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Are We Really Serious About Reform ?

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Let's get serious about school reform. What we have now is mostly political rhetoric and a widespread lack of accountability by all parties concerned. No one wants to do the right thing. It's far easier to blame someone else, particularly teachers and parents. If those who lead this nation became accountable for their actions, our schools would be in good shape. Rhetoric has never been, and will never be, a proper substitute for responsibility.

Accountability for education starts at the top--the Congress of the United States. Each member of that body swears to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Yet few seem to understand or appreciate that the Constitution has a 14th Amendment Goals in the New Year which states, in part, that no state shall "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." The basic rights of individuals cannot be violated by the states. Yet the Congress does nothing to remedy the various inequities that exist in school finance, both among states and within each state. This nation is in wholesale violation of the Equal Protection Clause, as it relates to education, and the Congress is derelict in its duty to correct that situation.

I'm not an attorney, but many in the Congress are. They certainly understand the legal principle of incorporation--states cannot violate those rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution--especially equal protection under the laws, espoused by the 14th Amendment.

  • Reform #1: The Congress of the United States shall be accountable for abiding by the Constitution of the United States, including the 14th Amendment of equal protection under the laws. Only then can we begin to talk about accountability at other levels. Only then can we begin to educate our children at higher levels throughout the land.

At the state level, legislators have retreated from their oath of office to uphold the state constitution. The education clause of each state constitution is violated by most legislative bodies. State courts have ruled time and time again that, depending upon the wording of the state constitution: (1) education is a fundamental right; (2) a child's education cannot be determined by the accident of geography--where he or she happens to live; and (3) each child's education should be financed through the total wealth of the state.

Yet with all these court pronouncements and with forceful U.S. Supreme Court articulation of incorporation, legislators continue to violate the laws of the land--violate the basic rights of children and citizens to have, as some state constitutions phrase it, a "free, uniform, efficient educational system." How can we expect accountability from school personnel when those who swear to uphold the laws flout them so frequently?

  • Reform # 2:State legislative bodies shall be accountable to adhere to the requirement of establishing a free, uniform, efficient system of educating children in their respective states--all children. Until this is done, you can forget accountability at the district or school level.

At the local level, boards of education have gone berserk. There is no longer a policymaking body at the school-district level. Boards have become a babel of would-be superintendents interfering with the operation and management of schools. The superintendents actually employed to operate the schools are often diverted from that task by boards that are immersed in controversy, conflict, politics, employment of friends, banning of books, and a host of trivial and bizarre behaviors. While not universally the case, such shenanigans are sufficient to ensure failure for even some of the most competent superintendents.

  • Reform #3: Boards of education shall be accountable for establishing policy and delegating all other matters to the superintendent and principals of the school districts. Boards should keep out of personnel matters, pedagogical practices, sources of knowledge, evaluation of employees (other than the superintendent), and the day-today operation of the schools. Boards should get off the backs of administrators and mind their own business. School personnel should have the opportunity to do their work in an atmosphere of peace and professional pride.

Assuming that the Congress, state legislative bodies, and school boards will accept their proper accountability functions, we can then concentrate on accountability of school employees. They, too, have failed in assuming their proper responsibilities.

Superintendents and principals must become aggressive in "shaping up the schools." The governance of education must be decentralized to establish accountability for school results at the school level. Administrators must desist from talking about the difficulty of educating our children and concentrate on educating them. Each school should have standards for the results it is expected to achieve and rewards should be given to schools that do so. We all know that the demographics of the student population are changing. That's a given. What is needed is success in educating our children, not labeling them. Administrators should be tenacious in the use of technology, experiential learning, effective school practices, and whatever it takes to educate well all our children at high levels.

Further, there is no one best way to educate students. The best way is whatever works for individual children. Superintendents and principals ought to be leaders for innovation, invention, creativity, effective pedagogical practices, and success for all children. Those who find the challenge too difficult should find meaningful employment in a field that does not require the same high level of accountability.

  • Reform #4: Superintendents and principals should be given three- to five-year contracts with established school results and the contracts should be renewed only if the results are achieved. Contract provisions should be made public and no one should be given a lifetime guarantee to hold any job if he or she does not achieve the results required by a democratic nation of well-'educated men and women.

And for teachers, it's time to stop lamenting the hardships of teaching. All jobs are difficult if they are to be done well. Teachers simply need to expect more, give more vigorous assignments, read more papers, expect higher-quality work, grade more stringently, and become more committed to the clients (students). That is the hallmark of any profession--the welfare of the client comes before all else.

The children who attend our schools are the best we have. We cannot improve by expecting or desiring "a better class of students," to paraphrase one of our governors, who said, in relation to his state's prisons: "We can have better prisons if we had a better class of prisoners." Our children are as able as the children of any country. Their potential is more than adequate. Teachers, however, need to educate them more effectively, motivate them to produce higher-quality work, be more demanding, and have affection for them-they are, after all, the reason for the job.

  • Reform #5: Teachers should be accountable for pupil performance, however it is measured: Student achievement is the responsibility of teachers. Teaching is the greatest of the professions. It makes democracy work. Teachers should accept the rigors of teaching or find more suitable employment opportunities. We need teachers who want to be teachers, who enjoy teaching, and who are proud of the work they do--and who work hard at it.

The ultimate in accountability lies with the parents and citizens of our nation. They will always have the schools they want to have. Citizens should elect to the Congress, to the state legislatures, and to boards of education men and women who support the fundamental rights of all persons, and especially the fundamental right of a proper education. We need in these offices men and women who appreciate duty, who serve the people, not themselves. We must elect to the Congress persons who appreciate equal protection under the laws. We must elect to the state houses and senates, men and women who take their oath of office seriously. Citizens have the responsibility of electing individuals to boards of education who act as policymakers, not school administrators, who serve the public interest, not vested-interest groups.

Citizens, and parents particularly, should also demonstrate the importance of education by helping children learn, by respecting educators, and by making education a high value in the community. Therefore: . Reform #6: Citizens and parents should be accountable for electing to public office those individuals who support reforms 1 through 3. That should be the litmus test for public service in the Congress, in state legislatures, and on boards of education.

These reforms are not a set of bells and whistles. They are not a singular panacea to save our schools. They are, however, a principled set of responsibilities-the right things to do. And if everyone becomes accountable for what each should do, the schools of this nation will be the envy of the world. We will not only be number one in math and science, we'll be number one in all areas of student achievement. More importantly, we will be numero uno in a much more fundamental area-ethics. We will have shown the world that greatness is based more on morality than political diatribe


M. Donald Thomas is a senior partner with Harold Webb Associates in Winnetka, Ill. He has held school superintendencies in various parts of the country, including Salt Lake City, and has served the governors of South Carolina, Tennessee, and South Dakota as a special consultant in education.

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