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Published in Print: April 10, 1991, as Reform Versus Renewal


Reform Versus Renewal

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You have returned with two colleagues from an arduous trip, mid-evening, in the beginnings of a sleet storm. Your car in the airport parking lot is dead; the engine simply will not turn over, not make a sound. Wet and disgruntled, you ask for advice from your two companions. The first says:

"You can't depend on a Toyota when you get cold and wet weather like this. I told you before that you need a new car. Let's hail a cab and go home. I'll give you some time tomorrow, and we'll go buy a Taurus."

But the second has a different message:

"Let's not get excited. This car is O.K. I'll bet you left your lights on, maybe a door was ajar a little bit and your interior light never went off. All we need to do is find someone with cables and a good battery. New car? Don't be silly."

There seem to be two similar but competing metaphors these days related to reform and renewal in American public education. The reformers are selling new cars, and the renewers are talking about jump starts. On one hand, educators are told they are broken, in need of major repair or replacement; on the other hand, they are told that with a little help from their friends, they will be as good as new. The contrast is puzzling to the educators who are the targets of reform and renewal.

Here are some examples of the confusion.

Reform is for institutions; renewal is for individuals. Linking reform to individuals reminds us of reform school, a place to change the character and behavior of a miscreant. But reform is applied best to salary schedules, to governance structures, to accountability measures, to flexibility waivers.

In contrast, renewal focuses on the eclectic, idiosyncratic, and unique personality that a teacher or principal or superintendent brings to work in the morning. Is the intellect tuned and challenged? Is a sense of collaboration firmly in place? Are creative juices flowing? Is a personal agenda (within a professional setting) legitimized?

Reform adds something new; renewal recaptures what already exists. Reform projects bring change to professional life--a revised curriculum; a new area of responsibility; extended planning responsibilities; or a drastically altered organizational arrangement.

Renewal, on the other hand, asks the individual to remember rather than to invent. What talents have been placed in storage? Which understandings or conditions have been gathering dust? Which dreams have been deferred? An effective renewal program helps an individual recall what is known, revive what exists, repair (not replace) what has been broken, and restore what has once been dependable.

Reform assumes blame, while renewal begins with faith. More than occasionally, reform fastens on a recalcitrant problem (such as the dropout problem) or on recalcitrant men and women (such as poorly trained teachers). Something or someone is keeping the system from working effectively. Monies must be reallocated from a frill (by someone's definition) to a necessity (by the same someone's definition). New graduation standards will bring faculty members into line. A law will force local districts to include drug education in their curricula.

Renewal, however, places emphasis more on encouragement than accusation. It assumes that most (though not all) educators are competent and committed to their profession and their clients. What is needed is the sustenance of praise and confidence. In short, if reform is the stick, renewal is the carrot.

Reform is imposed, usually by groups outside the schools; renewal is contractual, an agreement between willing partners. In North Carolina, a six-step lesson plan is a required part of the evaluation of probationary teachers; this is a reform measure. In contrast, attendance at a seminar of the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching involves application and acceptance, and then a choice by each teacher from a smorgasbord of 25 to 30 seminar offerings; this is a renewal strategy.

The reformer defines problem and solution for someone else. The educator searching for renewal defines his or her own problem and then has at least a modest range of solutions from which to choose. Reform is characterized by compliance; renewal is characterized by search.

Reform is for the many, while renewal is for the one. Because reform focuses on all of the members of the group (that is, a school district, a school), it allows little variability in allegiance for practice. But renewal is by its nature personal, and the restoration of confidence and skill and commitment and energy varies dramatically from teacher to teacher. Thus, renewal programs must provide space, opportunity, and permission for individual agendas (created by the teacher, not imposed by outside judgment) to appear, to exist, and to be nurtured.

