Gaming the Broken System of Public Schools

New York Times reporter Michael Brick shares what he learned from a year in a failing public school.

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John H. Reagan High was once the showpiece of its Austin community. But in recent years, the Texas school has been seen as a troubled spot, with abysmal test scores and dismal dropout rates. The state education commissioner gave the principal one year to turn things around, threatening to shut the school for good otherwise. Michael Brick, a former New York Times reporter, spent a year embedded at Reagan as its educators faced a crucial deadline. In Saving the School: The True Story of a Principal, a Teacher, a Coach, a Bunch of Kids, and a Year in the Crosshairs of Education Reform, he takes readers through the 2009-10 school year. Brick recently spoke to U.S. News about what he observed, and what he learned about public education. Excerpts:

Why did you choose to profile this particular school?

It's a quarter-mile from my house. It was the one that was in the death throes here. It was four years listed as "academically unacceptable" by the state and had this one-year make-or-break deadline hanging over it. This place had this incredible history of academic accolades, state football championships as little as a generation ago. The fact that that sense of history was what the principal was trying to tap into to rally the community made it seem like there's more to this story than "here's one random school."

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What was Reagan High like when you first walked through the doors in 2009?

The last time the school had made headlines was a few years before, when a 15-year-old girl was stabbed to death in a hallway. It was that scary place on the east side. Alumni would stay away from the football games. The principal, Anabel Garza, had been there one year. She had already started to turn things around, but before her there had been six principals in six years. There was a lot of racial tension, still some violence—although nothing like someone getting stabbed to death. And it was a shell of its former self.

How did things at the school deteriorate?

When standardized testing became a strong focus of education at the start of the modern reform movement in the early '80s, the approach grew little by little to this system of rewards and punishment. People that could afford to move to the better public schools, or eventually private schools, magnet schools, and charter schools, would leave. Reagan had been a school that had a pretty even racial mix and now it was 70 percent Hispanic. Many were English language learners or children of recent immigrants. Special education kids made up a disproportionate amount of the population.

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How are things at Reagan now?

It's doing well. It's listed as "academically acceptable"—an accomplishment, but an incremental one. If I think back 15 or 20 years, getting listed as academically acceptable is what started driving families away. That's the third out of four rankings in the Texas system, below "recognized" and "exemplary." Transfer students are starting to come back. The number of kids passing the standardized tests, graduation rates, and dropout rates are moving slowly but steadily in the right direction. More importantly, the spirit that Anabel started building is there and it's palpable. There's a new football coach. Alumni are fundraising and getting involved.

How did the school achieve the results that education officials were seeking?

It took a lot of what you call gaming a broken system. It followed two tracks. One was doing whatever was necessary to make the numbers, and that means things that were considered dirty words in education 20 years ago, like teaching to the test. They taught to the test to make sure that the kids would pass the test, because if the kids fail the test, then the school shuts down and game over for everybody. It wasn't just teaching to the test, it was also at times going out and waking kids up and taking them to the test. At the same time, Anabel was trying to rebuild the kind of public high school that a lot of us remember, where there were dances and plays and sports. The effort was to try and simultaneously build something sustainable, because if they just focused on the number-crunching and the intensive tutoring, then they could have made the numbers but it would have been the same thing the next year and the year after that.