The standards movement in education has been rolling along for a number of years now, and depending on what district a student may live in, and some times what school within a district he or she attends, largely determines how well the population does with respect to standards. This is no secret. The question is, why can some schools perform above standards on average while others perform poorly, even though those schools may have similar student demographics and even be within the same district (meaning they would likely have similar resources, funding, support, etc)? There are two answers that may or may not fully explain such differences, but I am fairly certain they are among the most important reasons when this situation arises. These are the quality of the teachers and the level of expectations that are set for students, both by teachers as well as by the students and their parents.
The quality of a teacher in a classroom goes without saying, for good teachers are typically defined (at least on the academic side) as those who are able to get their students excited about learning, no matter what the subject area is, and help students improve their knowledge and thinking process over the course of the school year. It is my experience that one can also define good teachers on the personal side, as those (particularly those who work with the lowest level students) who are able to take kids with a wide variety of serious personal problems and help them become motivated to learn and perhaps turn the corner to get their lives on a better track.
Either way, the most effective teachers I know have a common characteristic in their classes: they have high expectations for all their students. They push the kids to try and improve, regardless of the level of student academically, and convince the students that they are fully capable of doing good work and learning. The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) began a unique approach to including larger numbers of students in more demanding classes when I was in the district ten years ago, and that approach has been paying off as over 6800 students, mostly minority and of low-income homes, ever since. The approach I speak of is the implementation of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program into numerous high schools. The IB program has a rigorous college-prep curriculum in multiple subjects, with its own exams and IB diploma. From an academic perspective, it is on-par with the better known Advanced Placement (AP) program designed and run through the College Board, but was originally designed for international schools that children of diplomats could attend and still be in the same curriculum as they were at an old school. I was fortunate enough to have helped write the science portion of the proposal that brought in the IB program at my old high school before leaving CPS, and I attended a formal training session for IB in Nashville. It is a well-designed curriculum that sets the bar at a high level for its students.
Last Sunday's Chicago Tribune ('Education Today' section, Jan. 15, 2006) had a nice article that presented results from a DePaul University study of CPS graduates who were in an IB program and then attended DePaul. The study shows that these once at-risk students who stereotypically should not do well in high school, let alone go to college and succeed, have a nearly 100% retention rate in college (at least at DePaul) and perform above average college levels. The enormous range of students now in IB programs (41 CPS high schools are now IB schools) is catching the attention of educators nationwide as well as with the international organization that runs IB. Challenging courses are being taken by larger numbers of students who typically are not exposed to this level of study. The perceived expectations for inner city youth have traditionally been they are not capable of doing college-level work because they are at-risk in terms of socioeconomic factors, the spread and influence of gangs and drugs in the neighborhoods in which they grow up, broken homes, English as a second language for many immigrant children, and the lack of education of the parents (many of the IB students who are making their way through the program and to college are first-generation high school graduates in their families, let alone first-generation college students). We have placed the blame on these factors for decades, concluding that these children have little chance of making it academically, and honestly the systemic reaction has too often been to water-down the curriculum in order to pass children through to graduation. What the education system has not done often enough is what CPS is experimenting with, where we instead raise the bar and allow those students who want to take a chance and try in school to see what they can do with a legitimate college-prep program.
I don't think CPS is as concerned with how many students ace the exams associated with the IB programs (of course they want the scores to be high, etc., but it is also important to give many kids a chance), as compared with how many kids are exposed to higher expectations and learning opportunities and who try to make something of themselves. In part, this process is in my mind a sort of social experiment to see if a critical mass of students who were not likely to make it academically exists and can change some of the culture of the inner city education establishment. I certainly hope that the programs continue to thrive and expand, and this becomes more of the norm than the historical failure of inner-city students. I applaud CPS for trying this approach, and for some new initiatives that they will be trying to implement in the near future (which I will write about at some point, after they are finished being designed, organized and implemented; I am fortunate enough to be involved with some of the new work that is beginning).