Reform can be codified rather easily; renewal is difficult to describe, much less to assess. If a reform measure is implemented over a county or region or state, then Scholastic Aptitude Test scores will increase or decline or stay the same. The nuances of cause and effect are not usually of great concern to reformers. Renewal takes myriad forms, from writing a novel to creating a syllabus; from making pottery to planning new laboratory experiences for students; from learning something entirely outside one's field to deepening one's experience within that field. Not only are the practices of renewal divergent and hard to categorize, the effects are personal, of the spirit, hidden from all but the sensitive.

For almost five years, under the auspices of the University of North Carolina and with the support of the General Assembly of the state, the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching has been offering week-long renewal seminars to superior K-12 teachers from public schools (and now, under a grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, to those from independent schools as well). Some 165 seminars and 2,700 teachers have taught us several important lessons about reform and renewal and their relationship. Here are two of them.

The first involves learning for the sake of learning. I chatted with an Orange County, N.C., teacher and NCCAT alumna a year or so ago, as we sat next to each other over lunch, part of a larger group. The conversation went something like this:

"What have you been doing lately, Pat?"

"I'm back in graduate school, Bruce, working on a doctorate in music education at UNC-Greensboro."

"That's wonderful. When did all that begin?"

"The week after I came back from NCCAT" A pause ensued as she was reading the somewhat flabbergasted look on my face.

"You see, Bruce, I realized I wasn't taking good care of my intellectual life. It has felt so good to be back in class at least once a week."

A second pause as I assumed Pat was interested in a supervisory position of some kind. I probed gently:

"What are you going to do after you finish your doctoral work, Pat?''

"Oh, I'm not sure ... maybe take a post doc?"

Oh, ye of little faith. Learning for the sake of learning; were it a snake, it would have bitten me. And it lies at the heart of renewal.

Exposing teachers to learning for the sake of learning more regularly has some other distinct (even practical) payoffs. A sense of the learner (rather than teacher) as responsible for learning is fostered. The usual accouterments of higher education are avoided--tests, papers, credits, degrees, diplomas, and so on. The North Carolina center does not offer even renewal credit as an incentive. The collegium of learners that is formed gives the teacher a sense of being in a class, but in this instance one that can be cooperative rather than competitive, and interactive rather than didactic. Finally, such learning encourages teachers to study outside their fields, to become more interdisciplinary.

In a second lesson, we have learned that effective reform can occur best when and where renewal has done its work. There is something of a sequence to the two improvement strategies. It goes like this.

Begin with the people in schools and school systems, rather than policies and organization charts and long-range plans. Provide them with a wide range of renewal activities, including those in which learning is simply for the sake of learning. Increase renewal programs to bring them into a better balance with reform initiatives. And then ask educators to start to take reform seriously.

We have learned that especially for the outstanding North Carolina teachers who came to the center, renewal leads to reform. They tell us that their abilities to provide leadership in school-based reform are undergirded by a week in the Blue Ridge Mountains, recharging their batteries and learning playfully once again.

Renewal before reform. A strange and unsettling idea. It seems designed to gratify some of the critics of education and astonish the rest. My apologies to Mark Twain.

R. Bruce McPherson is director of the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching.

Education Services as a 'Regulated Monopoly'

Education Week
Volume 10, Issue 29, April 10, 1991, pp 36, 29

Copyright 1991, Editorial Projects in Education, Inc.

Education Services as a 'Regulated Monopoly'

By Phillip C. Schlechty

Parent choice, privatization, and competition are coming to the fore as preferred solutions to the problems that beset public education. I sympathize with the position of those who believe that America's schools, and especially the system of governance of those schools, need to be radically restructured. I am not, however, convinced that parent choice will achieve what is needed. Furthermore, I fear that a rush to parent choice will, in the long run, further erode the already tenuous support given schools by nonparent taxpayers.

Public education--education funded through tax dollars provided by all the citizens--is a natural monopoly. It is so because the interests of entire communities and total societies are affected by the quality of education provided to the young. Education is the means by which societies perpetuate the conditions of their own existence. Such basic interests cannot be divided without harm to the common good.

