Local Control and 'Organizacrats'
We have met the enemy, and they is us!" That's the Pogo-like characterization sketched in "Reinventing Local Control" by Chester E. Finn Jr. Commentary, Jan. 23, 1991). Mr. Finn contends, in effect, that people cannot be trusted to govern their own community's public schools.
Democratic representative governance of the public elementary and secondary schools in the local community--as epitomized by the locally elected school board--is old-fashioned and doesn't work anymore, shoring up every obstacle to education change, he says, are the local school board and its superintendent, both of whom he accuses of being "preservers of entrenched interests and encrusted practices." Mr. Finn's formula for education improvement: Do away with the local school board, which he excorciates as being "superfluous" and "dysfunctional," and while you're at it, fire the superintendent. Both are "living fossils of an earlier age," he concludes. And because the people of an entire community cannot govern their public schools, make each school an island unto its own, connected only with the fatherly authorities in the education bureaucracy in the state capital.
What is Mr. Finn's case for such a radical move? He offers four reasons. Each one is off the mark and, taken as a group, they nullify each other.
His first reason is that states, not local school districts, have evolved over the years as the "senior partners in school finance." To begin with, this general statement has no application to many of the nation's more than 15,000 local districts where so-called state aid pays the minority share of financing schools. But, even in those states that have instituted a state equalization formula that has as its base not the wealth of a particular district but the resources of the state as a whole to pay for education, the questions arise: "So what? What bearing does that have on who should govern each community's schools?"
The answer: It has no bearing at all. Regardless of how money comes back to support local school districts, it all begins as tax dollars from each local community. Newer state school-finance formulas--instituted primarily by judicial fiat because the courts found that some states' school-aid-equalization formulas never really equalized resources--have not lowered the tax money that local communities pay for their schools. The state formula merely has changed how such tax money is collected from the local community.
For decades, local school boards have urged state legislatures to use their authority over broader, more flexible tax-revenue sources than the real-property tax available to boards for funding the schools. At no time during years of debate did proponents an expanded tax base for schools--in local communities or in state legislatures--ever suggest that a good reason to do it was to increase control of the public schools from state capitals. Had they done so, they would have been laughed off the stage.
A logical extension of Mr. Finn's argument would be that, if the federal government ever carries through with the Jeffersonian commonors signed in Charlottesville, Va., in 1989, primary control over education should pass from the states to the federal government. In that agreement are provisions calling for more federal aid to education, as well as a super-equalization effort to bring additional federal funding to less affluent states. Mr. Finn's second argument is even more specious than linking tax-revenue allocation (without regard to source to school control. It declares that state governments are "where most of the action has been with respect to policy innovation."
This assertion prompts the retort of the old Brooklyn Dodgers fan: "Sez who?!" Education innovation in local districts across the United States during the past decade has been substantial. All it takes is for somebody to notice it. And, aye, there's the rub.
It's not easy for the national media to track innovation in more than 15,000 local communities. But, anybody who takes the time to ask the question of local school-board members, administrators, or teachers: "How has your instructional program changed in, say, the past five or 10 years?" will get an earful.3
Certainly state legislatures and governors have enacted considerable school-reform legislation in the past several years, and much of it has advanced the cause of school improvement, especially where proper funding also was included. But most of the specific programmatic ideas that found their way into new state laws and state-school-board regulations were based on experiences in the local school districts. They did not miraculously appear as visions from heaven in the
5 minds of state education people while out fasting in the desert.
And this is understandable because the best innovators--the most highly qualified teachers and most able administrators--are employed in local community school systems. It is at the local level that educators are best rewarded, both psychically from their professional contribution and financially from better salary schedules than are available at the state level. As to the other aspects of what advocates call the "education-reform agenda," such as extending the school day and year, conducting year-round school, and substantially raising teacher salaries, school boards know these attractive proposals, as a practical matter, cost big dollars. School districts, board members know, are labor-intensive enterprises. Salary and fringe benefits account for 85 percent of most districts' operating budgets. When people talk about "new programs,'' they're invariably talking about hiring new people. And when they talk retrenchment, they really mean reducing employees.
The two--employees and programs--are inextricably linked. And that linkage is the basis for the "opposition" school boards and administrators often raise to reform schemes that either are unfunded or woefully underfunded. In return, these tough-decision makers at the local level are pilloried as troglodytes resisting change. But school boards are gatekeepers of reality. And one of the realities school boards and their superintendents always face is matching the available dollars to the myriad proposals that regularly come before them.
It is elemental that reform in schooling occurs only in schools. What many observers count as reform at the state level is actually rhetoric about reform. State legislatures have in fact adopted many oppressive statutes over the years that ruin the type of local school environment needed for innovation. As barnacles slow down ships, these laws that limit school-board discretionary authority over personnel, curriculum, and other crucial operating areas--and that substitute micro-management by statute--hinder local initiative and stifle local imagination by undercutting boards' authority to act as local policymakers.
