Urban schools are showing improvement, but if students are going to continue to keep up with increasingly rigorous standards, city schools need more financial resources, says Michael D. Casserly. He has been executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools since 1993. The council represents the interests of 54 of the nation's largest school districts. Casserly has been a national lobbyist for urban schools since 1977.
Education World: What are the top issues for the Council of Great City Schools (CGCS) in 2001-2002?
Michael D. Casserly: They are achievement levels, achievement gaps, developing better professional development models, [improving] financial equity [between districts], leadership, and governance.
EW: Among the priorities that you mentioned, how are you pursuing some of those, such as financial equity?
Casserly: The financial equity priority is one that we pursue both through research and the courts. These are largely questions about disparities in financing across the country. In "Beating the Odds," [a CGCS report that provides a city-by-city analysis of student performance and gaps in achievement] one of the findings is that the average per-pupil expenditure in the nation's largest urban school systems is now below the national average. Not just below the average of the surrounding suburbs -- or each city's respective state, which we have been below for some time -- but below the national average, despite the fact that we have two to three times the level of need. So finance issues are a major set of questions for us.
EW: What are the biggest misconceptions about urban schools?
Casserly: That we're satisfied with the status quo. I think actually just the opposite is true; we're not satisfied at all with the status quo or our performance or the achievement levels of kids. Getting on board with the nation's reforms, if not attempting to lead in many of those reforms, is one thing our leadership is bound and determined to do.
EW: You mentioned the "Beating the Odds" report, and there was a lot of positive news in that -- 92 percent of urban districts improved in math, 80 percent improved in reading. What needs to be done to continue that progress?
Casserly: Our biggest challenges are obviously in reading. I think part of the math improvements were because the cities had a lot more focus -- the nation in general had a lot more focus -- on math. There was no comparable national goal, for instance, that would have made America first in the world in reading, like we had in math. A lot of the last decade has been taken up, not just in the cities, but all over the country, with fighting the reading wars, the phonics-versus-whole language question and all of that. The research is now getting better and better about the balance between the two that is needed and how those [methods] are sequenced and how kids are taught both decoding and comprehension simultaneously. Better professional development of teachers in reading is probably going to be one of our most important strategies for improving instruction on that front.
EW: What is the CGCS position on high-stakes testing?
Casserly: We have supported the annual three-day testing. We have not had the problem with it some other groups have had, in part because we tested a lot of those grades anyway, whether by state mandate, our own local choice, or some combination of the two. The test results provide an extra benefit for us, though, in allowing us to demonstrate clearly what our progress has been rather than simply making claims about it and asking people to trust our estimation that things are improving. The assessments provide us a way to do that with some objectivity.
We [CGCS members] have been very clear over the last few years that we've backed the standards; we didn't want one set of standards for us and another set of standards for other kids across the country. However, at the same time, we want to make sure our kids have the wherewithal to attain those standards. We've been trying to balance that set of messages in this reauthorization [of federal money]. We'll back the standards, we'll back the accountability, we'll back the assessment, but we've got to have the opportunity as well. Up to this point the conversation has been about one or the other; we're saying we need both.
EW: What do you see as the pluses and minuses of the pending education legislation?
Casserly: The pluses involve the focus on performance and on achievement gaps. That's important -- the legislature has been going down that road for some time, sharpening results on overall performance. This act ratchets that set of messages up more clearly. The downside is there are a lot of mandates in the legislation that the conference committees are going to have to think through pretty carefully. Although not a downside, there is still a lot more work to do on the accountability provisions to ensure that they spur achievement rather than just create chaos. Striking that balance is going to be a very difficult thing to do.
EW: How do you see Dr. Rod Paige's appointment as secretary of education as benefiting urban schools?
Casserly: I think over the long run it will be helpful. Most of his work to date has been getting to know the community, articulating the administration's message, and cleaning up the department's management and financial questions. But I think over the long run, the fact that he is secretary will be helpful to us as a coalition.
EW: A recent report contained discussion of how the nation's schools are becoming more segregated by race [calling it resegregation.] Is that something that concerns the CGCS?
Casserly: A lot. It was my understanding that the report talked about the growing disparities, preparationally and economically ... [between schools with mostly minority students and those with mostly white students]. That's why we put so much emphasis on issues of school finance in addition to our support of the standards.
EW:: How do you see combating resegregation?
Casserly: I guess resegregation is a good way to put it. What
I understand was underscored in that report is that if the schools are
moving toward a position where people think separate but equal will work
this time, then no doubt everybody's kidding themselves.