Individuals who do not choose to use the system provided in the common interest are not compelled to do so. The Amish do not use the public school system. People who are afraid to fly do not use the municipal airport. Most citizens do not use the state-funded university system. But these services are made available in the common interest and for the common good.

Furthermore, people can, if they choose and at their own expense, create private alternatives to the services provided publicly. Some people use taxis instead of the government-funded and -operated bus system. Some use limousines. But tax dollars do not support taxi service or limousines.

Parents do have a special interest in the quality of the education their children receive--but theirs is not the only interest. Nonparent taxpayers, business leaders, civil-rights activists, religious groups, retired citizens, and children not yet born have an interest in the quality of education.

These interests cannot be divided and parceled out in some Solomonic way, no matter what the advocates of choice may believe. Letting parents alone choose the quality of education to be provided discounts the legitimate interests that other members of the society and the community have in those qualities.

Even now, parents are not the driving force behind school reform. Certainly some parents are concerned about the quality of education received by their children, but as the annual Gallup Poll reveals, the further one is removed from a school, the more likely one is to be dissatisfied with that school. Indeed, some critics of schools are distressed that parents are not distressed. Some feel that parents in America are too satisfied, that they have expectations that are too low.

Then there is the political fact that parents are a numerical minority of the voting population--and a decreasing minority at that. There is also the biological/demographic/social fact that parents represent the youngest members of the adult population, which means that, as a group, parents are likely to be less politically powerful than are older members of society.

Given these facts, it seems misguided to assume that fundamental school reform can be much advanced by parental choice alone. Others will support the choices made by parents only so long as parents choose what others--especially politically powerful others--want them to choose. Choice, if it is to be realized, must be community choice and voter choice, not simply parental choice. Furthermore, the choice must be between alternative systems of education rather than simple choices regarding which schoolhouse one's children will attend.

One way to honor the common interest in education and provide choice would be to organize education as a regulated monopoly, much as many public utilities are now treated. Some school systems--note that I did not say schoolhouses--might be operated by privately controlled not-for-profit corporations, and some might, as they are now, be operated by local governmental entities organized as not-for-profit corporations. Indeed, if the citizenry desired, these latter entities could be designed to ensure that the present system of governance is maintained. Furthermore, if a state saw fit, for-profit corporations could be invited to compete, though the quality-control problems presented by proprietary schools argues against such inclusion.

But regardless of the source of control of programs and operations, all school districts would be run in ways that acknowledge the interests of the public in the quality of the education provided within the context of the community. And the state, through a public-education commission, would ensure that the interests of the community were acknowledged and served.

How could this happen? The answer to this question will vary from state to state but, in general, the following seem to be likely actions:

A governor and a state legislature could craft enabling legislation that would establish a public-education commission charged with ensuring that every political unit in the state--city, county, village, town--had access to a chartered education provider of the voters' choice that contracted with the state (and implicitly the community) to provide educational services of a known quality and at a known--and fixed--price. Hearings could be held, just as they are now held for other public utilities. At such hearings, potential providers would be asked to provide detailed descriptions of what they would do--and the standards they would meet--for the dollars provided.

In setting up the public-education commission, the legislature could require that all education-service providers--whether governmental, for-profit, or not-for-profit--met certain requirements. For example, service providers could be required to ensure that every child living in the political unit be provided access to schools run by the provider, that transportation would be provided, that racial balance would be maintained, and that specific school-performance data would be made available for public examination and comment. In those states and communities where collective bargaining was in place, the collective-bargaining rights of employees could be guaranteed. Indeed, within the scope of what is proposed here, it would be possible for teachers--through their union or independent of it--to form a not-for-profit corporation and compete to be the service provider for the community.

It could, furthermore, be required that the provider indicate how the schools would interact with other agencies that serve children and youth. And, if a state were really serious and daring, it might require that the service provider be responsible for coordinating and directing all child and youth services in the community, and that all state funding provided to support such services would flow to the chartered provider.

To ensure that the commission did not approach its task as some public-utility commissions seem to approach theirs--that is, as apologists for the utility being regulated--legislators could require that the commission file biennial "audit" reports, in which the operations of each service provider would be made a matter of public record.

