carnegie units, but realistically how do we do it?”

Thomson acknowledges Buckney’s point. While the vast majority of educators in college and high school “recognize that course hours aren’t really important,” only a few private high schools have done away with them “because universities still count them,” he notes.

Under the draft proposal, students would work to obtain a certificate of initial mastery, typically at the end of the sophomore year, and a certificate of advanced mastery to graduate. For both, they would have to pass at least 80 percent of mastery tests the district would develop for core courses, such as English and math; they also would have to score above a given level on a nationally standardized test such as the P-ACT or PSAT, preliminary college entrance exams. Advanced mastery would also require a research paper, performance, exhibit or other project.

Some students might take more than four years to meet the requirements; others might move more quickly by passing course exams without having to enroll.

Buckney observes, “You could probably have most of the students at Whitney Young test out of our classes.” Her chief objection, however, is the work involved in designing standardized tests for every core course. “I don’t know how we’d even do it.”

However, the administration wants to retain the requirement that students post a certain score on a nationally standardized test to obtain, first, a certificate of initial mastery and, then, a certificate of advanced mastery, says Buckney. The goal is to ensure that students are meeting basic academic goals as they progress through high school.

Principals gave the idea of an initial mastery exam mixed reviews.

Klunk approves. “It puts accountability on many: the student, the parent, the teacher the school. Everyone knows that the student has to meet basic skills to move onto the next level.”

Bender is skeptical. “Not all kids are skilled in test taking. That is an art unto itself. Where would they go if they did not pass the test? I would like more specifics on that.”

Smith approves conditionally. “I think that it can work if there is a well-thought-out plan to take care of those kids who do not pass.”

Teacher Joann Podkul predicts: “In the first years of implementation, you’d have an enormous backlog of students who would not be moving on.”

With so much riding on that single exam, she adds, “you’re also going to have a massive staff development effort so that we understand what skills we need to focus on.”

Podkul says the test should dovetail with other achievement requirements in Chicago, which currently include the state IGAP tests, the nationally standardized Tests of Achievement and Proficiency and the Chicago Academic Standards. “Otherwise we’re teaching to three masters,” she says, “and that’s pretty hard.”

Thomson and Sizer caution against using a basic skills test alone. “Unless they’re measuring the content that’s core or essential to each of the subject areas, then they’re not making much progress,” says Thomson.

He also says these tests should be crafted at the state or national level or “you won’t have any baseline to judge what you’re doing against other districts.”

Sizer, on the other hand, finds standardized tests useful only for measuring basic skills. “To reduce a serious high school education to a standardized test does not serve the kids well.”

He would combine a standardized test with extensive school-based assessments.

“Each school should come up with an argument for what it felt was important to teach and a way to prove to the community that the kids have mastered certain skills and knowledge,” he says, citing projects, demonstrations, written work, and Socratic questioning.

“Students at the end of their high school work ought to be able to take a series of really complex questions that they’re unfamiliar with and answer them in a persuasive way,” Sizer insists. “If they can’t do that, they’re not prepared for work and college.”

Rosenstock believes the draft plan placed too much emphasis on assessment and not enough on instruction.

He sees mastery tests as a “gatekeeping mechanism” that don’t necessarily “change what a school does for kids who don’t make it.”

“What are you going to do?” he asks. “How are we going to get them to learn, to learn to learn and to love to learn. We can put up all these thresholds for them to cross, but how are we going to get them there?”

Proposal: Increase course credits and core courses required for graduation.

The draft calls for four years each of English, math (including pre-calculus), lab science and social science, among other courses. With these requirements, says Buckney, it would take the average student more than four years to graduate. However, the administration agrees that requirements should be increased.

Currently, 20 course credits are required, including four years of English, three of social science, two of math (three for the Class of 2000) and one of lab science. Under a policy approved by the Board of Education in 1995, the science requirement will rise to two years for the Class of 2002 and three years for the Class of 2003. Four years of physical education and one year each of music and art or drafting also are required.

