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District Plans To Test Democratic Reforms

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Officials of the Montgomery County, Md., schools--regarded as innovative in serving one of the most affluent communities in the nation--have concluded that they nevertheless may benefit from a dose of reform.

With the aim of reversing what they term the "bureaucratic, inflexible, top-down'' character of their system, district leaders are inviting schools to apply to join an experiment in school-based management.

The program, which was approved by the school board in June, would allow teachers and parents in up to 10 of the district's 160 schools to have greater say in scheduling, curriculum planning, and the allocation of resources.

Schools have until November to apply for the planning grants, for which the board has allocated a total of $100,000. The pilot projects are to begin in the spring of 1989.

According to the program's guidelines, pilot schools will have considerable leeway in determining how they will be organized and operated. In return, they must agree to certain governing principles, the most important of which is a "democratic'' decisionmaking process that includes teachers and parents.

If a pilot school's involved parties agreed, it could, for example, replace several teaching aides with a single teacher, or could offer more interdisciplinary courses.

"It's a real departure for a school system that has been very hierarchical and has tended to have initiatives come from people from the central office,'' said Mark Simon, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

The plan is modeled on ideas being tested, with the support of teachers, in a growing number of school systems, including Dade County, Fla.

Last month, the rank-and-file members of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers formally endorsed such experimentation by their unions. (See story on page 16.)

"There are tremendous problems with an educational system when initiatives are not coming from teachers,'' said Mr. Simon.

Authority With Accountability

The impetus for Montgomery County's experiment was a report completed last year by a board-created advisory committee on the hiring, training, recruitment, and retention of the district's teaching force.

The committee members, who were all county residents, included several nationally known educators, including Linda Darling-Hammond, the director of the education and human-resources program at the RAND Corporation, and Michael O'Keefe, the president of the Consortium for the Advancement of Private Higher Education.

Concluding that the school system's management style was "increasingly bureaucratic,'' the committee recommended that "teachers and principals be given increased responsibility, authority, and accountability for determining the structure of their school and how they will achieve the goals for learning established by the board of education.''

According to the pilot program's guidelines, which were drafted by a work group appointed by the district's superintendent, Harry Pitt, schools that participate in the program will use "democratic decisionmaking processes'' to establish and re-evaluate their model programs and must seek the consensus of the principal, the teachers, and the school's parents.

Beyond the planning grant, the guidelines note, pilot schools must operate under the district's standard funding and staffing allocations. They will be required to seek board approval to be exempted from districtwide policies.

An advisory committee of representatives appointed by the teachers', principals', and support-personnel unions, the parent-teacher organization, and the superintendent will decide this fall which pilot proposals should be funded.

In the fall of 1990, the board will decide if it wants to expand the school-based management program.

Lewis A. Jones, principal of Ridgeview Junior High School in Gaithersburg and a member of the work group that drafted the guidelines, predicted that most principals would welcome the chance to work more closely with teachers and share some of their authority.

"What you want to do is to make teachers more creative,'' he said. "Teachers should be in a position to participate and be an active partner in those decisions.''

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