Under standards established by the state, education-service providers would be chartered and permitted to compete to provide educational services to any political unit in the state, with the proviso that each political entity could designate only one service provider to receive state funding. The length of the contract for a provider should be at least 10 years, subject to a new election if the education commission judged that the provider had not fulfilled contractual obligations and commitments.

Such elections would only be in order if, in the judgment of the commission, the provider failed to provide the quality and quantity of services promised at the time of election, or if the rate of citizen complaints regarding the quality of service received reached an unacceptably high level.

The choice of a service provider could be made through a special election, held once every 10 years, with the exception of cases in which the commission decided that there was sufficient concern about performance to warrant a new election.

To be a service provider, a chartered education provider would need to gain a majority vote from the electorate. The local board of education, assuming it were willing to meet the provisions to gain a charter, could compete to be the service provider.

Each community (and/or the state) would provide adequate physical space to house school activities. At the time of the election, each service provider would be expected to make available detailed plans--and budgets--for dealing with such matters as athletic events, sports programs, and other co-curricular matters, as well as matters academic, vocational, and social.

The state would provide an established amount of money per student, and the service provider would indicate what it would provide in exchange for this fee.

Local communities could petition the education commission for permission to provide services beyond those made possible through state funding, with the understanding that at the end of a certain time--probably six years--the results of these efforts in terms of pre-established quality indicators would be made public. If the results were beneficial, the education-service commission would petition the legislature to provide funds to support an incentive for all communities to provide such services.

Finally, to ensure that equity issues were addressed, state legislatures could provide special funding to support school districts with disproportionate numbers of children who were handicapped or were otherwise likely to need special services and special support.

Bureaucracies, whether public or private, are very resistant to change. One of the most powerful incentives to change, as the American automobile industry has demonstrated, is an outside threat.

The system proposed here would create such a threat. It would, in fact, provide those who run the existing system with an incentive to change the system, even when it was uncomfortable to do so. And it would provide creative alternatives to the existing system that could serve in the stead of the government-run system if the government-run system failed to respond--much as Federal Express and ups provide an alternative to the government-operated postal system.

It is true that only the government can represent the interest of all the people. But it is not true that the government must have a monopoly over the conduct of the people's business to ensure that that business is done in the interest of all the people.

Educators and reformers need to understand that natural monopolies can be governed in ways that encourage competition and responsiveness and at the same time ensure that the interests of all the people are served. One of the ways to do this is to organize education as a public utility.

The proposal I advance avoids several of the critical flaws built into most existing choice plans.

(1) It acknowledges that the total community, not just parents, has an interest and a stake in education, and it provides a forum in which this community interest can be expressed.

(2) It recognizes that "community" is not defined by the biological fact of being a parent, and by where one chooses to send one's offspring to school. Parents do not constitute a community; they are a part of the community.

(3) This proposal recognizes the simple fact that the power to provide tax support is the power to create or destroy, and that those who pay taxes, in the long term, determine the choices that will be made.

(4) Most important, organizing education as a public utility can serve both equity interests and accountability concerns. Choice--when it operates schoolhouse by schoolhouse and parent by parent--is subject to much abuse in both of these areas. Anyone who believes that some parents will not exercise choice on grounds other than those that have to do with high-quality democratic education misunderstands why the Brown v. Board of Education decision was necessary in the first place. Anyone who believes that academic quality is the basis of choice in all, or nearly all, instances does not understand the power of basketball and football in the life of schools and communities.

I trust parents, but I trust the community more. Children are not only members of families; they are future voters, future leaders, and the future of our way of life. To deny the community the right to express its interest in the future of our children is irresponsible. Under the existing system, community interests, parental interests, and the interests of children are not well represented. An education system organized as a public utility might better serve all these interests.

Phillip C. Schlechty is president of the Center for Leadership in School Reform in Louisville, Ky.

Vol. 10, Issue 29, Page 27

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