According to Buckney, the Class of 2001 (next year’s freshmen) likely will be required to earn 21 course credits to graduate, with increases in science (three years) and the addition of a foreign language (two years) and career education (two years). Career education would help juniors and seniors learn more about the world of work and might include interest and aptitude testing, guest speakers, job shadowing and internships.

Eventually, physics will be the first course in the science sequence, she adds. “Research has shown that physics should be taught before biology.”

For the most part, electives would be reserved for juniors and seniors.

Principals interviewed by Catalyst were quick to point out that their freshmen and sophomores already follow a prescribed core curriculum. “I don’t know of any of my colleagues who would let a student substitute an elective for one of the core courses in 9th and 10th grade,” says Smith.

Smith approves of the foreign language requirement for all students, but Bender and Klunk believe some would struggle and should be exempt. All approve of additional course requirements in math and science. But they note that math and science teachers, as well as foreign language teachers, are hard to come by.

Bender of Shurz also notes that some schools aren’t equipped to offer three years of lab science for every student. “This is going to cost a great deal of money,” she says “Our labs here at Shurz are antiquated.”

Because only next year’s freshmen will be affected by the new requirements, the school system will have several years to build labs and recruit teachers, says Buckney.

Money will be sought from the state and foundations, she says, and advanced science courses might be offered through partnerships with City Colleges of Chicago.

Alternative certification, recently approved by the state for Chicago’s schools, may enlarge the pool of teachers, she says. Under alternative certification, individuals with bachelor’s degrees could become teachers without taking all the education courses currently required for a degree in education, which typically takes two years to obtain.

Principals express reservations about alternative certification. Bender and Smith say it must include a thorough screening that scrutinized an applicant’s teaching ability. Klunk opposes it altogether. “We’re taking a lot of heat for not being professionally prepared. To do that in a three-month span compromises the whole process.”

Sizer of the Coalition of Essential Schools likes the board’s move toward a more focused curriculum. “I think we have too much diversity in course offerings,” he says. “It’s going to take a full-court press in most cities to get a powerful common education.”

Still, he believes that specific course content should be left up to teachers. “The particulars should be made with particular children in mind,” he says. “One size won’t fit all.”

Rosenstock sees internships, which may be offered through the new career education classes, as a critical piece of the redesign project. “Of all the school reform efforts I have ever seen,” he says. “the best results have come because of kids having internships.”

His low-income, largely minority high school in Cambridge began an internship program six years ago. Since then, 99 percent of the participants completed the program, and 85 percent of them went on to post-secondary education, compared to 71 percent of the kids in the school’s college-prep track.

Rosenstock says he has witnessed outstanding results in similar programs around the country. When visiting, he often asks kids what surprised them most about their internships. “The kids say how well (they’re) treated. They’re not used to being treated well in an adult milieu. When they’re treated better, they have higher self-esteem and higher standards for themselves.”

Proposal: To make room for additional science, foreign language and the like, cut the requirement in physical education from four years to two.

Klunk doesn’t object to the cutback, but Bender wonders how it would impact her ROTC program, which is held in lieu of P.E. “Many of my students join the military after four years of ROTC,” she says.

Smith would approve of the cutback provided it didn’t eliminate jobs. During December’s public hearings, many physical education teachers also protested the cutback, and said they feared losing their positions.

Buckney responds that most P.E. teachers have a background in biology and could seek additional certification to teach science.

She also says that the federally funded ROTC program will still be offered for four years, in accordance with federal guidelines.

As for the argument that the four-year P.E. requirement is important for good health, Buckney says, “We aren’t being notified by colleges and employers that students aren’t getting in because they aren’t physically fit enough. We are notified because they aren’t passing entrance exams.”

“Our priority is clear,” she says.

The board will request a waiver from the state’s four-year P.E. requirement, but schools may offer more than two years if they use their own discretionary money to fund it, says Buckney.

