There’s a lot of talk about making every school a good school. According to the talk, if we do that, then almost everyone will just send their child to the neighborhood school and we will have diversity, uniformly high academic achievement, reduced transportation costs, and no more capacity or assignment issues. I write “almost everyone” because students with special needs and students seeking alternative education or special programs may or may not be enrolled at their neighborhood school.
First of all, I don't believe it. Even if every school is regarded as a "good" school, there will be differences and people will have preferences which will outweigh proximity. There still won't be a high school option for families in Queen Anne and Magnolia and there still won't be enough elementary capacity in Eastlake and Capitol Hill. You can be sure that many neighborhood schools will not be diverse.
Despite all of the talk, the District has not demonstrated any ability to make any impact – positive or negative – on school quality. Who can name a time when the District made a school into a good school? Near as I can figure, the only people who ever get any credit for turning a school into a good school are principals who inspire a team of teachers towards an effective Vision. Ben Wright did it when he was at Thurgood Marshall. Hajara Rahim did it at Van Asselt. Pat Hunter does it at Maple. There are, of course, others. Individual teachers can do it for their classes as Anitra Pinchback did it when she was at AAA. They all did something different, but the common theme for them all was to set high expectations and maintain them. They support students to reach those expectations, but they don’t ever drop the expectations.
This is clearly what works in practice. Setting and maintaining high expectations appears to be the key. The District pays a lot of lip service to this idea, but I’ve never seen them actually take any action in support of it. I’m not sure what action they could take. How would they hold principals accountable for setting and maintaining high expectations? What consequences could they impose on those who don’t? Could they actually fire the ones who don’t do it? I’m not sure they could; the principals have a union, you know. How would they hold teachers accountable for setting and maintaining high expectations? What consequences could they impose on those who don’t? Could they actually fire the ones who don’t do it? I’m not sure they could; the teachers have a union, too.
In public K-12 education it may not be possible to hold the adults accountable, but it is possible to hold the students accountable. It's upside-down accountability because they are the people with the least power to change the system, but it is the accountability that is possible. The District could effect this type of accountability for setting and maintaining those high expectations by writing and enforcing a strict promotion / non-promotion policy. Unfortunately, they lack the political will and courage for that. It will be hard for them to stick to their principles when, in the first year, about half of the students are not promoted and about 80% of the black students are not promoted (WASL math pass rates for African American 6th grade students in 2006: 19.9%, for all students: 49.3%). There is going to be a serious upset in the community when four out of five black students are not promoted to the next grade. There is going to be a lot of talk about disproportionate outcomes and institutional racism.
Of course, this will make the percieved differences in school quality a whole lot worse before it makes it any better. Imagine the consequences on choice when 80% of a third grade class at a school fails to be promoted. Who would choose that school for their child? Who would be happy with that assignment? Particularly when another school promotes 80% of their third graders under the same rigorous criteria. What will it do to class sizes?
Is there anything else the District could do to help make every school a good school?