Removal of Authority From Schools Will Imperil Reforms, Report Warns
The current education-reform movement will not work if it attempts to "mandate" excellence and shift control from individual schools and teachers to state departments of education, legislatures, and governors' offices.
That is the conclusion of a report scheduled to be released next month by the American Educational Studies Association, a national membership organization of historians, philosophers, and sociologists of education.
Increasing centralization "seems to be inimically opposed to what the research says about how you get successful schools--namely, through a great deal of local flexibility and innovation," said Charles A. Tesconi Jr., one of the authors of "Pride and Promise: Schools of Excellence For All The People" and professor of education and dean of the College of Education and Social Services at the University of Vermont.
Freedom to Innovate
"All the evidence seems to suggest that good teaching is discretionary--that it's going to be a judgment or a whole series of judgments as to what's needed and what will go," added Mary Anne Raywid, co-author of the report and chairman of the department of administration and policy studies and director of the Center for the Study of Educational Alternatives at Hofstra University.
"To legislate things in such a fashion that teachers can't make those judgments, so that they're just required to follow a preconceived plan," she said, "is to make things worse, not better."
Ms. Raywid and Mr. Tesconi wrote the report with Donald R. Warren, chairman of the department of education policy, planning, and administration at the University of Maryland.
The authors warn that the two biggest obstacles to achieving excellence are attempts to control conduct through "long-standing reliance on rules and regulations" and "the assumption that educational improvement rests in increasingly detailed and precise specification of school practice related to curriculum, time allotments, standards, professional specialization, and roles and responsibilities."
Concepts, Not Content
They argue that states and school districts should be framing curricular goals for students in terms of concepts and skills--not specific content. Although high-school students should become familiar with literature, the sciences, mathematics, social studies, and the fine and performing arts, it is "unwise," the authors write, to specify the number of courses or credits to be taken in various academic areas or the precise nature of those classes.
"It is quite appropriate to ask each school to accept a common set of concepts as its goals," the authors say. "It is also reasonable to hold each school accountable for these goals and for devising ways to document its students' success for the public."
But too many of the reform reports, they write, measure a school's success primarily on the basis of student performance on standardized3tests of academic achievement. The authors state that even if these tests measured the academic mission of schools adequately, which evidence suggests they do not, "they fail entirely to address the school's performance in relation to numerous other purposes."
"Pride and Promises" emphasizes that Americans need to take a "fundamental look at what it is we want from schools," not just react reflexively to the spate of reports on education issued by national and state commissions and task forces. They note that piecemeal reforms adopted over the past 25 years have led to the dramatic expansion of school duties and "the consequent enlargement of mission that now overwhelms schools."
Most of the reports, said Mr. Tesconi, slight the "burdensome missions" and diverse purposes that schools are expected to fulfill. And "they beg the question of what schools are for and how to judge them," the authors write.
"When we reflect that during the past three decades alone, the schools have been pushed and pulled through no fewer than four different eras of criticism and reform," said Mr. Tesconi, "we get a sense of how vulnerable they become to changes in the wheel of public preference, and how a lack of attention to purpose then becomes increasingly problematic."
Most of the reform reports, the authors note, also ignore educational and corporate research on the importance of motivation, organizational structure, policies, and climate in encouraging excellence. And they place too much of the6blame on teachers and on schools of education.
"[T]o ignore, as virtually all the reports have, the role of principals, superintendents, school boards, state departments of education, textbook publishers, testmakers, and others in setting conditions for academic success is inexcusable," said Mr. Tesconi.
"There's been a virtual, collective silence on the education of other school professionals ... yet some of the research says they are the linchpins of school success."
Teacher Training Faulted
Training for teachers within colleges of education needs to be improved, the authors said. But they added that college students planning to become teachers still take the bulk of their coursework within the colleges of arts and sciences--a fact ignored by most of the reform reports.
"If it turns out that those people don't know their subject matter very well, or don't know how to spell, or aren't very bright, it's really not the fault of teacher education," explained Ms. Raywid. "The bulk of their education came from somewhere else."
The authors concur with those who recommend that future teachers receive a strong general education as well as professional training in education. And they argue that the latter should focus particularly on the results of the latest research on effective schools and on pedagogy.
Copies of the report may be ordered from: Pride and Promise, aesa, P.O. Box 598, Westbury, N.Y. 11590. Individual copies are $4.25. Discounts are available for bulk orders. Checks or money orders should be payable to "Pride and Promise, aesa"