Letters to the Editor
To the Editor:
I have long been an admirer of Chester Finn, and his Commentary, "Reinventing Local Control" (Jan. 23, 1991) is one more instance in which he helps advance our thinking about the way we manage schools. He identifies the shortcomings of what we traditionally call "local control" and posits the state as the more appropriate body for setting and overseeing certain critical aspects of how schools function, such as ''graduation requirements, teacher qualifications, and student assessment."
In theory, I agree with this suggestion, but with one important caveat. We must understand, as Mr. Finn points out, the difference between "local control," that is, control by the school board or municipality, and school control, as in principals, teachers, and parents. While Mr. Finn alludes to the need for this latter condition, the argument must be stronger.
One basic premise of American education for most of this century has been that a "system" approach is both essential and immutable. Yet such an assertion is counterintuitive for something as personal and individual as education. How can a "system"--in the form of layers of bureaucracy--advance any part of schooling directly connected to the work teachers do with students and schools do with parents?
Independent schools, for example, and many other nonpublic schools which are not part of a "system," struggle mightily, and I might add healthily, under the guidance of a school head and in a fiercely competitive market. Each school's survival depends on its ability to provide, through its teachers and administrators, the educational opportunities it must articulate and deliver and which parents must understand and embrace by sending their children to the school.
The school head (principal) provides the leadership, is chief spokesperson to the school's constituencies, and oversees decisions regarding the hiring, continuance, and development of teachers; the teachers are directly involved in most of the decisions regarding how they and the institution function. And parents are seen as critical partners dealing directly with those in the school who not only provide the services but also have most of the decisionmaking authority regarding those services.
In these schools there is remarkably little distance between those who do administration and those who teach. In fact, in most instances the line is entirely blurred. And with lower pay, longer hours, and often an absence of tenure for teachers and administrators, these schools are getting the job done. Why? Largely because the "control" is held within the school and accountability is driven by the natural and appropriate reminder that if the job isn't done daily, parents and children will go elsewhere. Ironically, parents and students seldom are dissatisfied, however, for the very same reasons teachers are not dissatisfied: they, too, feel close to the decisionmaking process.
Without giving ultimate control of the management of schools to teachers and administrators at the building level, a move to greater state control of education is likely to further the devastating effects that the4school-consolidation movement ushered in 30 years ago. When the ''culture" of each school, which once included teachers, parents, and students, was demolished in order to bring greater efficiency through central offices and school consolidation, the people who mattered most were closed out, leaving them with no alternative but to create their own cultures. Teachers sought unions to protect their interests; parents scattered to a variety of nonschool involvements; and the youth culture, which was always present in some form or another, became even more dominant in response to the students' need for a sense of belonging. The growth of school bureaucracy succeeded in estranging every constituency.
I worry about the basic negative effect size has on schooling. What function does a superintendent (and all the assistant superintendents) of a district with 5,000, 10,000 or 50,000 children really serve? These people are probably outstanding educators, fine individuals, but what do they do to help the learning happen between a teacher and a student? Undoubtedly there are certain people who are succeeding at the task they have been given, but should the task itself exist?
Learning is an entirely personal experience, and consequently the most fertile conditions for education are also personal. I am in favor of state officials, informed by those with a sound understanding of education, developing the major educational policies suggested by Chester Finn, provided we truly leave it to schools to "get the job done."
And, in fact, that leadership might already exist in some states. Recently, for example, New Jersey's commissioner of education, John Ellis, stated that he believes the only way to improve education is "school by school." If, however, the shift from "local control" to state control means even less autonomy for the schools themselves, we run the risk of subjecting our children and our future to what William James called a "tyrannical machine with unforeseen powers of exclusion and corruption."
Ronald D. Thorpe Jr.
Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation
To the Editor:
Before I read "Reinventing Local Control" by Chester E. Finn Jr., I thought Mr. Finn might be urging more local control at the expense of school districts and states. Unfortunately, he ends up concluding that the school districts should be replaced by the states.
His essential argument for this proposal is that the states have been the main proponents for educational reform. There is no valid reason to believe that states, even with limited powers, would be any better than districts at managing schools.