Mr. Finn's proffering of the "choice" idea as an argument to abolish local community control of the schools is perhaps the least relevant of all. Local boards generally have no problem with "choice," in which parents select the public school for their children within their district or where state law contemplates cross-district transfer, at least not so long as certain sensible conditions are met: Selections must be made for a full school year; racial balance may not be lessened; rules regarding athletic-program eligibility may not be subverted, district transportation costs may not be increased, and so on.
But where "choice" is an excuse to fund private education from public tax money, the opposition is, of course, spirited. Nevertheless, the common-sense fact--buttressed by clear experience in states having cross-district "choice" plans in operation where the number of parents wanting their children to attend schools away from their home area is negligible--is that almost all chilren will attend school in their own community. It is a mystery how "choice" constitutes a reason to eliminate community control of the public schools, as Mr. Finn asserts.
The final reason he invokes for throwing out local community school boards and their superintendents is a sort of potpourri in which he alleges that everything generally described as educational "restructuring," "deL centralization," and "site management" constitutes a triangle sounding the death knell for local community representative governance of its schools. As evidence, he submits the English school-governance experience, which is as unlike the United States' experience with local school boards as Parliament and the monar chy are different from Capitol Hill and the White House.
This school balkanization of a com munity would create the kind of "have" and "have not" schools within a community that the Serrano line of "equal protection" court cases prohibited among communities within a state. We then would have a worse so cial-class problem than the one Brit ain now is trying to shake off. Sepa rate public schools for the very poor, for the middle class, and for the afflu ent would be the natural result.
The fact is that the public schools in the United States (and Canada) have been decentralized from the start--indeed, too decentralized in light of today's standards and trans portation conditions. That's the reaH son school districts gradually com bined or unified over the years so that today, instead of having 128,000 boards, as was the situation in 1930, we have about 15,350. Our challenge is not to go backward to ward the extreme decentralization of years long gone but to make the current decentralized community approach to education work.
Local school-board governance con sists of several indispensable funcL tions. The board translates federal law and integrates state mandates into local policy action; tests proposed educational initiatives against the backdrop of community need and sen timent; evaluates on behalf of the en tire community the educational pro gram; monitors the work of the superintendent and administrative staff who implement board policy; serves as the final appellate body short of the court system on appeals of citizens and school employees from administrative decisions; cooperatively deals (both as a board and as in dividual board members with citiLzens in school matters in the tradition of responsive, responsible representa tive governance; and interacts with federal, state, and other local-govern ment entities to ensure that the schools are given the attention they deserve.
Each of these functions is so criti cal that they have given rise to the rubric, "If community school boards didn't exist, we would have to invent them."cw-2 School-site management is another phony issue thrown in by Mr. Finn. It is more a case of management style than of basic governance change. In deed, site management--with its im plicit transfer of much administrative authority from the central office to the school site--is related more to how superintendents and principals do their work than how local boards govern education in communities. the abiding concerns of school boards with respect to site management are in reserving to the people of any com munity, through representative gov ernance, the right to make overall ed ucation policy for the community. And that brings us to another ma jor flaw in Mr. Finn's reasoning: It is naive. Although he presents no coher ent plan to govern schools once the school board and superintendent are assigned to perdition, he apparently thinks that individual schools, with vaguely structured, leaderless com mittees of teachers and parents, can both function effectively and be equal partners with the faraway state bu reaucracy. Not only would they fo ment a kind of neo-anarchy, but they also would be torn asunder by state bureaucracies asserting their "superi or" knowledge of what is really best for schools, as they so often do today with local districts serving politically powerful communities.
But Mr. Finn's errant proposal is no surprise. It flows naturally from experience with the U.S. Education Department in a time when advancing specific education ideologies counted more than assessing reality. He is an exemplar of a new breed of education activists most accurately called organizacrats. Their solution to every problem is, you guessed it: Reorganize! Nobody except an organizaHcrat would tell reasonable people that they can solve all of their problems by simply reorganizing, and nobody else could do it with a glibness and chutzpah that astounds experienced practitioners.
But, the real or apocryphal wisdom of the ages on the limits of reorganizing is summed up in the injunction of one of the Roman Emperor Nero's deputies, Petronius Arbiter, who declared, "... we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization."
Experienced practitioners of public-school governance, administration, and teaching know that the real problems of the schools are a reflection of our society. Schools are not the whole cause of the problems but rather are the places where the problems are most evident in each community.
A holistic approach to enhancing children's natural capacity and desire to learn--one that incorporates concerted action by government, business, labor, churches, and families, as well as the schools--must be complemented with a public commitment for a sensible dollar investment in children and a resolve to use technology effectively in education. But, on all three counts--gearing up local communities to address the human dimension of learning, recognizing that true educational change has its roots in societal change and definitely will be no free lunch, and incorporating technology into the curriculum as well as the administration of schools--the record of the U.S. Education Department is a cipher.
