Commentary: The Value of Recognition Programs

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Moving within the past seven years from the status of a novel proposal through a phase of sporadic experimentation, the idea of school-recognition programs has now apparently reached the stage of institutionalization. While there is no assurance that such programs will reach the level of widespread diffusion, the developments of the recent past suggest that the underlying idea has many underrated attractions. Not simply a low-cost way of stimulating interschool competition and providing recognition for groups of educa6tors who are operating wholesome schools, these programs offer a means of widening a system of accountability without radically reorganizing existing administrative structures.

School-recognition programs are systems for identifying and honoring individual schools that are achieving notably better results than other schools in similar circumstances. The benefits awarded to such schools can range from publicity and public praise to substantial cash awards.

The creation of such programs was proposed as early as 1980. In 1982 the Ford Foundation funded a two-year program to identify conspicuously promising high schools in low-income communities. Following this precedent, in 1983 U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell announced the commencement of a federal program to identify excellent public high schools across the nation, and that program has since expanded.

Despite the enthusiasm underlying these measures, the Ford program expired, as planned, and the federal program, while still in operation, has not yet established an institutional base through the passage of authorizing legislation. Since 1984, however, legislatures in California, South Carolina, and Florida have authorized their state education departments to create and implement systems for the conspicuous recognition of public schools with noteworthy performance records. Other states are contemplating similar measures.

Though the nature of these state programs varies considerably, they share several important elements: Winners are publicly identified; programs cover both elementary and secondary education; funds are annually appropriated for the management of the programs and for the provision of certain awards; and the education departments play important roles in the operation of the programs.

Diverse points distinguish the programs: Some legislation delegates considerable program authority to local school districts (and even requires employee cooperation in adopting and designing programs); the value of the awards, and the forms of awards distributed, vary widely; and the criteria for earning recognition differ.

In addition to such state-based systems, other structures for providing recognition have developed--for example, a national system maintained by Burger King (aimed more at principals than schools), and another system in the Chicago area sponsored by the University of Illinois at Chicago. A national conference on school-recognition programs occurred in March 1987 in Miami.

At a superficial level, it is easy to see why such programs have begun to catch on. They do not require large amounts of funds. They seem upbeat. They have a certain public-relations appeal: After all, who would publicly oppose recognizing excellent schools?

Indeed, schools, by the very nature of their typical instructional programs, with honor rolls and other techniques, are already deeply involved in making distinctions about others' competency. And, unlike such programs as merit-pay plans, school-recognition systems are not perceived as threatening by teachers' unions or,51lother powerful interest groups. Finally, it is no coincidence that the three state programs created so far have appeared in states led by dramatic education innovators, skilled at communication and image-making: Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig in California, former Gov. Richard W. Riley in South Carolina, and a medley of reformers in Florida.

At a more profound level, one strength of such programs is their appeal to the desire of many energetic and ambitious people to gain fame--conspicuous public praise. Distributing fame to educators and schools that meet the systems' criteria, public systems of recognition are an ingenious and relatively inexpensive way of exercising influence over education and, potentially at least, of shifting educational priorities in the long run. This potential is especially significant in public education, where the current systems for distributing recognition are relatively diffuse and of problematic legitimacy.

Most ambitious and active administrators in education, as in other professions, are usually busily engaged in image management: They seek to ensure that they are publicly identified with laudable activities associated with their schools, and that embarrassing news is countered or buried.

Such image management in education, however, poses a special challenge. Too many of the publicly "laudable" activities of schools deal with matters of peripheral importance: successful athletic teams, for instance, or elaborate buildings or grounds. Again, many schools make much ado about the matriculation of their students at prestigious colleges, when such attendance is more to the credit of the students' families than their high school, or about their pupil-teacher ratios, even though research discloses little or no relationship between the ranges of ratio typically found in schools and improved pupil learning.

The recognition programs propose that more rigorous and well-conceived criteria be applied in assessment and that the assessment rely on careful information gathering and analysis.

While these programs are moving toward institutionalization, many major developmental challenges still lie ahead. The very potential power that recognition programs may mobilize is one source of danger. That power may be applied toward wrong ends; the programs may reward bad policies and practices or may be directed toward trivial priorities.

Indeed, we must analyze closely the recognition criteria of the different programs. My sense is that the present programs largely involve the application of much off-the-shelf philosophy and technical apparatus. For instance, the systems in California and South Carolina emphasize median scores earned by pupils in existing statewide testing programs. While measured academic achievement is surely an appropriate criterion, it is problematic whether testing systems designed for other uses make appropriate criteria for accountability purposes.

This pattern of accepting the status quo is understandable. It has enabled the programs to move ahead with relatively few complications--always an important asset in a comparatively novel activity. Such criteria have also allowed the programs to satisfy an important body of potential critics: the schools and educators who have dedicated themselves to satisfying accepted professional criteria. Gradually, however, the programs must shift their criteria onto a new plane.

The shift should frankly recognize that the programs constitute a new player in the education game, with original capabilities. Those capabilities allow the programs to enlist different voices in the definition of criteria that have been disregarded, for the most part, by earlier systems. For example, in the "for character" program sponsored by the University of Illinois, data are collected about student participation in pro-social conduct in and around school, and about school recognition of such conduct. The university program contends it is concerned with both "pupil character" and academic excellence.

Such forms of new and revised criteria will stimulate the recognition systems to collect different data and subject the data collected to novel forms of analysis. Furthermore, there should gradually be greater intersystem communication among programs, and even intellectual controversy about the merits of different types of criteria and modes of awards. Such exchanges will heighten the accountability and, ultimately, the legitimacy of the systems.

One need not be a cynical Machiavellian to imagine that some criteria and award decisions may be affected by more than purely scientific priorities. Still, I am of the camp which contends that education, at present, suffers from the dominance of many poorly analyzed and conflicting goals. From this perspective, recognition programs appear to be a good tool for refining philosophical discourse--to the benefit of most pupils and practicing educators.

The fact that local educators and political leaders have become interested in the creation and operation of recognition programs will greatly assist the process of improvement. The new systems are taking on lives of their own and will probably develop different emphases and priorities. With a little luck, we will, in the years to come, see recurring--and perhaps intensifying--controversies about the design and operation of these systems. The effects of such disputes should, on the whole, be very beneficial to education.

Vol. 7, Issue 14, Page 21

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