Whether a governor speaks out in support of school reform is irrelevant in determining the proper center of control for schools. Whether control should remain at the school district or moved somewhere else, the last place it should be is at the state level. The state governments are the fundamental cause of the mess we have today.
It was the states that constitutionally created the public school system and the school districts that manage it. It is the states that determine the legal and managerial power of the school districts. It is the states that annually invent new ways to tie4teachers' hands and restrict a principal's decisionmaking power.
The school districts are the political analogue of Frankenstein's monster. Mr. Finn's proposal to kill the monster without touching its creator is shortsighted. There is no reason to believe that state bureaucracies will be any more responsive to parents, teachers, and students than their cousins the school districts. Before additional state power is granted or even contemplated, we should question whether the continuance of the state education monopoly is justified given its abysmal failure.
Mr. Finn's grand vision of the abolition of school districts, to be replaced by autonomous empowered schools managed by the states, is a totalitarian distortion. Who could believe that state education departments would ever allow autonomy at the school level? Before long, bloated state departments would begin functioning as super school districts. Their central planning bureaucracy would attempt to control every aspect of school operation as they allocated funds through a vast political spoils system.
Alas, we would have one comfort--the people in the state education departments would know what they are doing and above all be well-intentioned!
Jeffrey R. Lapides
Jeffrey R. Lapides & Associates Inc.
To the Editor:
The article in your Feb. 6, 1991, issue on teacher-contract disputes in Rochester, N.Y. ("Rochester Contract Woes Ignite Debate over Accountability") paraphrases Linda Darling-Hammond as saying that Rochester's first proposed (and teacher-rejected) contract was "built on the same merit-pay model that had proved unsuccessful during the 1980's in several states and districts."
Ms. Darling-Hammond's characterization of "merit-pay models" is common but false. The success of the Teacher Performance Evaluation Program, or tpep, in Fairfax County, Va., the 10th largest school system in the nation, illustrates how "merit pay" can be very successful.
After pilot testing two different performance-evaluation models, Fairfax County fully instituted tpep systemwide in the 1987-88 school year and began paying "merit pay"--to those teachers who sought such pay and met the stringent evaluation criteria--in the 1989-90 school year (after all teachers eligible to receive merit-pay evaluation had had the opportunity to receive it). We are now in the second year of paying merit pay, and well over 2,000 of our 9,000 teachers are now receiving these 9 percent bonuses.
Tpep has also resulted in over 400 ineffective teachers leaving our school system, and hundreds of teachers have received help from intervention teams to improve their teaching. Because of massive training, observation, and conferencing, which are part of our program, there is much more discussion of, and attention to, instruction in all our schools and throughout our large school system and our community.
A teacher-dominated career-advancement review board helps ensure the program's objectivity. Performance-evaluation systems for principals and other administrators have also been put into place.
Those who want to believe that "merit pay" cannot work will continue to say that it does not--and to ignore or discount successes like Fairfax County's. And the naysayers seem to receive the most publicity. While one recently published book (Marvin Cetron's Educational Renaissance) and one soon-to-be-published book (Larry Frase's Teacher Compensation and Motivation) include accounts of tpep and its successes, periodicals outside of the metropolitan-Washington area have given our success little attention.
Superintendent Fairfax County Public Schools
To the Editor:
Your article on Washington's Options School was comprehensive and accurate ("D.C. Museum Aims To 'Hook' the 'Tough Kids,"' Jan. 9, 1991), but I hasten to make one important correction.
The article states that approximately $3,200 per student is borne by the Capital Children's Museum. In fact, funding is entirely provided by the District of Columbia Public Schools. The cost is $3,000 per student per semester, or $600,000 per school year (not including summer) for 100 students. The school system provides these funds and in addition provides breakfast, lunch, bus tokens, one clerical-staff person, and two social workers. The district also handles all recruiting and selection of students.
The Capital Children's Museum raises private funds to make up the gap of about $100,000 between what the school system provides and the full cost of the program. It also must raise funds for a summer program and any other ancillary programs. At the moment our primary focus is on raising funds to undertake an independent evaluation of the impact of the program on the students and to address the question of how to transfer what works at the Options School to other school sites.
In an alternative program, it is especially important that information about funding be accurate.
