Program February 2010 – Improving Urban Education

February 11, 2010

Improving Urban Education

Speaker: Henry S. Webber, Executive Vice-Chancellor for Administration and Senior Lecturer, Washington University

Fewer than half of big-city students graduate from high school and only 9 percent graduate from college.These rates are an improvement over the past, so why is this important? And what’s going on with charter schools, which seem to be riddled with problems? These questions were among the many discussed at the February general meeting. Henry Webber, executive vice chancellor for administration at Washington University, explained current problems and possible solutions in urban education. Webber, who helped establish the Urban Education Initiative at the University of Chicago, shared his broad experience with an audience that included many present and former teachers, as well as people concerned about schools’ role in urban development.

Calling low graduation rates “a moral disaster,” Webber said that in today’s economy it is no longer possible for non-graduates to make a good living. The jobs that did not require high-level cognitive skills have largely disappeared.

In the early 1980s, America began to focus on the need to improve education, and waves of reform have included collecting data; increasing teachers’ pay and reducing class sizes; changing organizational structure, the most dominant trend being mayoral control of school systems (as in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles); recruiting teachers in nontraditional ways (e.g., from other professions); and using technology to improve teaching techniques. School districts have made some progress, but “the problem has been more difficult than we thought it was,” Webber said.

He described some promising approaches in education reform:

  • More early childhood education. The returns are enormous, but it is very expensive.
  • Harlem Children’s Zone model. In this approach, children receive comprehensive, intensive services. The educational gains have been “astonishing,” Webber said, and President Obama has established a program to fund similar models in other communities.
  • Knowledge Is Power (KIP) and KIP-type programs. These charter school networks, which emphasize college and provide long school days and years, have been successful in getting students to graduate from high school and enter college.

Webber explained that the St. Louis school district has been unsuccessful for several reasons, including an unstable school board and a large number of students who attend private schools. He is hopeful that the state takeover of the district will provide needed stability. In St. Louis, charter schools (attended by about 25 percent of students) are generally weak. Webber said charter school sponsors are not held accountable and no process of regular review exists.

Webber ended his presentation with a comment that elicited wide agreement: The short school day and year have no relation to our economy today, where most families have working parents. “This has powerful effects on earnings differences by race and class,” he said. He added that American students are lagging behind students in other countries where children spend much more time in school.