It is precisely in these areas, however, that school boards are beginning to guide their districts. That is the genius of the American system of local community governance. And the shame is that it is being done without assistance from Mr. Finn and the other organizacrats so preoccupied with pondering the wrong questions.
Thomas A. Shannon is the executive director of the National School Boards Association.
By Susan Ohanian
Amazing as it seems, eight years ago microwave popcorn didn't exist. Today it rates half an aisle in my supermarket and the annual per capita consumption tops 46 quarts. We are witnessing a similarly rapid rise in the "collaboration" curve, going from 2.8 mentions per 10,000 words in education journals in 1982 to 1,345 in 1989. As we enter this new decade, collaboration ranks second only to journal keeping as the badge of right-minded professionalism.
Teachers can never sit back and take it easy. Just when we think we've outrun the systems analysts--the Mastery Learning folk and their seven-step lesson-plan kin--we find ourselves in danger of being pedagogically mugged by guys wearing white hats. We have university research projects, ed-biz-whiz consultants criss-crossing the country, and warm, fuzzy teacher-support groups telling us we aren't whole if we aren't working in teams. Zealotry runs high. Disagree with a collaborationist and more than likely you'll find yourself trying to prove you aren't a fascist..
For some, instant conversion to the collaborationist/cooperative mode does not require a lot of preparation.
Item: At a recent whole-language conference I picked up a bit of flotsam called Whole Language Lesson Plan in which the teacher-author establishes a category called "Cooperative Learning Activities" and insists that "anything you would ask one student to do can be accomplished cooperatively."
Item: In a recent book on collaboration published by one of our major professional organizations, I read that "teachers should imitate the practices of scientists, scholars, journalists, and business people" and encourage their students to write collaboratively.
Freeman Dyson, Jeremy Bernstein, Stephen Jay Gould, P.B. Medawar, where are your collaborators? And are the ghostwriters hired by Donald Trump, Lee Iacocca, et al. the collaborative model to which we aspire?
The first time somebody tried to force me to write collaboratively was at the New York State Writing Conference. According to the program, two presenters were going to talk about how they collaborate to teach writing in an urban mid dle school. After some preliminary moaning over the fact that we couldn't get our chairs into a circle, the presenters told us to get out our pencils and open our notebooks because we were going to write for 10 minutes. "We're going to recreate the feelings of terror, anguish, and impotence we experienced in our youth when the teacher demanded we write and we stared in terror at the blank page," announced the group leader, an earnest-looking type straight out of the L.L. Bean catalogue. "And then we'll share. And collaborate to produce better writing."
Neither common courtesy nor the ignominy of creating an uproar in front row center could keep me in my chair. I stepped on 13 toes and 18 shopping bags stuffed with publishers' wares scrambling to make my escape. As I neared the door, the group leader commented in a patient, sorrowful, but understanding tone about teachers who are so threatened by the thought of exposing themselves in writing that they can't even stay in such a session.
Writing is the way I make my living. And I take it so seriously that even for the sake of politeness, I refuse to engage in little 10-minute scribble-and-share games. I marvel at the exhibitionism of these collaborative-writing groups popping up everywhere. Maybe someday the National Science Foundation or the National Association of Pigeon Fanciers or a group of similar public spirit will fund a study to determine the ratio of sharing to publication. Writing is so crummy on the nerves that unless you're writing a letter to your mother or your Congressman, why would you do it except for publication?
For me, to talk about a piece is to kill it, and not even my husband and best editor ever can take a peek until I've been through 63 drafts and prepared the final copy eight times. Sometimes, even after all that, I'm still too touchy to risk talk. I just send it off and a distant editor becomes the first reader. Writing is the most private thing I do. It is entirely solitary. I'd maim anybody who tried to sneak a look after I'd been at it for only 10 minutes. And the only person's writing I am interested in taking a look at 10 minutes--or 10 hours--after he's started is Calvin Trillin's.
Franz Kafka wrote to Felice Bauer, "You once said that you would like to sit beside me while I wrote. Listen, in that case I could not write at all." Kafka went on, "One can never be alone enough when one writes ... there can never be enough silence around one when one writes ... even night is not night enough."
But the idea of sitting alone in a room with a piece of paper is a very scary notion for 99.83 percent of the people in this county, teachers being no exception. And as for reading, how many of the people we know, the people who run our schools, the people we elect to Congress and the White House, are much different from the Vladimir Nabokov character who, "had he been condemned to spend a whole day shut up in a library, would have been found dead about noon"?