Ann W. Lewin
Founder and President
The National Learning Center Capital Children's Museum Options School
To the Editor:
There is an uncomfortable theme--or rather a serious lack of a theme--in several of the Commentary pieces in recent issues that needs addressing.
Specifically, I am referring to Dennis L. Evans's "The Mythology of the Marketplace in School Choice" (Oct. 17, 1990), Seymour B. Sarason's "Forging the Classroom's Constitution" (Oct. 24, 1990), and Frank Carrano's "Training the Players for Power Sharing" (Dec. 12, 1990).
What I found objectionable in each of these essays was the failure even to mention the landmark work of alternative secondary schools in4this country over the past 15 to 20 years (to say nothing of their even longer traditions, their historical roots in such major educational-change movements as John Dewey's progressivism and Carl Rogers's humanistic education).
In their recent book, High Schools as Communities: The Small School Revisited, Tom Gregory and Gerry Smith of the University of Indiana state in no uncertain terms, as do the above authors, the drastic need for major reform of our secondary schools. "The high school must change," they write, "or it will be replaced by institutions more in step with the needs of today's students and teachers. ... The change will not be easy, but we already know most of what we need to know. Working models exist of public high schools that have successfully made the transition."
I have added the emphasis. The "models" they are referring to, and which they describe in some detail in their book, are public alternative high schools.
Thus, I am appalled when Dennis Evans describes "parental choice" as the latest in "faddism." This is no fad. Parents (and students) in many communities throughout this country have had such choices for years, as most recently noted in a letter in your Jan. 30, 1991, issue from Stephen Phillips of the New York City Alternative High Schools. In these communities, educational "competition" as Mr. Evans describes it, is in fact working. Major educational reforms have been made, and their quality attested to in numerous studies.
Furthermore, Mr. Evans is simply dead wrong when he ascribes the idea of choice and the operation of schools of choice to "corporate America." Alternative secondary schools do not operate according to the conventional corporate model of administration; rather, they are typically organized horizontally and administered cooperatively (in what some are now calling "site-based management" and/or "shared decisionmaking"). Alternative schools have been pioneers in this alternative approach to management for years.
In Seymour Sarason's call for the "classroom constitution," I was amazed that there wasn't at least a passing reference to not only secondary-school classrooms but entire secondary schools throughout this country that are indeed run in such a democratic fashion--they are alternative schools. His description of the typical state of "powerlessness of both teachers and students" in the overwhelming majority of our conventional schools is accurate and truly the most fundamental area in need of change (or "restructuring" as the current language of reform calls it).
Yet, as Professors Gregory and Smith note, "we already know most of what we need to know. Working models do exist." I can only hope that in his book, The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform (on which his Commentary was based), Mr. Sarason does discuss alternative schools and the tremendously successful work they have done in the crucial area of sharing power.
In his Commentary, Frank Carrano asks the question, "Why aren't we further along in the process?," in reference to the current reform call for school-based management. Although I am pleased that he and the New Haven Federation of Teachers apparently have found a useful and successful process in their "School Planning and Management Teams," Mr. Carrano and his colleagues could have been "further along in the process" long before the landmark work of James P. Comer if they had looked at the administration and operation of the alternative secondary schools in their own state of Connecticut.
In most of America's hundreds of alternative high schools, the "players" (teachers and students) have been "power sharing" for years with great success, and have developed a variety of strategies and structures to implement such processes. This indeed is one of the key features of alternative high schools. As Tom Gregory and Gerry Smith put it, "Building a sense of community is the most fundamental step" in the restructuring process of real school reform--and, to feel a part of a community, each member must share in the real power of decisionmaking.
Alternative Community School
To the Editor:
The proposal to allow some nonpublic schools to join the Detroit public-schools system ("Detroit May Ask Private Schools To Join System," Feb. 6, 1991) would be acceptable, from both the constitutional and public-policy points of view, only under certain conditions.
The private schools so incorporated would have to follow the same rules as the public schools: no religious instruction or activities could be permitted; no sectarian, ideological, gender, academic, or other invidious forms of selectivity could be used in admission or hiring; existing faculties and student bodies would have to be integrated with the public-school student bodies and faculties.
While such school-system integration would be desirable, it is doubtful that existing private schools would be willing to give up their sectarian or elitist prerogatives.
Americans for Religious Liberty
Silver Spring, Md.