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Cliff Schecter: How To Really Improve Our Nation’s Schools

June 28, 2011

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Change is necessary. No it doesn’t need to come in the form of some Randian version of public schooling.

By **Cliff Schecter**

By arrangement with Alternet.Org.

Lately, education reform has gotten a bad name. This is largely because all efforts to improve our institutions of learning are suspected to be more Rhee-form than reform, with an emphasis on statistics over students, testing over tutoring, one-size fits all approaches as opposed to creating the kind of cultural change within our schools that will lead to their renaissance.

This is why, for me, it was quite literally a breath of fresh air when I recently was introduced to Steve Edwards, CEO of Edwards Educational Services. Edwards, who speaks so passionately about education that there is no doubting his sincerity, has built a model consulting practice on the premise that leadership skills are of paramount importance, safety, lowering dropout rates, and student achievement go hand in hand, and building a relationship of “trust” between students, administrators, and educators is key.

What happened during his tenure there? Only a 50 percent reduction in suspensions, over 50 percent drop in incidents of fighting, no student expulsions in seven years, a reduction in the dropout rate to under 1.8 percent, and increased graduation rates.

Edwards and his entire organization are so successful because as EES itself states, we can’t apply “simplistic solutions to address complex problems…The educational system of each city and town must be structured and continually adjusted to meet the needs of its population, as well as the demands of society’s evolving dynamics.”

Adding to this, Edwards told me:

There are a number of indicators of student performance, of which testing is only one. It is considered 95 percent of the pie by those dominating many reform conversations today. It should be about 20 percent.

Let’s not create conformity so kids do not learn to think. Let’s not substitute rigidity for the ability to study data and demographics from local communities, and see what that tells us about which strategies will be most successful. Let’s develop programs so teachers and students can learn to communicate and interact. Let’s prioritize safety and achievement, and acknowledge the obvious relationship between them. Let’s ensure there is teacher accountability, but not judge teachers based on results from one test, but on how they handle all of these important facets of the educational experience for our children.

If that sounds different than Rhee-form, that’s because it is. Innovation should be about updating. Improving how we teach our children, not figuring out the best way to profit from it. Yes, change is necessary. No it doesn’t need to come in the form of some Randian version of public schooling.

How do we know EES’ strategies work? Because even before he took his innovative student-centric approach national, Edwards displayed its effectiveness as principal of East Hartford High School in East Hartford, Connecticut for a decade, during which time he and the school were recognized by USA Today as national leaders in education innovation.

What happened during his tenure there? Only a 50 percent reduction in suspensions, over 50 percent drop in incidents of fighting, no student expulsions in seven years, a reduction in the dropout rate to under 1.8 percent, and increased graduation rates—all while improving scores on the standardized tests that are so all-important to Rhee’s crowd.

School safety depends far less on the poverty and crime surrounding the campus than on the academic achievement of its students and their relationships with adults in the building.

More recently, from 2005 to 2008, Edwards Educational Services worked with 48 Toledo Public Schools. When compared to the 14 schools that did not work with EES, the results speak for themselves. EES’s emphasis on creating a culture of collaboration and data-based decision-making led to an increase in achievement scores of over 60 percent among the 48 public schools they worked with, while the other 14 percent saw their achievement scores go up by just over percent. I don’t need Isaac Newton to explain to me that those numbers mean something.

In the years since, Edwards has learned what works on the ground level, joining The National Crime Prevention Council as vice president to develop strategies to lessen youth, family, and community violence. Edwards also provided kids with the training, skills, and confidence they need as vice president of global initiatives with 180-Degree, and a decade sitting on the Board of the National Dropout Prevention Center—all contributors to the development of the groundbreaking programs of Edwards Educational Services.

As if these results and strategic imperatives don’t speak for themselves, one need only look to a recent piece by Sarah D. Sparks in Education Week, entitled, “Study Links School Safety to Student Achievement, Relationships” to see the power of The Edwards Approach. “School safety depends far less on the poverty and crime surrounding the campus than on the academic achievement of its students and their relationships with adults in the building, according to a new study of Chicago public schools.”

Read the rest, it is well worth it. I’m excited to be working to achieve some pretty lofty goals, but I’m even more excited that in EES we have the answer to Rhee-form. And as you could have guessed, it’s real, it’s tangible, and it’s student-focused…REFORM.

Copyright 2011 Cliff Schecter

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This post originally appeared at Alternet.Org.

Cliff Schecter is a political consultant and author. He writes on The Political Carnival

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