Omaha School Reform NPR's Ed Gordon examines how Omaha's school controversy is resonating nationally. He speaks to Jeff Howard, founder and president of the Efficacy Institute based just outside Boston.

Omaha School Reform

Omaha School Reform

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NPR's Ed Gordon examines how Omaha's school controversy is resonating nationally. He speaks to Jeff Howard, founder and president of the Efficacy Institute based just outside Boston.

ED GORDON, host:

For a national perspective, I spoke with Jeff Howard, founder and president of the Efficacy Institute near Boston. The group works on school reform issues. Mr. Howard says the Omaha controversy mirrors a greater crisis facing America's urban schools.

Mr. JEFF HOWARD (Founder and President, Efficacy Institute): The impulse behind it is a desperate desire, I believe, to do something about the failure of urban education in the country. And I believe the gentleman's name is Senator Chambers?

GORDON: Mm hmm.

Mr. HOWARD: I sympathize with his frustration and desire to make something happen. But all of this has it roots in the fact that so few kids of color, black kids in particular, are becoming proficient and will be able to function effectively in the 21st century. We've got to do something.

GORDON: Mr. Howard, as you've looked across the United States and looked at all of the ills in the public school system in particular, it seems a very silent battle to some degree between politicians, teachers unions, local school boards, and even parents at some point and time, is that fair to say?

Mr. HOWARD: Yeah, I think that's right. People ought to be in the streets. The situation is so terrible. Less than 20 percent of the black kids who finish high school are at reading or mathematics proficiency. Eighty percent or more are far below proficiency.

And that doesn't count the huge numbers of kids who actually drop out when they're 16 years old. So the ones who stay in school still can't read or do mathematics at a level that's going to be required for basic inclusion in the American economy.

It's a desperate situation. It should not be a quiet struggle. It should be out front and open. The best minds in every community ought to be thinking about it, talking about it, planning strategies. And when they don't do that, it leaves it people who really don't have a good idea of what to do to try something, and I think that's part of what you see in Omaha.

GORDON: We hear a lot of debate about vouchers, charter schools and the like, but let's take a look at the Omaha situation. Senator Chambers and others backing the legislation have suggested that what this simply does is--while in their minds, it doesn't segregate in the true sense of segregation, it allows those who have a more vested interest in these children to control these districts, i.e. give them a better education.

That isn't always the case in other cities where minorities control the school system. How can, if at all, this work?

Mr. HOWARD: Well, I begin my career in education reform working in cities that were just dominated by black folks, black superintendent, black school boards, largely black schools staffs, where the schools were failing miserably to educate kids. I just don't buy the idea that somehow making this a black-controlled district is going to save the day. The whole history of the New York City decentralization plan that started in the ‘70s and recently got overturned--black folks, Hispanic folks, and local districts took over their own school districts and did nothing to improve the performance of kids. In fact, over the decades, the performance continued to slide.

So if anyone thinks that having black people in charge of black school districts or Latinos in charge of Latino school districts is somehow, by itself, going to turn the trick, I think they haven't been looking at the history.

GORDON: Often, the problem had been money in those situations, because by the time it became a majority black district, the monies that white flight had been taken out did not allow them to compete. If dollar to dollar everything is equal, then does the idea of same race designation, if you will, become more palatable?

Mr. HOWARD: I'm afraid not. I think public education is under funded. I think it could use much more money. But I do not believe that by itself, money is going to make the difference. We have a problem in urban education of a fundamental lack of belief that has led to successive generations of kids not being educated to high levels, which has solidified our general sense in the community that there's nothing to be done. We have a lack of mobilization among adults in the community, an abdication of responsibility of leaders who point their fingers only at school systems about the nature of the problems, and nobody, no one is stepping up to take responsibility, to turn the situation around, to teach these kids at the levels that they're capable of. Money by itself won't solve that problem.

GORDON: What do you think about school systems like New York, Chicago, Boston? I understand L.A. is doing this now. We've seen Detroit toy with the idea of taking away, literally taking away, the power from the school board and giving it to City Hall to determine how the school systems are run.

Mr. HOWARD: I think it's another attempt at school reform. It's a little less desperate than what's going on in Omaha, but by itself, and the history of this, I think, bears this out--by itself, mayors taking over school districts has not resulted in dramatic improvements.

GORDON: So how do we get to a point where we start to see proficiency rise at a rate where the majority of kids that are in the educational system will, in fact, be able to accommodate a normal sense of education and a normal sense and semblance of life on a day-to-day basis, when you have the arguments vouchers versus charter versus public school, when you have declining dollars being put into the educational system, when you all of the ills that we've talked about for generations?

Mr. HOWARD: I believe it starts with the leaders, the legitimate leaders, the substantive people in every community across the county, deciding that they are personally responsible for the educational outcomes of their children. And once they're prepared to stand up and publicly assume that responsibility--I'm talking about the head of the Urban League, the head of the Chamber of Commerce, the local political leaders, the heads of the community service organizations around town, the leaders of the parent organizations--standing together with the superintendent of schools and declaring their own responsibility for what happens.

I think once those people do that, there are three things they have to make happen. First, they've got to build consensus on what the mission of public education in their town is. Now, I would offer two elements: academic proficiency and building strong character into kids. Once they have a consensus about what they're after, then they have to build belief across the entire community that this can be accomplished with our kids, and that belief can't be taken for granted. I think we've lost heart in many urban centers. Third, they've got to teach people to use data to drive changes and strategy to achieve proficiency. If they can do those three things, they can get a kind of magical process going where everyone will start marching toward proficiency. They see positive results. That fuels the process further, and you can get an upward kind of spiral going. But it starts with local community leadership of the education process in that town.

GORDON: All right. Jeff Howard, who heads up the Efficacy Institute outside of Boston, Massachusetts, thank you very much for joining us today.

Mr. HOWARD: It's been my pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: Coming up next, was the mayoral election in New Orleans fair? And an AIDS epidemic in the nation's capital. We'll discuss these topics and more on our roundtable, up next.

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