When I taught 3rd grade, we started the day with 15 minutes of sustained silent reading. That's what it said in my plan book, anyway. I thought I'd have to tie those kids into their chairs to keep them there five minutes. And even when they became convinced that I'd have to see blood gushing before I'd let anybody move from the chair to go to the nurse or call his lawyer, they didn't read: they sat quietly and watched me read. For months. It was a scary time for me, but I kept reading and I buttressed myself with a stubborn faith in kids and good books. Eventually, that faith flowered. By March those children were complaining that they were "right in the good part" when I called a halt to silent reading at the end of an hour each morning.
When I tell this story as the miracle of 3rd grade, a lot of people are upset. When did I teach? they ask. How did I make myself accountable for learning, how did I assess the children's progress during that hour of silence?
That hour of silence makes a whole lot of people nervous. And I know why. Not many people believe you learn to read by reading. It's too simple. And if truth be known, not many adults can sit and read on their own for an hour every day. And not many teachers can keep quiet for an hour a day.
Maybe, instead of commending to teachers and their students a corporate-committee model of collaboration, we should tell them about General John E. Hull. He was in charge at the American Air Force base at Iwakuni, Japan, on a May morning in 1955 when 25 Japanese women badly crippled and disfigured by the atomic blast at Hiroshima were to begin their trip for medical help in America. They were already aboard the U.S. Air Force plane when an aide dashed up to General Hull with an urgent cable from Washington. Not wishing to risk repercussions should the Hiroshima women encounter medical complications, a committee at the State Department had ordered the flight canceled. For a long moment, General Hull said nothing. When he handed the cable back to his aide. "Unfortunately, I don't have my reading glasses with me," he said. "Be sure to remind me to read this later." And the plane took off.
I want my students to know such stories, stories of conscience, stories of one person standing up and obfuscating bureaucracy and group-think, one person refusing to take time for a committee vote.
Certainly my students work together every day, but that working is fluid, vague, and transitory. There is nothing so formal or permanent as learning groups' "seeking outcomes that are beneficial to all those with whom they are cooperatively linked." Nothing so idiotic as announcing to groups of kids what the "cooperative-learning outcomes" will be for the day.
That's not to say that I wouldn't have loved to write in my planbook that a learning outcome for Leslie from October to March was learning to read a knock-knock joke. If I'd known at the time that it was so important, maybe I would have written it down. But the truth of the matter was that, as with most of my teaching, I didn't realize until months and even years later how important the event was.
I have written a lot about Leslie, a 3rd-grade deaf child to whom I gave more of my heart than to any other student. Leslie had never been in public school before and it was a painful, terrifying, and ultimately joyous experience--for her and for me.
Leslie cried buckets over knock-knock jokes. She would wail, "What's so funny? Why is everybody laughing?" And some days she'd get mad and stamp her feet. And she'd cry. And cry.
For months, at odd moments during the day different children would wander over to Leslie and try to help her "get" the point. Anna persisted more than anybody else. A lovely, quiet, shy child whose father berated her for being slow, Anna was repeating 3rd grade. She put up with Leslie's tantrums, helped her find her place, and was a true friend. And every day Anna patiently sat with Leslie and tried to explain knock-knock jokes.
And then one day in March Leslie was sitting all by herself. And she picked up the knock-knock joke book. She read one, clutched the book to her chest, and jumped up. "I get it!" she yelled. "I really get it!" And she read it to us at 80 decibels. Then the other kids cheered and Leslie burst into tears. And so did I. But Leslie recovered quickly--and yelled, "Let me read another one!"
So is this a story of class collabora tion or of an individual child over coming all odds? I don't know. Does it matter? Why do some folks insist we're competent and professional only when we can affix labels and categories to the fabric of our work with children?
Item: Consider Charles Darwin, who, with nobody cheering him on, spent 44 years of his life thinking about earthworms. In his typically methodical fashion he made the following notation:
"Worms do not possess any sense of hearing. They took not the least notice of the shrill notes from a metal whistle, which was repeatedly sounded near them; nor did they of the deepest and loudest tones of a bassoon. They were indifferent to shouts, if care was taken that the breath did not strike them. When placed on a table close to the keys of a piano, which was played as loudly as possible, they remained perfectly quiet."
What a wonderful image: Charles Darwin alone in his study with a tin whistle and a bassoon and a piano, trying to get a rise out of worms. As the science writer David Quammen, who relates this incident, points out, "That sort of stubborn mental contrariety is as precious to our planet as worm casting. It is equally essential that some people do think about earthworms, at least sometimes, as it is that not everyone does. It is essential not for the worms' sake but for our own."
Susan Ohanian was a classroom teacher for 16 years and continues to teach part time. She writes frequently on educational issues. This essay is adapted from a chapter in Teaching and Learning Language Collaboratively, edited by L. James L. Collins, which was published last month by Boyton/Cook Publishers, a subsidiary of Heinemann.