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'Small Changes' Won't Do, Says California Panel

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Declaring that "small improvements are no longer acceptable,'' a group of corporate executives in California is calling for a radical restructuring of the state's schools, including reducing the required period of formal schooling by four years.

The California Business Roundtable's report, "Restructuring California Education: A Design for Public Education in the Twenty-First Century,'' is one of two new critiques that focus on the failure of the public schools to adequately educate minority students, who constitute nearly half of California's total enrollment.

The other report, by the Achievement Council--a group of prominent educators, business leaders, and minority representatives--also cites the failure of the school system to serve the state's diverse student population, but recommends changes that can be made within current structures.

On average, the two reports found, California's black and Hispanic students are almost six months behind their white peers academically at the elementary level, and a year behind at the junior-high level. By the 12th grade, black and Hispanic students who remain in school achieve, on average, at the level of white students entering the 9th grade.

"A lot of the reforms of 1985 reached a different tier of students,'' said Peter Mehas, education advisor to Gov. George Deukmejian. "We need to look more closely at reforms that reach our inner-city youth.''

The two new reports join a host of reform proposals that are being offered by the Governor's office and by Bill Honig, the state superintendent of public instruction.

Both officials have released preliminary recommendations that in some cases overlap with the new reports; their final reports are due in coming months.

"What we have now is a differentiated system,'' Mr. Honig said last week. While a third of the state's schools have demonstrated major improvements and another third have made some progress in the past five years, he said, schools in the bottom third "continue to resist improvements.''

"We've got the basic reforms in place,'' he said. "Now we have to look at the schools that aren't improving and the gaps that are not closing and concentrate on those areas.''

'New Plateau' Said Necessary

California's public-school system would assume a dramatically different structure in the blueprint of the Business Roundtable, an organization whose members include the chief executive officers of more than 90 of the state's largest corporations.

The economic, demographic, and fiscal realities facing California, the new report says, "lead to an inescapable solution: Small improvements are no longer acceptable.''

"To meet the challenge of the 21st century,'' it continues, "California education needs to operate at a new plateau of student performance, teacher productivity, cost-effectiveness.''

The report advocates many of the restructuring proposals, such as parental choice and school-based management, that have surfaced in other state and national reports.

But it also includes several unusual ideas that are generating considerable controversy in the state.

The business group recommends, for instance, reducing the number of years students spend in traditional comprehensive schools from 13 to 9.

Children between the ages of 4 and 6 would attend "primary schools,'' run by public or private providers who would compete for state contracts. These schools would "focus on child development, not formal academics,'' and would require parents to contribute services.

Under the business group's proposal, students between the ages of 7 and 16 would attend comprehensive schools that teach "core competencies'' to all students in heterogeneous ability groupings.

Students who master the core competencies by age 16 would be entitled to two additional years of specialized schooling at the high school or postsecondary institution of their choice.

Choice, Local Governance

The report also recommends that all students and parents be given the right to choose their schools, including mini-schools created by breaking up the largest schools into smaller, autonomous units.

To foster more local governance, the report recommends that each school be required to establish both a community board, elected by parents, and a school coordinating council, consisting of the principal and a group of teachers.

These bodies, working in concert with the principal, would develop school-improvement plans, make discretionary budget decisions, and participate in staffing decisions.

Several of these recommendations have drawn fire from Mr. Honig, who called them "half-baked, risky, and dangerous.''

"Who knows if they would work or not?'' he asked. "If you do radical surgery, and it doesn't work, it takes years to clean up the mess and get back on track.''

But Joseph F. Alibrandi, chairman and chief executive officer of the Whittaker Corporation and chairman of the Roundtable's education task force, defends the need for bold action.

"We do not believe that we can get the quantum improvement needed by continuing to pour money into the present system with only Band-Aid changes,'' he said.

"The business community wants to help break the cycle of failure,'' he added. "We want a restructured education system that reaches out to those who have been disenfranchised.''

Mr. Mehas, the Governor's aide, also took issue with Mr. Honig's cautionary approach, saying, "The current delivery system simply will not meet the needs of California's growth or our demographic makeup.''

'Aggressive' Action Needed

The Achievement Council's report, "Unfinished Business: Fulfilling Our Children's Promise,'' focuses on underachievement among minority and low-income students, and offers solutions that can be implemented without significant restructuring of the school system.

"We think it's possible within the current structure to do a good deal more than is currently being done,'' said Kati Haycock, executive director of the council.

"That is not to suggest that some of these other recommendations are not very good ideas,'' she added, "but while the debate goes on about larger structural reforms, it's essential that we not be paralyzed into waiting around for a number of years while tens of thousands of kids are passed by.''

The report calls for "an aggressive statewide initiative to improve school functioning and raise student achievement in the lowest performing schools.''

The report also recommends:

  • A rigorous curriculum, rich in ideas and concepts, for all students, and elimination of homogeneous ability grouping and tracking practices.
  • High-priority attention from university-, county-, and state-sponsored staff-development and school-improvement programs to the needs of low-performing schools.
  • Improvements in recruitment, selection, professional preparation, and support programs for teachers and administrators.
  • An expanded role for ethnic and community organizations in supporting and encouraging high achievement, especially through work with parents.

Both reports recommend that the state intervene in and, as a last resort, eventually take over schools that do not meet pre-set goals for student achievement.

Achievement Gap Remains

A bill that would create such an intervention strategy, jointly sponsored by Gov. Deukmejian and Mr. Honig, is currently awaiting action in the legislature.

Beyond its recommendations, however, the significant aspect of the Achievement Council's report is its analysis of achievement patterns among different ethnic groups during the education-reform era.

The report found that while test scores and other achievement indicators have generally been improving for all groups, there has been little change in the wide gap that exists between the performance of white students and their black and Hispanic peers.

Dropout rates have also risen for all groups, the report found. Between 1984 and 1987, it says, the attrition rate for black students climbed from 43 percent to 45 percent; for Hispanics, from 43 to 45 percent; for whites, from 25 to 27 percent, and for Asians, from 15 to 17 percent.

The report offers statistics on the changing demographics in the state and the consequences of these changes for the schools, but perhaps none more startling than that "young black males in California are more than three times as likely to be murdered than to become eligible to attend the University of California.''

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