Guest Column

The Suburban Paradox

By any measure, some of the finest schools in the world are located in our suburbs. Their standard of excellence, however, masks a paradox about suburban school improvement: We believe our schools need to improve as long as they basically remain the same because they are good enough.

Yet some students in our suburban schools have educational needs that are not being met by the status quo and until now these students have had little hope that school improvement would ever reach them. This status quo is deeply embedded in the culture of suburban schooling and is the result of a complex interplay between the school board, administrative staff, teachers and parents.

This paradox takes shape with the election of school board members. School boards are empowered to defend and maintain a culture of excellence and have invested substantial tax dollars to protect this image. If some students do not score well on standardized assessments then, the thinking is, this is most likely because of students’ unwillingness to avail themselves of the opportunities available to succeed academically.

What happens to superintendents whose vision for the school district is not consistent with the political will of the school board or the capacity of building principals to implement the vision? That superintendent may prefer to pursue improvement strategies that create the fewest ripples and, therefore, maintain the status quo.

Resisting Forces
Principals face a similar dilemma. Before embarking on any reform initiative, they must consider several critical questions: Do I have time to invest in a school improvement effort? Will I have superintendent and central administration support? Will the teachers, parents and community back me throughout the reform process?

Resistance to change can come from any of these places and undermine any improvement effort. In addition, principals with professional aspirations need to avoid the appearance of making any “mistakes” that might jeopardize their career advancement. A safer strategy is to propose only those innovations that will add to but not change the prevailing culture.

Teachers lie at the heart of the improvement paradox. At the secondary school level, teachers are responsible for instructing anywhere from 100 to 150 students who come to school with different backgrounds, abilities, readiness to learn, values and aspirations.

To cope with these demands, teachers develop and maintain management and instructional strategies that make their jobs more doable. Strategies that teach the same material to the greatest numbers regardless of differing ability levels and maintain classroom order tend to be teacher-centered and routine. As long as most students earn good grades, score at or above average on state and national standardized tests and continue to be accepted at the colleges and universities of their choice, little attention is given to students whose needs are not being met by their teachers’ ineffective instructional practices.

Many teachers manage to incorporate best instructional practices into their teaching and because of their personal commitment to become a better teacher continuously seek new ways to serve all their students. But the suburban culture of excellence does not expect or provide systemic professional development so the opportunities for improvement are limited and the status quo largely remains.

Many parents in suburban schools have both a financial stake and an emotional involvement in their schools. They are involved in the school in a variety of ways and appreciate the quality of education their schools provide. These parents largely are satisfied with the stability of the status quo and don’t want their children to be part of an “educational experiment” that would jeopardize their child’s educational future.

Unmasking Failure
So what has changed that requires suburban school districts to engage in substantive school improvement?

First, as many urban schools continue to struggle, more people are moving to the suburbs to enroll their children in public schools. These students come with vastly different levels of preparation that do not necessarily mesh with the standardized teaching practices of the suburban culture of excellence. These students place demands on teachers that they cannot address, given the inadequate level of staff development.

A second, more profound pressure is the growing impact of the No Child Left Behind Act. The federal legislation targets the very students that the suburban culture of excellence has often overlooked and raises the possibility that if these students do not show improvement, then state-imposed sanctions may tarnish these “world class” schools by labeling them as underperforming.

What complicates this situation is the view that school improvement is a matter of simply adding more onto what already exists: newer textbooks, more computer equipment, more science kits and longer class periods. What’s ignored is any systemic focus on ways to improve the quality of the instruction.

The ability of schools to resist change is legendary. Every stakeholder supports the status quo at some point for its own reasons. Hence our paradox.

What is required in our suburban schools is a change in the culture of schooling, not the structure of schools. Superintendents and board members need to transcend the politics of “good enough” to actively promote two beliefs: that all students can learn and that a central determinant of student achievement is the quality of teaching that occurs in classrooms daily. With this commitment, our suburban schools will be able to transform paradox into improved performance for all.

Eliot Larson is principal of J.R. Fugett Middle School, 500 Ellis Lane, West Chester, PA 19380. E-mail: