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Reform Meets the 'Radical Middle'

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The apparent failure in the United States of both liberal-left and neoconservative policies and programs has given rise to what has been variously called the "radical middle,'' the "extreme center,'' the "snarling mainstream.'' The terms have been used before. Canada's former prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, described his Liberal Party's turn to the right in 1978 with these words: "We are a party of the extreme center, the radical middle.'' This year, a frustrated U.S. electorate turned to a radical-centrist, third-party candidate, Ross Perot. The plain-speaking Texas businessman, a political novice, shot to the top of Presidential-preference polls before opting out of the race in July. He may yet be the kingmaker in the general election, determining the swing votes that give victory to either George Bush or Bill Clinton.

Similar developments are detectable in efforts to reform the nation's schools. There is general consternation about both the liberal desire for higher government spending, more regulation, and greater equity and, equally, about the right wing's programs for privatizing, marketizing, and radically decentralizing the schools. In response to these conflicting ideological positions, we see a generalized rage about some 35 years of failed attempts to use schools to improve and equalize society. The modern liberal school agenda began with the Brown decisions in 1954 and 1955 and continued in a national effort to end segregation. Next came a wave of Serrano-type cases after 1971 to equalize education spending across districts. Then policies were designed to improve bilingual education, the education of all handicapped children, and laws about equality between the sexes in school.

Behind these policies stood a growing system of "accountability'' and "control'' that reached from Washington to the classroom. That program is now being abandoned, as some school districts use, instead of forced busing, for example, voluntary school choice through magnet schools to achieve racial balance. We also see separate programs for special-needs students being replaced by mainstreaming such students in the "regular'' classroom. Even non-English-speaking children are being taught in immersion English classes instead of more isolated bilingual programs.

In the 1980's and early 1990's, neoconservative remedies have been in the ascendancy. School choice, education markets, decentralized decisionmaking, site-based management, empowerment of teachers and parents, and even vouchers have been proposed. But the nation has seemed slow, too, to embrace many of these remedies, expressing an unwillingness to make schools into free-flowing "markets,'' to fund private and parochial schools with tax dollars, or to "sell'' schools to the highest bidder through various privatization schemes. This rejection of radical decentralization and privatization has come from an allegiance to the public system and a nervousness that such a course of action might destroy what little education was left for the urban poor.

Instead, the center has been radicalized, refusing in state after state, district after district, to raise taxes another cent or to pass even small bond issues for schools. Like Ross Perot supporters, these neo-centrists want to see some results before they ante up more money. The average taxpayer is tired of the "bully pulpit'' in education, the constant flow of negative commission reports, "new'' ideas, promises from candidates for high office to be the next Education President, and new kinds of American schools which have not yet materialized. Most of all, citizens are fed up with the apparent inability of the national government to act, the stand-off between a Republican White House and a reactive Democratic Congress. Many voters, the extreme center, were willing to entertain the election of a political unknown as a dramatic way of breaking the gridlock and doing something--anything--to improve government policies.

The average person would like to see schools do better at the simple things: helping students acquire some manners; learn to read, write, and compute; and work hard and succeed. While they reject radical policies of the left and right, these average citizens want a radical-center program, including choice (but within the public system); more accountability and better information on school and pupil progress (hence, the interest in national standards and assessments); more work and less complaining from teachers (hence, the emphasis on teacher productivity before big pay raises). The sympathy that the average American felt for the overworked, underpaid teacher has diminished now that teachers work, on average, only 900 hours in the classroom per year (though preparation and grading papers certainly take hours longer), and earn, on average, $38,000 plus fringe benefits. While the cost of education has doubled in nine years, test scores have dropped on many indicators or have remained stubbornly flat in others.

A radicalized center wants to know: Where have all the increased money, higher salaries, better benefits, and shorter workweeks led? Save the rhetoric about equity, choice, empowerment, and shared governance, citizens are saying, and try teaching students more vocabulary, civics, deportment, and willingness to work hard. While "radical center'' may seem an oxymoron, this movement is radical to the extent that it is a clear and different political position, one that rejects the ideology of the two major parties and upsets the status quo in both politics and education. Thus, to the extent that Ross Perot captured the mood of this nation as a whole, he also typified what educators and policymakers from the White House to the schoolhouse are seeing:

  • Fatigue from the voting public with ideologies of left and right, promises about equal education for all, the one best system, and the importance of education.
  • An unwillingness on the part of voters to keep opening their pockets and funding ineffective schools and expensive reforms that show few real results.
  • A neo-centrism and anti-government bias based on anger with the establishment and a deep desire for something new.
  • Skepticism about both a new-left radical egalitarianism and the new-right effort to sell the schools.

The public wants a new reality about making schools work better through moderate, "rad-mid'' plans to let parents choose schools from among the public schools; to require students to work harder, do more homework, take real tests that assess what schools are really doing; and to provide an accounting of where scarce public funds are going.

John Chubb and Terry Moe were right about the hyper-controls built up since the mid-1950's: They have strangled some schools. The radical center wants less government-imposed "equity,'' fewer requirements for equal treatment and, instead, much better treatment for all. The Democratic "lefty'' Jerry Brown and the right-wing Republican Pat Buchanan were both soundly rejected in the primaries, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Senator Edward Kennedy were pushed carefully out of sight by Democrats intent at their convention on appealing to the middle-class, middle-America, middle-of-the-road majority. Similarly in education, voters have rejected pleas for more funds, more buildings, more special programs, more regulation, and more talk, in favor of solid education.

Educators need to read the trends, just as the Presidential, gubernatorial, and legislative candidates do. America has apparently "had it up to here'' with promises from right and left. It is tired, jaundiced, and skeptical. It is waiting for the educational community to begin proving that money, trust, and programs work, that students are faithfully attending school and learning, and are graduating with usable skills and positive work attitudes. The mad-as-hell frustration is being felt by school boards, superintendents, and teachers.

The quick fix is not attracting much support. Instead, some real results are awaited. Perhaps a few states and localities will try vouchers or other such plans, but these reforms will more than likely be of a moderate cast, including middle-ground changes such as "controlled choice'' or public "within-the-system options.'' Why not let public schools compete, within and across school districts, by letting families choose from a range of local and regional options? This kind of retreat to the center occurs when the extremes are unworkable or unattractive. The changes are sometimes hard to detect because they draw support, as Mr. Perot did, from both the left and right, from both traditional Democratic and Republican ranks, and in all parts of the nation.

Regional loyalties to party and candidates, then, have broken down as the center seeks a radically middle solution. In education, this discontentment is most difficult to grasp, since local public schools have had, until very recently, such broad, bipartisan support. Now people are increasingly questioning the enterprise, and their frustration, exacerbated by poor economic times, results in low turnouts for school-board elections; communities that have not passed a bond issue for school construction in over a decade; cutbacks in school funding from federal, state, and local governments; and budgets' being scrutinized and rejected.

Included, too, are: high turnover rates in school superintendencies, as school boards fire their chief executives; less and less sympathy for the "plight'' of teachers with little-to-no pay increases; and demands that some bottom-line results be forthcoming. Requiring higher standards has not improved outcomes. More testing has not provided more useful information about how all students are doing. More technology in schools has not demonstrably improved learning, attendance, promotion, graduation rates, or test scores.

The new "rad-mid'' reforms are radical in that they are new and outside the education establishment. They are not based on liberal or neoconservative ideologies as much as on deep concern and good common sense. Mr. Perot, for example, talked about cleaning house, "taking out the garbage,'' "making things work better.'' Whether much substance lay behind this hard-hitting, uncluttered rhetoric was difficult to tell. But what it apparently produced was the adoption in both the Democratic and Republican platforms of a moderate, centrist, common-sense approach to education, one reflecting the directness, the clarity, and the middle-of-the-road philosophy of the extreme center.

This non-ideological language, a Perot trademark, appeals to Americans because they perceive the government, and our schools, as failing--not always their own child's school, but schools in general. Thus, the public is going to be less easily persuaded. Educators and politicians, whether liberal, conservative, or radical-middle, must produce results with what they've got, seeing how to make money, staff, and materials go further. Sympathy is low, new funds scarce, and expectations high.

Overregulated, inefficient, and ineffective schools are no longer to be tolerated. Radical-centrists idealistically seek to fix education without new categorical or entitlement aid, without vouchers or radical deregulation, and without much new staff and equipment. For the first time since the 1960's, the school system must look to its own resources: to reduce waste, raise standards, make demands on teachers and students, and show results--or face the firing of superintendents, the defeat of bond referendums and tax measures, and less public sympathy.

Just as Governor Clinton and President Bush are feeling the force of the Noisy Majority, competing for Perot-ites of the Irate Middle, so, too, are our schools. Educational leaders will have little choice other than to respond to these new realities.

Bruce S. Cooper is a professor at the Fordham University Graduate School of Education.

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