Commentary

A Grassroots 'Counterrevolution'

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Something important is happening out there, deep in the grassroots of our public schools.

And this something important appears to have little to do with the rash of reports exhorting us to the educational "excellence" we can achieve by reviving a golden age of education--when schools had high academic standards and a standardized curriculum, and when students, teachers, and parents knew how to follow orders and behave themselves.

Nor does this something important seem to have much connection with the mad rush by many state legislatures to arbitrarily dictate new and "higher" academic standards. It has little to do with state standards that define exactly what every teacher must teach and impose by legislative fiat a new set of authoritarian controls on a state's schools.

What appears to be evolving in the public schools across the country today is a counterrevolutionary, antiauthoritarian idea: We can most easily and naturally achieve educational excellence by using public-school vouchers to introduce democratic, free-market competition into our school systems.

In the process, the clients of public education--parents and students--will be provided with the power to choose the public-education product they prefer. This idea extends to all schools our present concept of magnet schools, which, although initially designed to attract students to their specialized curricula or philosophy for purposes of desegregating a school system, also provide a range of educational choice previously inconceivable in the public schools. And similarly, such a system proposes to begin the process of professionalizing the nonprofession of public-school teaching by giving teachers and principals the right and the power to practice as they believe they should.

To cite only two examples of how this is happening:

  • Gov. Rudy Perpich of Minnesota recently proposed the beginnings of such a public-voucher system for his state, a proposal limited at the moment to 11th and 12th graders but to be extended by 1988-89 to all grade levels. It would also permit parents and students to choose schools not only in their own district but in any other Minnesota district.

    As Governor Perpich explained in a story in the Jan. 16, 1985, Education Week, "Research shows that when families are permitted to select the school of their choice, parents become more satisfied with the educational system, student attitudes improve, teacher morale goes up, and community support for schools increases."

  • In April 1984, the 12 largest urban school systems in Massachusetts, all of them desegregating in one form or another, held a conference in Worcester that resulted in an agreement to offer parents educational options.

    In their final report, the 350 participants recommended that rather than imposing uniform standards and new regulations from the top down, "the heart of the matter and the primary arena for improvement and excellence is the individual school--its staff, its parent body, its students."

    As John Durkin, Worcester's superintendent of schools, put it, "We all know that all children do not learn in a similar environment or by a similar method. Why, then, do we continue to deliver services in a similar fashion systemwide? I submit to you that choice proves beneficial not only to parents and students but to the teacher.

    "If we develop educational options that place children where they want to be, options that make it possible for parents to have their children where they want them and where parents will support the program and the staff, and options where teachers can feel comfortable and successful," he continued, "then I will show you a successful--and excellent--educational system."

Whence has this grassroots movement sprung? I think some of the answers are all too obvious, beginning with the enormous anger and resentment generated in a large number of our parents by the present system's insensitive, dictatorial refusal to listen to what parents want. These parents feel they have almost no say, no control over what happens to their children in the public schools. Indeed, according to a 1982 Gallup poll on education, almost 50 percent of parents with children in the public schools said that they would prefer to have their children in a private or parochial school.

But I have noticed while working with magnet schools around the country that many of these dissatisfied parents have found magnet schools to be an attractive alternative to nonpublic schools and are coming back. As those attending the Worcester conference discovered, the more than 1,000 magnet schools established nationwide to achieve educational equity through desegregation over the past decade and a half provide other benefits as well.

I suspect that the "research" Governor Perpich refers to includes the recent study of magnet schooling conducted by James H. Lowry and Associates for the Education Department. The report documents the success of these schools in all of the areas the Governor mentions and recommends that the federal government institute a large-scale national effort to create many more magnets, at least in all of our urban districts and perhaps in suburban and rural areas as well. What would a new system of public education based upon such parent and professional choice look like?

The range of existing magnet schools begins with very old-fashioned elementary and high schools--regular academic prep schools with a heavy emphasis on the traditional academic subjects, including modern and classical foreign languages, and a dress code. There are also "continuous progress" schools in which every student moves through a fairly standard academic curriculum at his or her own speed. Magnet systems feature, in addition, Montessori schools, developmental or "open-education" schools, schools devoted to the fine and performing arts, and others specializing in foreign languages or science, technology, and computers. There is even a "micro-society" school (based on the ideas found in The Mini-Society School: A Real World in Miniature by George Richmond) operating in Lowell, Mass., in which students design and operate their own democratic, free-market society in school.

How might such a public-voucher system be created? Three Massachusetts cities, while not quite yet reaching the point where every school is a magnet school, have developed a planning process that shows how this can be done.

As part of their desegregation planning, the Lowell and Worcester school systems created citywide parent planning councils composed of two parent representatives from each school in the city. These councils then studied the full range of possible magnet schools, including, in the case of Lowell, putting parents on airplanes to visit some of the cities where magnets are in operation. Both councils then selected the five to 10 types of magnets they thought would be most appropriate for their cities. They developed and conducted surveys of all public-school parents to determine the different kinds of magnet schooling parents wanted for their children.

Teachers were asked which kind of school they would prefer to teach in, and whether or not they would volunteer to transfer to the new schools. While the Lowell and Worcester teachers were not surveyed in advance as to their special talents and interests, school systems interested in setting up a similar model should collect this information before polling parents.

On the basis of the results of these surveys (surprisingly, in Lowell, the top two preferences--the micro-society school and one devoted to the fine and performing arts--did not include a traditional academic-prep curriculum), the school systems proceeded to provide the schools the parents asked for, either by creating brand-new citywide schools or by converting existing schools into the requested magnets. Parents--and teachers--may now choose these schools so long as such choices promote the desegregation of the system as a whole, with no school having more than a 50 percent minority population.

In Cambridge, although the district conducted no parent surveys, the school officials have developed a system in which parents may choose to send their children to any public school in the city, again, so long as there is available space and the choice promotes desegregation.

In this sense, then, the public schools in each of these three cities compete for the patronage of their parents and students--and for the best teachers--and therefore must strive for excellence in their chosen way. By adopting the Lowell and Worcester approaches to magnet-school planning and Cambridge's system of allowing parents to choose any public school in the city, schools could provide great diversity in their public-voucher education. This combined model also eliminates a problem found in some magnet-school systems: As the magnet schools become successful, the nonmagnets may find themselves orphaned for lack of funding and community interest.

If as a nation we take this democratic, noncoercive route toward excellence and create this new kind of school system rather than following the authoritarian recommendations contained in most of the reform reports, we will have seized a great opportunity. A system of public education that not only serves our present clients but brings lost parents and students back into the public schools and is truly worthy of public support may even be worthy of--and therefore able to obtain--the enormous financial commitment necessary if we are ever to achieve genuine excellence in our public schools.

Vol. 04, Issue 22, Page 44

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