During the hearing process, many expressed concern that the board intended to cut back on art and music courses. The reason: The draft specified only a year of fine art and a year of music in a lengthy list of academic requirements that left room for few electives.

Buckney clarifies the point. Students must be enrolled for a minimum of 300 minutes of required courses per day. A year of art and music are among the required courses. Students who already have met the art and music requirement may take more art and music but only in addition to their 300 minutes.

College Bridge/ Vocational Technical Education

Proposal: Students are taught content in the context of solving realistic problems that relate to career choices and everyday life. To this end, teachers are trained to replace lectures with alternative teaching strategies such as hands-on projects, cooperative learning groups and Socratic seminars. Common preparation periods are scheduled so that academic and vocational teachers can design integrated, cross-curricular projects.

The goal of these proposals is to show kids how classroom learning is linked to future career goals and to improve their motivation to succeed in school. Cooperative learning groups are intended to develop interpersonal skills needed in the work world.

Teacher John Hawkins of South Shore Community Academy notes that these alternative strategies are nothing new. “Every couple of years somebody wants to try them and when they don’t work, ‘Whoops! Let’s go back to basics.’ So I’m kind of skeptical.”

Podkul of Bowen approves wholeheartedly of cooperative learning, integrated projects and other innovative techniques—yet is sympathetic to others’ skepticism.

Take cooperative learning, she says. “A lot of experiments like that have failed, and teachers have gone back to individual work.” The reasons: insufficient training and the considerable time and effort required to pull it off.

Cooperative learning is not just a matter of throwing kids into groups, she says. Rather, it requires teaching listening, questioning and other skills, she explains. “It really takes a lot of time to do it successfully. That means you’re sacrificing content time.”

The skills are complex enough that a teacher attempting to address them without reinforcement from colleagues in other classrooms is likely bound for failure, she thinks. To succeed, she says, cooperative learning would need to be implemented consistently throughout the school.

Regardless of the instructional strategies a school chooses, teachers should do the training, she says. “Teachers listen to other teachers who are having the same kind of problems they are in the classroom and have been successful using innovative approaches.”

Outside groups, on the other hand, tend to have unrealistic expectations, she believes. “I think our teachers resent outside experts a lot.”

Thomson takes the middle ground on the proposed instructional strategies. Integrating curriculum with careers and daily life, he says, “should be a goal, a challenge for the school, but we have to realize that the challenge cannot be completely met. There is content students have to learn. Some of it relates to day-to-day life and business very well, and some of it doesn’t.”

Integration between subject areas comes most naturally in elementary school, he says, and less so as content becomes more specialized in the upper grades and on through college.

Thomson agrees that teachers should have training in a variety of approaches but insists that strategies should never be mandated. “It has to be an approach the teacher believes in and can accomplish,” he says. “If these methods don’t work for a teacher, the teacher has to do what works.”

Samuel Billups, who led the turnaround of an inner-city school in Baltimore, notes that administrators need to be included in training. He says he has seen school reform efforts falter because principals didn’t understand new techniques and failed to develop a schedule that would support them. “We invest a lot of time in innovative instructional strategies for teachers, but we forget to bring the leadership on board.”

Proposal: Create state-of-the-art career academies focused on one or more of seven identified labor market areas. All students follow a core curriculum in addition to vocational training. Content of academic courses is thematically linked to students’ area of vocational interest.

As Catalyst went to press, central office was leaning toward inviting interested schools to apply this spring to become career academies. A companion idea was to allow general high schools that want to maintain their vocational courses to seek certification as “exemplary” vocational programs. Applicants would be reviewed by a team that included representatives from business and industry, foundations, the Office of Accountability and the Chicago Teachers Union.

The selection process would be “competitive,” according to Diane Grigsby Jackson, director of vocational technical education. Schools selected would receive additional funding. Those that were not would have board and state funding for their voc-ed programs phased out.

