The real story of Harrison
Harrison is more than a billboard. Having lived and worked here for over 40 years, I am frustrated with the reporting by national, state and regional media about my chosen hometown. The Arkansas Times has established itself as a reliable source for state news, so I am surprised that your coverage of Harrison seems clueless.
That some remnant of the "Klan" does something obnoxious is a dog-bites-man story. What is newsworthy is a story of change. This historically conservative district is spontaneously and vigorously repudiating atavistic expressions of racial privilege and segregation. These people are Republicans, Democrats and independents from small businesses, corporations, education, clergy and government as well as common folk such as myself.
Responsible people from all areas of our community acknowledge that our negative reputation was earned from decades of strict Jim Crow and despicable events of over 100 years ago. The Harrison I know today is an increasingly diverse and welcoming community. We accept the past, are living in a more positive present and working diligently toward an even more prosperous and inclusive future.
Maybe the Times could stop viewing us as a retrograde billboard. Maybe you could send a reporter up here to see who we are now. I'm told good news doesn't sell papers, but change does and change has been happening in Harrison.
No quick fix for schools
So the Arkansas Department of Education is taking over the Little Rock School District. Whether this cures the ills of certain "failing" schools or merely proves to be too little too late and paves the way for private sector takeover remains to be seen.
Why schools fail is no black or white issue. It is complex and fraught with overly simplistic scapegoating from all sides. To continue casting blame at school personnel or at society in general does little in the way of sincerely addressing the problem. Unfortunately, American culture wants immediate, cheap fixes and easy demons at which to point our judgmental fingers.
Research has long pointed out that standardized test scores alone are no true assessment of any school. Yet their use continues to drive public policy regarding education. Couple this with the No Child Left Behind mandate that such test scores include those of special education students and those for whom English is not their mother tongue, and you have a recipe for failure at schools where numerous students fall under one or both categories.
The No. 1 reason that children struggle in school is powerfully linked to their socioeconomic level. Schools are not to blame for this. Researchers have long understood the connection between underachievement and levels of deprivation. To be sure, not all poor students do poorly. Nonetheless, it is unreasonable to expect students to do well when they lack basic necessities. Already poverty-stricken children are disadvantaged when available food provides inadequate nutrition, which is directly linked to brain development and scholastic aptitude. Already they are disadvantaged when their caregivers struggle at part-time, minimum-wage-paying jobs that often pull them away from providing the supervision and guidance their children need to learn pro-social behaviors, which are also indicators of school success.
Look at the six "failing" schools. Who are these students? How many are in special education? How many speak a language at home different from English? How many are on free or reduced breakfast/lunch programs? Compare these figures with those of the other schools in the district. District lines feed all too many low-income, special education and ESL students into these six schools. Meanwhile, more affluent children are funneled into the more successful schools. Welcome to the new segregation!
Kenneth Leithwood, an education researcher and professor out of Canada, adroitly calls school failure a "Perfect Storm with Imperfect Solutions." It would not be easy for any entity to address the multifaceted requirements of school improvement. Unfortunately, research points to the counter-productivity of standard interventions by many governmental agencies. But there is also evidence that supports methods for improving schools that may bode well.
The key is not in requiring teachers to fill out multi-page lesson plans. Students are not failing because teachers write poor learning objectives and poor step-by-step formulae for teaching. Indeed, this tendency to lay out lesson plans in a formulaic manner that ostensibly would allow just anyone to step in, follow the plan and result in students magically learning is patently ridiculous. To the unending consternation of politicians and policymakers, good teaching cannot be fitted into a narrowly prescribed formula that just anyone can take up and make successful. There are clear things that good teachers do that ensure quality learning, and some of these can be quantified. There are also those aspects that good teachers possess that make a huge difference in quality education that cannot be put on a chart or in a lesson plan or quantified in any manner. Good teachers employ both a science and an art to teaching. It is the art of teaching that eludes quantifiability.
One of the major issues that Leithwood raises is the quality of school leadership. These leaders recognize which teachers need additional assistance and provide it, and also motivate those teachers who do well to continue to do well. These leaders keep their fingers on the pulse of the schools and intervene immediately when dangers to improvement arise. These leaders further understand that the majority of teachers are committed, hard-working people who are passionate about helping young minds develop. These leaders will seek out resources needed to ensure that the passions of these teachers are realized.
If the Department of Education can populate these "failing" schools with leaders such as these, then I fully support the department's efforts.