Citizens for Effective Schools

A New Legal Duty for Urban Schools:
Effective Education in Basic Skills [Excerpts]

Summary of an article that originally appeared in the Texas Law Review

By Gary M. Ratner
Education Week
October 30, 1985

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As a result of recent educational research, urban public elementary schools are now, in my judgment, legally obligated for the first time to effectively educate in basic skills substantially all of their students, regardless of the percentage who are poor or members of racial minorities.

Previously, no such liability could be imposed because it could not be shown that it was possible to effectively educate the vast majority of students in such schools, let alone that effective schools serving such populations had any characteristics in common that ineffective schools could be required to adopt. But research has now shown that effective urban public schools do exist across the whole range of poor- and minority-student concentrations, and that effective urban public schools do have important characteristics in common. Moreover, these characteristics are within the schools' power to create.

"[M]any... schools [in New York, Houston and Philadelphia] serving student bodies 40 to 100 percent of which were poor children and 10 to 100 percent of which were minority children were effective: No more than 20 percent of the students in any grade from 2nd through 6th were one year or more below grade level in reading, mathematics, or composite basic skills, and no more than 10 percent were two or more years below. This 20 percent/10 percent criterion I hereafter refer to as the "national standard."

Separate from these findings, "effective schools" research has established that effective schools share common characteristics. As identified by the late Ronald Edmonds, the five characteristics generally supported by researchers are: instructional leadership by the principal; agreement by the teachers and the principal on basic-skills education as the central goal; an orderly climate, with generally accepted disciplinary standards and a well-maintained physical plant; teacher conveyance of expectations that all students will adequately learn basic skills, and regular use of standardized tests to measure achievement and adjust instruction accordingly. Of these characteristics, the most significant appears to be high teacher expectations: The level of expectations directly affects the intensity and effectiveness with which teachers teach and students learn.

These characteristics are within the schools' power to create. By careful selection, training, and if necessary, replacement, school districts can ensure that principals provide leadership and support to staff members on instructional matters. School administrators have it within their power to define and effectuate the teaching of basic skills as the central mission of the schools. School personnel are uniquely able to establish and enforce generally accepted disciplinary standards and to provide for good maintenance of school property. Through hiring, training, rewarding, and disciplining teachers, schools can ensure that teachers convey and act on the expectation that all students will adequately learn basic skills. And schools unquestionably can regularly administer standardized tests of basic skills and modify instructional efforts to respond to demonstrated student needs. (Indeed, schools in New York and Milwaukee, for example, have successfully instituted and operated for several years programs implementing such characteristics.)

Not only are the five factors commonly shared by effective urban public schools, but also - as many educators have already recognized - it is likely that any ineffective school that adopts them will improve its students' education in basic skills.

Given the demonstrated capacity of schools to succeed, public policy no longer provides any valid justification for their failure. The interests of society in their success are too great to allow schools to perpetuate demonstrably ineffective approaches while refusing to institute the characteristics of success. The new legal duty effectuates this societal interest: It requires that every urban public elementary school - regardless of its percentage of poor and/or minority children - must educate its students to the national standard already achieved by many schools, or, at the least, adopt the characteristics of success.

This duty flow independently from each of five legal sources: [state constitutions' education and equal protection clauses, federal constitutional due process and equal protection clauses and state common law of negligence.]

The greatest need now is to galvanize the will of society toward implementing the duty of urban public schools to provide effective education in basic skills. The widespread assumption that the failure of poor and minority students in urban public schools is inevitable must be overcome. From governors to local school officials, from state and federal education officers to civic leaders, from business spokesmen to teachers and their unions, from the media to the President, the message that must go out across the country and be institutionalized in the schools is that poor and minority urban elementary-school students are expected to succeed

Hereafter, every urban public-school system needs to publish regularly for each elementary school the percentages of students in each grade who are one year or more and two years or more below grade level in reading or mathematics, as well as the percentages of students in each school who are poor or members of racial minorities. Any school in which more than 20 percent of the students in any grade are one year or more below grade level and/or in which more than 10 percent are two years or more below grade level must rigorously assess whether it has fully adopted the five characteristics and must be opened for public observers to do likewise.

Any such school that has not thoroughly embodied the characteristics must develop and implement a plan to do so. Each school's teachers and principal should be maximally involved in the plan's design, execution, and whatever subsequent modifications may be necessary to fully establish and maintain the characteristics. This is essential not only so that each plan will accurately reflect the school's problems and strengths, but also to maximize the staff's commitment to the plan's success. Such schools cannot satisfy their legal duty unless their students routinely achieve at least the national standard or the schools have fully implemented the five characteristics for a substantial period of time and still fail.

© 2008 Citizens for Effective Schools