School Wars II: Strategies for Understanding
Attacks on the public schools have not gone away. Charges come from the vitriolic right and a critical left, from taxpayers and senior citizens, from segregationists and desegregationists, humanists and anti-humanists, business leaders, parents of students in private schools, the media, and colleagues in higher education.
Optimistic educators thought time would heal the wounds, that the disappointment with public education manifest in the 1960's and 1970's could not enter a third decade. We bowed and scratched our feet in the dust, mumbling explanations and apologies. Occasionally we shook our fists in anger at unfounded diatribes or withdrew into an uncertain silence, victims of our own siege mentality, only to be attacked even more violently and crushed by defeated budgets and tax-limitation propositions. And sometimes, when charges about high-school dropouts or weak teachers were on target, we made slight changes in budget or staffing or programs or something--concessions to pressure and changing times.
Retreat has not worked, nor has limited counterattack. Now is the time for an all-out offensive on the individuals and groups outside the public schools who say that teachers, administrators, and boards of education have abrogated their commitment to hard work and quality education. We must declare a war against the critics, a war of total openness and cooperation.
We educators "no longer can keep our strengths and weaknesses to ourselves," says Ruth Love, superintendent in Chicago. The urban schools, she believes, can be rebuilt only by involving the public. And she proposes that when we ask what are the problems, we are asking two questions: "What is really wrong with the schools?" and, "What do people think is wrong?" This gap between reality and public perception must be bridged. We must ask our critics to join us. Let them see for themselves, work with us, help us to improve. And, in the process, let them find out that some of their charges are wrong.
Total openness will mean that superintendents speak, endlessly, to civic groups about favorite public topics, including school discipline. It will mean that school business managers will take along the books when they address taxpayers' groups, and that we are persistent with our offers to college deans and professors to visit the public schools.
Total openness will mean going beyond the PTA and Rotary Club to speak; it will mean figuring out how principals and teachers can get to the factory worker who can't, or won't, come to PTA meetings. We must go to precinct committee meetings of the political parties and work closely with the church officials who have sponsored non-English-speaking families whose children are in our schools.
Such strategies of cooperation will not be easy; they will take time and money. They may force a reordering of priorities and possibly create new problems--as Cleveland Superintendent Peter Carlin knows. Older citizens, he points out, often oppose school operating levies, millage increases, and bond issues, because they feel they cant afford a tax increase. And so, he says, "We decided to let them see what our elementary schools are really like. We opened schools for lunch for seniors. And what happened? The new complaint became that the furniture was too small to accommodate old folks."
And what of private schools and maintaining support for public-school budgets? When the head of an independent school says to his students' parents, We cooperate with the public schools; we recognize a true symbiosis, and if the quality of public education fails, all of us in this area will lose; I urge your support on this years town budget for the public schools," then we will have achieved understanding and common commitment.
How can cooperation between independent and public education be fostered? Form a local association of administrators, public and private. Invite the trustees of an independent school to meet with the board of education to discuss needs, priorities, and the future. Ask teachers from both schools to develop workshops on instructional techniques. We need to free the athletic directors of public
and private schools to schedule each other's teams in interscholastic sports, and to develop area student-government organizations to plan social activities, volunteer work, cooperative art exhibits and musicals. The private-school parent association could meet in a public school to see special-education classes or the high-school vocational wing.
For some of us, higher education may be an untapped resource. If officials in higher education are trying to understand what is going on in the schools, let them join us. Invite a dean to move his office into an elementary school. Robert Anderson, dean of the school of education at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, has tried it with great success.
There is more. We can invite area business councils to meet regularly in public schools. We can develop summer apprenticeships in local factories to teach vocational and industrial arts teachers to learn to use new machinery and technology. When their expertise would be helpful, we can ask business people to become directly involved with teachers in curriculum development. And we can invite vituperative retired corporate presidents to come into the schools to see for themselves.
Not some, but all of these are needed if cooperation is to be total.
For taxpayers, we must make a fully documented effort to show that sound property values depend on the public attitude about the quality of their local schools. Maybe the taxpayer groups have some valid points; certainly public school administrators can clarify issues and provide new information. A serious exchange could result in people saying, I never realized a vote against the schools could really hurt my property value, which was why I opposed a budget increase in the first place.
Current proposals for education vouchers may offer us an opportunity. Richard Green, head of the 41,000-student Minneapolis schools, thinks that economists' investigations of the cost of education and the return on the public investment in education may bring about useful public discussions. "As people debate vouchers and other ways to have a choice for quality education, he says, we in the public schools can show how we have developed alternatives.
A strategy of openness may run its greatest risk with the media. Give a reporter a tour of the high school, a principal said recently, and he or she will find the one student in 50 high on pot, and that will be the lead to the story in tomorrow's paper. The article could be about a dramatic production or early admissions to college or a thousand hours of volunteer work, but the headline and lead will be about one spaced-out kid.
True enough, but giving a reporter an accurate picture of the schools could also result in factual, spirited, helpful coverage.
School officials need to invite a reporter to shadow a student for a day; to attend staff in-service classes; to see summer workshops on interdisciplinary cooperation, computer literacy, and early childhood. Let him go behind the scenes to see plays in rehearsal, the yearbook being written, and the locker room before the game.
Risky? Yes. Necessary? Probably yes, given the breakdown in communication and the distorted public image of the schools.
The alternatives to openness are partial access or none at all. Such limited and tentative approaches haven't worked. Most people have tried some of the strategies, but few educators have declared themselves to be fully on the offensive. What's there to hide, anyway? The allegations are far worse than the reality.
I don't believe we have a choice. Public education cannot continue to take the battering from the outside. They do not understand us, and the attacks from the outside are too much for those on the inside. Such distinctions must be obliterated through people working together and disagreeing openly--through a public involved in their public schools.
Vol. 01, Issue 02, Page 24