Currently, voc-ed programs at many schools lack a sequence of coursework that would lead to the mastery of marketable skills, according to Chief of Staff Buckney. “What we find now is a hodgepodge of courses—students take a drafting here and a home-ec there, and they end up with nothing.”

The idea behind the latest proposal is to concentrate resources in schools with the strongest programs.

Even at schools that do have strong programs, too few students pursue a sequence, says Jackson. Systemwide, most students taking voc-ed complete only a single course. She hopes that linking academic courses to vocational themes at career academies will deepen students’ interest in a particular area.

If this proposal goes into effect, Klunk anticipates that his limited voc-ed offerings at Amundsen will be phased out.

Bender of Shurz intends to apply for Career Academy. Already several of her academic and voc-ed teachers are collaborating on integrated projects. She hopes to have all her freshman teachers doing likewise by September.

But such collaborative efforts are possible only with teacher buy-in, she insists. She will staff her freshman academy on a volunteer basis only. “You certainly can’t pull in someone who refuses to work with anyone else,” she notes. “Because then you’ve programmed the entire [effort] for failure.”

The career academy proposal from the Vocational Technical Education task force runs counter to a recommendation by the Curriculum and Instruction task force to hold off on vocational educational courses until 11th grade.

The idea behind the latter proposal was to avoid directing kids into college and non-college bound tracks early on. All students first would acquire basic skills through the initial mastery program, and then have the full range of options.

“That was unrealistic,” says Buckney, who believes that students who want to leave high school with marketable skills need more than a two-year sequence of courses. “There’s no reason why we should limit the students.”

Principals Bender and Smith agree.

But Rosenstock, a nationally recognized voc-ed expert, argues that “occupationally specific training shouldn’t be at the high school at all.”

He claims that only 27 percent of kids trained in high school in a specific field eventually enter it and that skills learned in one trade seldom transfer to the next. His award-winning school-to-work program at an inner-city school in Cambridge combined hands-on academic courses and internships.

Rosenstock, who helped craft the federal 1990 Carl Perkins Act mandating reforms for federally funded voc-ed programs, believes that federal policy is headed toward eliminating job-specific training in high schools.

Student Development

Proposal: Teacher advisors meet for a minimum of 120 minutes a week with 15 to 18 students. Additional guidance counselors are hired to support advisory teams, for a ratio of 1 counselor to 250 students, which could require doubling the number of counselors.

Extra time and fewer students per teacher would allow for both individual counseling and group discussions aimed at helping kids deal with academic and social problems.

Advisors also would link students to extracurricular activities, which would be required for freshmen, and lead community service projects with their group.

Guidance counselors would bring resources to the advisories and assist in handling individual student problems.

The advisory system would replace the current “division,” where teachers typically meet for 10 minutes a day with large groups of students.

Everyone interviewed applauded the idea. “I think one of the most influential persons in a student’s life is the division teacher,” says Bender. Extended time for counseling could focus on resolving personal problems that lead so many students to drop out of school, she believes.

Teachers interviewed said they already perform many of the support functions described in the draft, but could do far more with longer advisory periods and smaller groups.

Buckney says stipends will be provided for some extra work but that the board probably won’t be able to afford the full 120 minutes or the reduced student-advisor ratio. Hiring teachers for the likely increase in course requirements will come first, she explains. “Curriculum is going to have to be the No. 1 priority, as important as the counselor ratio is.”

Without additional counselors to support the expanded advisory system, says Podkul, teacher training becomes even more essential.

Thomson agrees: “Teacher advisors can’t be expected to freelance the teacher advisor role.” Without clear expectations, some advisories degenerate into down time where “the teacher will sit there correcting homework, and the students will sit there passing notes.”

To be most effective, teachers also need “a good flow of material” from the counseling department—for example, discussion questions aimed at specific issues of concern to students.

Buckney says that once general guidelines are in place, each school will be allowed to choose a specific advisory model that best suits its needs. Advisor training may be available this summer, she believes, and likely will be ongoing.

