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Q&A: Professor Discusses Superintendents' Reform Mission

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Statement In an effort to reassert their role in school reform, a group of 21 superintendents from throughout Pennsylvania have banded together to produce a "mission statement.''

The report, published last month, calls for creating a dialogue with members of the community in order to determine the future of education. It also emphasizes the need to promote a learner-centered approach to schooling.

Harris J. Sokoloff is the director of the Center for School Study Councils at the University of Pennsylvania's graduate school of education, which will provide technical assistance, data collection, and other services to the school districts in the group.

Mr. Sokoloff spoke with Staff Writer Jessica Portner about the project.

Q. Could you briefly explain why you have decided to do this now?

A.Essentially, school districts and school superintendents are finding themselves under siege. On the one hand, there have been a lot of federal and state mandates dictating directions that schools and educators and school districts ought to be taking. Some of these mandates are inconsistent with one another. On the other hand there is a great hue and cry from local people about the direction which they want their school to go.

For the superintendents that are involved in this project, it was about time that educators spoke up and tried to set the direction that they thought made the most sense for schools and their communities.

Q. Why do you think that the shift from teachers to learners is important?

A. The shift to learners is important, because we have to pay more attention to the needs of learners in an adult-oriented school system which is not working real well. So a shift to the needs of learners will be more successful. ...

The notion of a community voicing its expectations, and those expectations' being part of the ways schools operate, is important because it takes a whole community to educate a child, and unless we involve the community in setting its expectations we can't expect full community support. We need community support to be successful.

Q. But how do you intend to implement this shift from teacher to learner in practical terms?

A. I don't have a single answer for that. There are 21 districts involved in developing this program, which also contains an agenda for action. Each of the districts' agendas was implemented somewhat differently.

The key is to get people who worked in the schools to focus on learners and learning, and to acknowledge that we have to restructure schools around the needs of learners. In some cases it may be that we revised the entire scheduling to be more learner centered with more block scheduling, fewer 50-minute periods, and more 2- or 3-hours-long blocks of learning.

In some places, it may be a greater focus on using technology in education; in other places it may mean, especially in elementary schools, a developmentally oriented primary-education program so that students would be together for the first and second years rather than dividing them up into 1st and 2nd grade.

So it will mean different things in different places, depending on how the community decides to implement it. It's the principle that is important. The implementation will be community-wide.

Q. The pressures of the job pull superintendents in different directions. How do you hope this program will alleviate some of those pressures?

A. By involving the community in discussing their expectations of schools and schooling, it may well enable schools to narrow their focus. There are an incredible number of special-interest groups that are pulling schools hither, thither, and yon, and school administrators have to figure out how to respond best to those special-interest pulls.

For example, in Pennsylvania, there is pressure saying we must spend less money. The parents groups are saying we have to broaden opportunity for children. There are curriculum-revision groups that want to narrow what is offered, not broaden it, and those who want children to do more rote learning and do away with a lot of critical and creative thinking. School administrators have to figure out how best to respond to these pulls and pressures, while still providing what they consider to be a solid educational program.

By engaging communities in a dialogue in this mission statement, we hope it will focus the communities' attention to the core tasks of learning, and clarify the direction in which the schools ought to be going. That in itself will make the jobs of superintendents easier.

Q. How will this be a change from the superintendents' normal community outreach?

A. The idea is to engage these communities in discussions about their expectations of schools. Communities now don't typically have those kind of broad-based discussions. They tend to happen in informal settings, without any direction to them and without any real direction on school board policies. ...

This is a task that will never end. We have to keep at it and keep at it and keep making sure we clarify what we want, because as some of the social pressures change the expectations may also change. We have to keep that dialogue going. It's hard work.

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