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Houston Schools Chief Urges Innovative Reforms

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Dallas--Educators have failed to "put aside blinders" in confronting radical shifts in the demographic makeup of schools and a decline in the proportion of the population that has a direct interest in public education, Superintendent Billy R. Reagan of the Houston Independent School District told a group of educators here late last month.

Speaking before the biennial meeting of Phi Delta Kappa, the honorary education fraternity, Mr. Reagan criticized teachers' organizations for opposing many of his reform proposals, such as awarding bonuses to teachers with perfect attendance records, and other educators for failing to deal with education issues imaginatively.

"In the past, when we have faced problems ... the American people have always put aside their emotional barriers," Mr. Reagan said. "I believe the biggest problem we have today is that we have not put aside blinders."

"The next three to five years are going to be the greatest and most critical in the history of American education," Mr. Reagan added. "Reform is going to take place more quickly than any of us realize. It's not a question of when, but how."

Mr. Reagan, who has gained national attention with the controversy surrounding many of Houston's reform policies, addressed the education fraternity as part of its Paul M. Cook lecture series. Previous speakers included Secretary of Edu-cation Terrel H. Bell, the civil-rights leader Jesse Jackson, and Patricia Albjerg Graham, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Other educators addressing the conference included Emeral A. Crosby, the principal of Northern High School in Detroit and a member of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, and Adrienne Y. Bailey, vice president for academic affairs of the College Board.

'Restructuring Education'

Mr. Reagan said teachers and administrators should develop ways of "restructuring education in America" because of demographic and community changes and advances in educational technology. As many as half of the tasks traditionally performed by teachers could be performed by computers if the technology were properly utilized, he said.

But more important than computers, Mr. Reagan said, is a shift in attitudes about the proper role of schools in society.

Describing the situation in his own school system, Mr. Reagan said that "most decision makers don't understand that 75 percent of the students are from working families, they don't understand that 30 percent are from single-parent homes, they don't understand that 33,000 [students speak a language other than English]. If we do not pay attention, another $30 billion will go to waste."

Teachers and administrators in Houston, Mr. Reagan said, have often shown an unhealthy reluctance to reconsider conventional notions about public education. For example, local teachers' groups have supported his proposal that all teachers receive starting salaries of $20,000 and an average salary of $40,000 by the 1986-87 school year, but the organizations have challenged his plans for testing the competency of school employees "from the superintendent to the top custodian."

In the first round of minimum-competency testing last March, many of the 3,000 teachers taking examinations openly cheated to protest the new policy, according to officials of teachers' organizations.

The day before he arrived here for the meeting, Mr. Reagan was greeted by teachers demonstrating against the evaluation policy; 200 of them, he charged, were "paid" to demonstrate. On the day of the conference, the Houston Post published a photograph of a teacher carrying a placard with two misspelled words.

"What a tragedy that we have allowed ourselves to get in this kind of situation," Mr. Reagan said. "No matter what I do, there is no way I am ever going to remove that picture from the front page of the Post."

Since becoming superintendent of the 190,000-pupil district in 1974, Mr. Reagan has pushed what he called the Houston Plan for Excellence in Education, which includes an extensive magnet-school program, voluntary busing, a new discipline code, and contracts between teachers and students. Students' scores on almost all competency and achievement examinations have risen since 1980, according to figures supplied by the district. Students in the 9th through 12th grades improved their academic standing relative to their grade by two to six months between 1982 and this year.

Desegregation in Houston has improved the performance of minority students, Mr. Reagan said. In some cases, he said, blacks who scored in the 20th percentile on standardized tests improved to the 70th percentile after being bused across town.

Mr. Reagan urged those attending the meeting to copy key components of the plan, such as the year-round program being tested in one Houston elementary school this year. (See Education Week, May 25, 1983.) Under such a plan, with 60-day periods of instruction and 20-day periods of vacation, schools could offer programs to meet students' special needs or interests, Mr. Reagan said. For example, he suggested, many bilingual students could receive intensive instruction in English during vacations.

Mr. Reagan also said public schools can offer good programs to all students, but that many efforts to provide equal access to education have failed because "we threw away the standards."

Mr. Crosby of the excellence commission told the conferees that the recent spate of reports on education had provided an unprecedented opportunity for fundamental reform, but that political considerations could threaten it. He asked educators to drop their "own agendas" in addressing education issues.

Mr. Crosby said commission members repeatedly sought President Reagan's attention during the drafting of the report but were constantly denied meetings with the President. The President's early remarks about the report indicated "that he had not read the report," Mr. Crosby said.

Only after education started to receive national attention did the President read the report and appear with commission members, Mr. Crosby said.

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