Restructuring, School Options, Time

Proposal: Switch from 50-minute class periods to block scheduling, where students would take fewer classes per day for longer periods of time.

The draft suggests several block scheduling models. In one, classes meet for double periods on alternating days. A student would take three classes one day, and three others the next. In another, classes would meet for double periods daily for only one semester.

Longer class periods would discourage lecturing and better support integrated teaching, internships, individualized instruction and hands-on activities, according to the draft.

Thomson observes that block scheduling is “an idea that comes around every 20 years.” It can be “a useful tool,” he says, “provided you decide your curriculum and activities first and then think about your schedule. You shouldn’t sit down and say ‘Well, this is an interesting schedule. Lets fit our curriculum into it.'”

What kind of schedule a school uses is “incidental,” he believes, as long as teachers get to choose it. “You get much greater commitment from the teachers when they are implementing what they designed, since there isn’t one best plan anyway.”

Billups favors block scheduling but says it requires extensive staff development. “Unless teachers understand what you want to accomplish, it’s likely that a lot of the time will be misused.”

In the successful block scheduling he’s overseen in Delaware, “they studied it for at least a semester or even a year,” he adds.

Smith reports that King already has block scheduling in place for grades 9 though 11. Since teachers work with fewer students per semester, they are better able to address problems, he says, and grades and attendance have both improved.

Klunk is undecided on the issue, but Bender is eager to implement it for next year’s freshman class at Shurz.

Adopting block scheduling requires a waiver from the Chicago Teachers Union contract, which specifies 50-minute periods.

Proposal: Create smaller schools, either within existing schools or in separate buildings.

Under the draft’s definition, a small school has a maximum enrollment of about 500 students and a faculty who both chooses to teach there and has control over curriculum, budget and operations. Students and their parents are screened only for their commitment to the school’s goals.

Three small school options are given. In one, a school is divided into junior and senior academies. Freshmen and sophmores attend the junior academy and concentrate on core courses. In the senior academy, juniors and seniors also have opportunities for internships, museum programs, college courses and career exploration.

Another model provides for a freshman academy and four talent development academies for grades 10 to 12. Each talent academy would concentrate in one of four areas: sports studies and health/wellness; business and finance; environment and aquatic sciences; and arts and humanities. All academies would follow a college preparatory curriculum.

In a third model, dubbed the Julia Richman model after a reconstituted New York City high school, a large school is split into several independent schools.

“We’re not particularly advocating the small schools,” Buckney reports. Noting a number already are operating in Chicago, she says, “The result is not in yet whether this is the best thing for all of our students.”

Freshman academies will be required next year, she says, though the board may grant waivers to schools with high attendance and graduation rates and to those with small schools it deems successful.

A prototype freshman academy has its own set of teachers and its own area of the building. Common planning periods would allow teachers to design integrated projects that combine math and science or English and social studies. In the following year, this arrangement would be made for sophomores, too.

“The goal is to make sure that those students have a similar close, supportive atmosphere as they had in the elementary school,” Buckney explains.

Thomson supports the idea of small schools. “Any way you can personalize a school and divide it so you have communities of people who know one another—that cuts way down on discipline problems and way down on dropouts. It’s been tried all across the country the last five or six years. There are dozens of options.”

He prefers the board’s freshman-sophomore academy model to small schools that encompass grades 9 through 12. Subdivisions work less well, he believes, when students reach more advanced specialized classes. “Unless you have crossovers [between schools], you restrict the curriculum that’s available to students.”

Sizer calls small school size “necessary but totally insufficient. … You can have a soulless place with only 200 kids. Getting [a school] small is easy. Making use of that smallness is difficult.”

Building a small school takes commitment, time and planning from the entire school community—teachers, administrators, parents, students, he insists. “It has to come out of those people. There’s no avoiding that.”

