Reform Panel's 'Official Parent' Sees Hope for Positive Change
Washington--Among the members of the National Commission on Excellence in Education--the federally supported panel charged with recommending reforms in American schools and colleges--are representatives of nearly all levels of the education profession. From teachers and principals to scientists, university presidents, and state officials, the 18-member panel reflects the wide spectrum of educators and policy makers.
But only one member of the group, Annette Y. Kirk, was asked to represent what might rightly be called education's largest constituency. She is the panel's "official parent"--a mother of four from Mecosta, Mich.
In the panel's numerous meetings and hearings since its creation last August, Mrs. Kirk has been one of the most vocal members, an interested participant in the presentations by educational researchers, visits to local schools and colleges, and panel discussions.
"As the parent, I get more attention. I'm the only one on the commission with children at all four levels of school--kindergarten, elementary, junior high, and high school," she says.
Mrs. Kirk adds that she has a unique perspective from which to view the committee's activities because she represents "no special-interest group. I have no vested interest in keeping things as they are" she says.
Organized Parent Groups
Her independence extends to organized parent groups as well. Although she has served in parent-teacher associations and on a local board of education, she says neither group is effective because "they're dealing with extraneous things, not education. pta's discuss gymnasiums and teas, but rarely do they discuss curriculum and content."
Nor does she want to be associated with groups of disaffected parents who want to do away with the public schools. Mrs. Kirk says that although she and her husband, the philosopher and author Russell Kirk, consider themselves to be politically conservative--and although Mr. Kirk has many followers who are involved in right-wing politics--they are not "hard-rock conservatives or Moral-Majority types."
She calls herself a "believer" in the public schools. "But we must react to this crisis in the public schools because it is in our self-interest as a nation. We need children who can read newspapers, because an informed citizenry is necessary for democracy."
An active parent in her children's schools and a former teacher, she says some of the things the committee members have learned during the past few months have convinced her that some beneficial changes can be made in American schools.
The National Institute of Education's research findings on what makes an effective school, for example, have been implemented in schools the panel visited in Houston and Atlanta. "The program is working, and working well, in those inner-city classrooms," she says.
A management-by-objectives program for school administrators in Houston and an Atlanta cooperative program between the schools and business leaders were "impressive," she says. "The Atlanta program is called 'A Community of Believers.' That's what the schools need to create among parents," she says.
Improvements in teaching may be difficult, she says, because "education is a nest of people with entrenched interests." Mrs. Kirk says she reached that conclusion after a commission hearing on teacher education. "The teacher-educators never cooperate; they all have their own turfs," she says. "The college departments of education don't want to give up their power because of a fear of losing jobs, losing tenure."
She points to a recent article in an education journal that said one college of education taught 600 separate courses--"not necessarily because of student demand but because that's what the faculty wanted to teach," she says.
At the same hearing, she remembers asking a representative of a teachers' union "why we shouldn't be able to set some minimum expectations for each grade level--not necessarily content or textbooks but standards. The response was that if this teacher had a third-grader who couldn't read, he shouldn't be held back from his class."
She was appalled at that response, she says, because "if we make everything easy for students, when they get out of school, they're going to be at a disadvantage."
Mrs. Kirk predicts that if unions and other interest groups won't promote reforms, "there'll be a punitive backlash. The legislatures are going to be asking for teacher-competency examinations and mandatory curriculum requirements."
In overseeing the education of her own children, who attend both public and Catholic schools, Mrs. Kirk says she has had some disheartening experiences. In one instance, after a principal called to inform her that her teen-age daughter had skipped school, Mrs. Kirk "grounded her for a month."
The school's punishment was a requirement that the girl sign a contract saying she wouldn't do it again.
"I asked the principal to please discipline her, suggesting that he keep her from participating in cheerleading for a week. He agreed to that," she says.
She contrasts that school's practice with other discipline policies she has observed as a member of the commission, such as those in one school where students were given a handbook that spelled out punishments for specific infractions. "That is a very good program," she says.
Related to school discipline problems is the issue of whether schools can instill moral values when parents are unwilling or unable to do so, she says. "When schools try to teach character, they have to realize their limitations. Moral habits are not formed principally in school; they are affected by the expectations of parents and the communities in which they live," as well as by peer-group pressure and the media, she says.
"My husband and I are doing everything we can to raise our children well. It's so hard, because the peer group often wins out," she says. To help their children develop character, the Kirks devote time to reading aloud to them, and they will require that their children spend a year working between high-school graduation and college.
She also suggests that schools might teach "the great books" as a way of assisting parents in teaching moral values.
Reforms in Education
Identifying successful reforms in education and publicizing them are objectives of the excellence commission, and Mrs. Kirk hopes its final report--due to be completed in March 1983--will receive wide attention.
At a meeting here recently, the panel discussed several options for the structure of the report; one idea is to produce a video or film program--a project Mrs. Kirk strongly supports.
"Rather than a paper thing, it should be a living document," she says. "We are trying to set a tone for reform, but at the same time these reforms are happening all over the country. A media program can show the problems, and then it can point out where successful schools are solving problems," she says.
In addition to helping improve the practice of education, Mrs. Kirk says she hopes the panel will try to identify the goals of education. ''I think the main question for our commission is a philosophical one. What are we about, what should we try to do? Can we agree on what are the ultimate ends of education?"
The Houston superintendent, she says, asked the committee members to take on that task."He said that they have computers and all sorts of sophisticated equipment, but what they need to know is 'what is our mission?' He asked us to identify it for him."
Desirable as that might be, however, Mrs. Kirk says she doubts that the commission members will be able to agree on an issue so dependent on people's political and philosophical beliefs.
"My husband has been writing about this issue for 25 years, and he may just have to give up," she says.