Is Education on the Cusp of a Turnaround?

Americans continue to lose faith in their public schools, a Gallup poll reported recently. Less than a third of Americans said they had a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in schools.

Why the drop? Parents are unhappy with funding cutbacks that lead to growing class sizes and shrinking after-school programs, and they complain. Many teachers dislike the school accountability movement, especially linking their performance to student test results, and they complain. School reformers point to persistent shortcomings in student achievement, and they complain.

Add up all the complaints and you have a pretty good idea why public confidence in schools rests at its lowest mark in nearly 40 years.

In part, that plummeting confidence is justified. The most worrisome statistic about American public education is the lagging post-high-school achievement, the number of young Americans who receive at least a two-year college degree. We've slipped to the middle of the international rankings, and that's not good. And the number of high school seniors who go off to college only to learn that they have to take "remedial" courses that offer no college credit is alarmingly large.

But the news is not all bad. There are solid reasons to believe that a broad turnaround is on the cusp. In many places, those turnarounds are well under way. As the co-author of a just-published book about what's going right with American public education, especially concerning schools that educate our low-income minority students -- the very citizens who will be paying the Social Security benefits to middle-class boomers now retiring -- I have some positive stories to tell.

A short list would include:

-- Many urban high schools are getting better at reaching hard-to-reach students. In Tampa, Fla., we visited a high school serving low-income minority students where hundreds of students take on difficult college-level courses such as Advanced Placement -- and do well on the tests. We found the same happening at the high school in Methuen, Mass. In Long Beach, Calif., we found an entire school district with a similar student population turning out impressive results. In Houston, I toured a high school that managed to turn itself around in just one year.

-- Charter schools are getting better. A lot of American children still don't have access to charter schools, which are public schools with independent governance. But those numbers are growing. Today, more than two million children attend public charter schools. But that's not the real story. What matters more is that a growing number of these schools are "cracking the code," as in figuring out what it takes to make low-income minority students college-ready.

For our book, we found charter schools such as Rocketship in San Jose, Calif., and True North in upstate New York, that leverage state-of-the-art teaching tactics to produce significant student gains among African-American and Latino students. Students know exactly what to expect in each class. Impressive to watch -- and producing impressive results.

-- New parent engagement programs that appear to work. Talk to teachers, parents, principals and school reformers and you'll hear the same refrain: Families, not schools, are the key to turning out academically successful students. That's partly true, but too many schools avoid making a real connection with parents, preferring an arms-length strategy of keeping them busy with feel-good tasks such as class parenting and school fundraising.

But what if teachers reached out to parents in ways that truly matter? In the Creighton School District in Phoenix, we saw Academic Parent Teacher Teams in action, where teachers use parent-friendly data to explain how their children are doing and then pass along strategies so parents can become teachers at home. That program makes measurable positive differences in how students perform in the classroom. This is what parents really care about.

-- Preschools are getting better. We profile AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter Schools in Washington, D.C., where teachers use a carefully researched curriculum designed to ensure that its students enter kindergarten as ready to learn as middle-class students. To most outside observers, preschools look alike. The difference at AppleTree emerges from sweating the details. Students here don't just learn words such as "bat" by rhymes and alliteration; they learn to build sounds, adding the "b" to the "at."

If that sounds like a minor deal, think again. Children entering kindergarten able to build words from sounds are ready to learn. AppleTree is not the only preschool getting smarter about teaching very young kids.

We also found encouraging news in teachers colleges and community colleges. Equally encouraging is the spread of powerful new teaching techniques pioneered in charter schools now being embraced by thousands of teachers in traditional schools.

Not all the news about our schools is good news. But there's plenty of good news out there, and each day it seems to get a little better.

Richard Whitmire is co-author of "The Achievable Dream: College Board Lessons on Creating Great Schools." He is also the author of "Why Boys Fail" and "The Bee Eater." His email address is

This commentary first appeared in The Dallas Morning News.