Sizer believes four-year small schools foster better teacher-student relationships than would the board’s model.

“It’s terribly inefficient to have to get to know a brand new group of kids [each] year,” he says. “Unless you know the kid well, you can’t teach them well.”

Podkul, who teaches in one of Bowen’s six small schools, doesn’t think she could reach kids as well through the two-year academies.

“We have the same core of kids for four years, and that has worked very nicely. We’ve had some success at keeping kids in school if nothing else. … Having a few teachers responsible for a set number of kids and collaborating on their problems makes it a lot easier for those kids to stay in school.”

Collaboration raises teacher morale, too, she adds. “You feel like a professional when you begin to zero in on one child, and how [everyone] can get that one child to succeed.”

Bender and Klunk say they don’t have room to break into smaller schools and that, due to overcrowding, even organizing a freshman academy will prove difficult.

Bender won’t be able to place all her freshmen teachers in one area of the building because some use rooms with stationary equipment, such as a science lab or computer lab.

Klunk notes that the board’s capital development program isn’t “in sync with these proposals, because it calls for additions to high schools, making them bigger and bigger.”

School Community Connections

Proposal: Expand use of the high school building for community health care and social services, park district recreation, community events, social centers and other purposes.

Hawkins believes that the more programs available to kids on school grounds, the better. In South Shore’s neighborhood, he says, “It’s the one place they feel safe,” he says. “A lot of them don’t go outside for exercise because they’re afraid of drive-by shootings.”

Bender would like to expand the use of her building but notes it would “cost a great deal of money” to pay for security guards and instructors to supervise adults or children.

Klunk has been going through bureaucratic hassles to set up a park district program in his building. He sees the draft proposal as a way to speed the paperwork.

Buckney says the board already is making strides toward expanded use of school buildings through a new department of intergovernmental affairs, which helps schools set up programs with other city agencies. “We’re trying to cut the bureaucracy for them,” she says.

Proposal: Schools should increase parental involvement by forming or strengthening their PTAs, creating volunteer opportunities and contacting parents regularly about students’ progress.

“We’ve been trying to get more parental involvement for years, but how do you do that?” asks Hawkins. “The plan doesn’t say.”

Klunk agrees: “That’s going to be a tough one. Parental involvement, especially at the high school level, has always been difficult.”

Thomson calls parental involvement “a good mantra that’s been chanted forever.” But schools can only do so much, he says. “The school has to decide how much of its resources to spend on this goal.”

Buckney agrees that getting parents involved is “a tough nut to crack for high schools.” She hopes that through the new advisory system, teachers will build ongoing relationships with parents, “so the school’s not just calling when Johnny’s done something wrong.”

Buckney says there are other levers, too. When she was a high school principal, she asked students to recruit their parents to chaperone school dances. “If they couldn’t get their parents to sponsor the dance, we didn’t have the dance.”

What was left out?

One of the most common complaints about the draft plan was that it fails to address the needs of disabled or bilingual students. The final plan will describe programs and requirements for these students, Buckney assures.

Billups says high school restructuring needs to include professional development on school culture. “Culture is the way that things get done in a particular building—professional relationships, effective communication between building leadership and the staff,” he says.

“You set a culture where the new ideas are going to have time to grow. Otherwise you get so much resistance that good ideas don’t get a chance. Your reform is less likely to succeed.”

Sizer says the draft missed the boat by failing to include smaller student loads for teachers. “You can’t personalize if you don’t know the kids. Coalition schools originally picked 80 as the maximum number of students per teacher. Most of the experience of Coalition schools since that time suggests that number is too big—no more than 50 they think.”

Podkul thinks any redesign plan needs to recognize that “there are schools for whom the ideal is very far away, and those schools need to be given additional help.”

Higher standards and new programs won’t fly in a school with a severe truancy problem, she says. That school would first need funding for counselors or truant officers.

“The assumption seems to be that every school is starting from an even playing field, and that’s not true.”