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Can We Make Light Bulbs From Candles?

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For nearly a half century I have watched and participated as one school reform effort after another soared briefly over the horizon and then fell back to earth as awkwardly as a wounded sea gull. Little residue remains of those endeavors except that deposited upon the innovators and designers who conceived and profited from the idea. The extent of their failures is best evidenced by the attention given to current proposals challenging America to "break the mold'' from which our schools have been cast for too long.

There is some likeness of substance between reforms now under way and the earlier disappointments. But the similarity ends there. The most striking divergence is the emerging involvement of the private sector. Business/school partnerships have a long history of success. Today, however, we see examples of the private sector unilaterally assuming responsibility long held by the public for the education of its youth. The Edison Project, America 2000, Teach For America, CHOICE, and the New American Schools Development Corporation typify that impending policy shift.

These undertakings only serve to postpone the inevitable day of reckoning. Eventually, the worth of our urban youth and the cost of their schooling must be weighed against that of their peers in other schools in the same nation. Continued postponement of that day magnifies its importance even while it abrades the national conscience. In the meantime, the persistency of our belief in the leveling influence of public education is weakened.

One of the recent endeavors, the New American Schools Development Corporation, might serve as a case study for anyone examining the shattered attempts at major reform since the post World War II era. It is a private, nonprofit, tax-exempt corporation formed at President Bush's request as one of the four tracks of America 2000. Tactically, its goal is to "break the mold'' from which today's schools are cast and to design a replacement. Strategically, NASDC seeks a far greater piece of the action for corporate America in shaping a design compatible with its needs for the next century.

Assigning responsibility to design and demonstrate those schools to corporate America rather than to the American public is rationalized as follows: A nation's ability to compete in a global market is highly dependent upon the education and skills of the people entering its labor force. The level of achievement by our youth is determined by the caliber of schooling.

NASDC implies our long-honored system of public education has not done and cannot do the necessary job. It has atrophied, no longer works, and that level is ebbing, not rising. Too often our schools dilute their educational mission with those of social agencies. The first job of NASDC schools will be to produce graduates proficient in five areas--math, science, history, English, and geography. Sadly, says NASDC, our schools have neither the will, the minds, nor the resources necessary to modify the culture which nourishes them. Yet modified it must be.

NASDC maintains that only a new generation of "bold, new designs'' for a new ethos in which learning takes place will suffice. That can only mean a different teaching force, a different reward system, a different source of funds, and a different form of accountability. If this signals the end of a long tradition of publicly supported and publicly accountable schools, so be it. Hence the dependency upon private funds.

Reports from NASDC over the past year were welcomed with approbation and anticipation by friends and critics of the public schools. Attention finally was being given to our schools as contributors to the solution of a national, not a state or local, crisis. Its focus upon the nation's demand for a workforce more skilled than the present one was long overdue. In doing so it was perhaps chiding political leadership for ignoring the need for a national education policy while busily framing a national trade policy.

But to those of us who have long watched the wounded gull land, the star of the NASDC proposal was its pledge that the best, the most creative, minds in the country would be recruited to design schools America needs and deserves. To paraphrase others, NASDC would seek people willing and capable of thinking the unthinkable about our schools and about education.

Why the disenchantment now appearing even before the design work for a new generation of schools begins? A simple answer is the frustration bidders for competitive awards experience when the original scope-of-work statement turns out to be at odds with the contracts as awarded. At the time of the initial awards, only $50 millions of the anticipated $200 millions were on hand and 11 not 30 awards were made. The cost of writing 686 proposals far exceeds the few millions awarded for Phase I of the project.

A realistic answer lies elsewhere, based in disappointment not frustration. Track 2 of America 2000 calls for NASDC to create bold, new designs. Track 1 is for those who will merely try to make existing schools better. One cannot, implied NASDC, make light bulbs from candles. The roster of the 11 winners displays many candlestick makers, few butchers or bakers. The disappointment is with the dashed expectation that NASDC would be able to recruit the most creative minds in the country, minds necessary to cast new molds, minds necessary to think the unthinkable.

Finally, NASDC-like endeavors, publicly or privately funded, invariably choose the one reform strategy which is designed to fail. Eleven teams at 11 sites have been selected to design, build, and demonstrate prototypes of schools NASDC believes will be needed. (NASDC chooses not to use the term models or model schools.) Interested communities will assess the fiscal and pedagogical feasibility of those designs as potential molds from which to cast new schools.

NASDC apparently sees the 11 sites as cadavers over which 11 design teams will prowl. They will gain insights from institutions which are supposedly extinct but strangely live on, presumably with the potential to serve as born-again models of schools of the next century. Designers experienced in bettering, not changing, schools will study schools which have been bettered but not changed in order to create changed but not bettered schools.

From insights gained of this brain-glazing paradox a new generation of schools will be designed. Models will be erected and then demonstrated. By 1997, 11 or fewer design teams will be providing technical assistance to thousands of America 2000 communities in all 50 states "as they seek to develop high-performance educational systems'' based on the bold, new designs, all to be done with yet non-existent funds.

Demonstration projects, by definition, never fail. They are doomed to success from Day 1 forward. One is reminded of the tree falling in the forest with no human ear in the vicinity. No ear drums vibrated. No noise was made. No tree crashed. Without access to large monies, in the billions not millions, and firm, long-time commitments national reform will not occur. NASDC will be just one more do-good project. A few people will do a few interesting things. Few will be worthwhile.

NASDC-like endeavors will continue to ward off attention to the staggering problems facing schools in our urban areas. Their magnitude makes national replication costly, exceeding the monies of any treasury other than Washington's. And there the political cost may exceed the dollar cost.

Years ago people hung cloves of garlic in their windows to ward off vampires. Today, PŸTŸAŸ bake sales, bully pulpits, car washes, retiring military personnel, alternative certification, "what works'' books, honor-roll schools, prayer, and above all, demonstration have replaced the garlic. The sanctity of state and local control serves as an unyielding barrier to the use of federal funds to supplement state and local resources. Until that barrier is lowered, the vampire will not go away but fresh cloves periodically will be hung.

An observer of the U.S. Supreme Court recently noted that "our great Courts have been those in which the splendid marble edifice housing the Court was viewed as just that--an abstraction divorced from real people, their successes, their hopes and failures, their joys and their sorrows. Great Courts transcend the moat between abstraction and reality, the lesser ones do not.''

In 10 years (or less if there are no implementation monies), we may know the fate of NASDC's effort to bridge that moat. Do the resources and will necessary to provide for both the skilled workers the nation will need for 2000 and beyond and for their liberal education and general welfare exist within the public domain? If not, then every child's birthright of equal access to free, high-quality schooling will no longer be a necessary condition for a society to remain democratic.

"What will the public schools of America in the year 2000 look like?'' With the exception of the few "innovative'' programs which network television dutifully covers each fall as school opens, the outlook is bleak. There is no reason to believe they will be any more responsive to the education needs of individual children or to national crises than they are today. Merely consider this question: "Would a President call a summit of the 50 governors and plead with them to please consider sending, at their expense, their National Guard units off to capture Saddam?''

James Steffensen, a long-time official of the late Teacher Corps, served the many U.S. Education Department reform efforts from Presidents Eisenhower to Reagan.

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