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Grassroots Coalition of Educators Calls for 'Bottom-Up' Reforms

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Washington--Many of the current "prescriptions" for educational excellence actually are having a negative impact on the quality of public schools, according to a statement released here last week by a grassroots network of educators.

More testing of students and teachers, more graduation requirements, more homework, and more time in school are not the answers to educational reform, contends "Equity and Excellence: Toward an Agenda for School Reform," the document issued by the Public Education Information Network

Rejecting the "top-down" reforms currently underway in most states, the position statement advocates an educational system in which teachers and local community leaders are given the responsibilty for creating "schools dedicated to the principles of equity, excellence, and democracy."

The position statement is a response to "A Nation at Risk," the 1983 report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education.

National Network

The national network of 180 teachers, administrators, researchers, and teacher educators grew out of a concern that few people directly involved in the day-to-day business of educating children were making the decisions about how to improve the system, said Harold Berlak, secretary of the network and a professor of education at Washington University in St. Louis.

The network is a nonprofit organization that was started two years ago by Mr. Berlak and a small group of educators in St. Louis, New York, and San Francisco and "from there it just grew," Mr. Berlak said.

The group's goal is to develop a continuing information exchange among people who are directly involved in educating children at the elementary- and secondary-school level, Mr. Berlak said.

"If reform is to occur," he said, "it has to come from the bottom up."

A major project of the group is a bi-monthly newsletter called "Notes & Resources." Members of the network use the newsletter to share their ideas and information on how to improve public education.

In addition to the newsletter, the network will produce a series of seven position statements on school-reform issues during the next 18 months. "Equity and Excellence: Toward an Agenda for School Reform" is the first paper in the series.

The network's $25 individual-membership fee provides most of the funding for its activities, although small grants from the New World Foundation and the Funding Exchange in New York City covered some of the costs of producing the network's first publication, Mr. Berlak said.

The primary recommendation of the network's initial position statement is that "people in each school community must develop their own agendas and specific programs for reform."

'Significant' Shift

According to the statement, such a "significant" shift in responsibility for school reform would require the "elimination of existing legislative and fiscal barriers" and the development of policies and practices that encourage local initiative.

"Change on a wide scale, particularly in the larger, urban districts, will require challenging the deeply entrenched attitude that bureaucracies and administrative policies are unchangeable," the position paper states.

Rather than waiting for reform, the network recommends that parents, teachers, and administrators work toward:

Instituting district polices to

establish school-site management3and fiscal control and various forms of school-community governance.

Influencing state and local officials to introduce more responsive forms of testing and evaluation that would foster a sense of collective responsibility on the part of school administrators and teachers.

Revising discretionary federal and state regulations to eliminate prescribed procedures, such as the mandated use of standardized-test scores for determining eligibility and evaluating outcomes, and replacing them with more permissive guidelines that encourage creativity and responsibility by teachers, local districts, and individual schools.

Abolishing or significantly modifying the practice of centralized state or districtwide textbook adoption.

Teacher Effectiveness

Teachers also must be given greater control in educating their students, according to the statement.

"If good teachers are key to reform in our schools, they must have the autonomy commensurate with the responsibility," the statement reads.

The network recommends that teachers spend more time observing and discussing curriculum and pedagogy with other teachers, writers, and various experts in their field; be granted periodic sabbaticals; and be given easy access to available technology, such as up-to-date collections of curriculum materials, books, films, and computer software.

Consideration also should be given to reducing rather than increasing the number of class hours of actual student-teacher contact, the network maintains in the statement, in order to increase the time available for both independent planning and study.

Old-Fashioned Discipline

Also the network rejects the notion that a return to "good old-fashioned discipline" will improve education.

"The common wisdom is that there is a general laxness in classroom and school discipline ... and that students will learn only if forced to do so," the position paper states, but it adds that "neither of these claims can be supported by evidence."

"A visit to almost any local elementary or secondary school will confirm that students' behavior is carefully monitored and directed throughout the school day," it notes. "There is no absence of tight adult control in American schools--to the contrary, students almost never participate in curriculum decisions, ask few questions in class, and rarely are expected to take the initiative for their own learning."

According to the network statement, an "engaging pedagogy and democratic class discipline are at the heart of school reform."

"Arbitrary control and a pedagogy that emphasizes passive reception of knowledge are not only inappropriate preparation for democratic citizenship, but are ideal ways to discourage interest and achievement," the statement concludes.

For more information, write Mr. Berlak at Washington University, Campus Box 1183, St. Louis, Mo. 63130; or call (314) 889-6766.

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