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Don't Discard the Bush-Alexander Initiative

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The following is an open letter to the new President and Secretary of Education:

You are about to make some key decisions on an education agenda for the next four years. As you consider goals and strategies, please review carefully the Bush/Alexander initiative of the past few years.

Don't be tempted to spend time trying to identify more negatives or build magnificent rationales for changes in direction and infrastructure. There has already been enough said and written by the critics and campaign designers. Rather, take time to assess where the nation is in its efforts to bring about much needed educational restructuring and determine what is right about the strategies and programs initiated by the "other guys.''

You need to seriously consider that it is now 1993, only seven years from the highly publicized year 2000, the time we seem to agree that education reforms need to be firmly established. We don't have time to tear down the whole framework for change and begin again, if there are parts and pieces that can form a solid foundation. Relabel the parts you keep, if you must. We understand the realities of politics. But don't discard the usable foundational pieces. If there's any enterprise in America that needs continuity across the arbitrary boundaries of political parties and terms of office, it is education.

In case you haven't had time to identify elements of the Bush/Alexander initiative that are "keepers'' let me list a few for your consideration:

  • The National Education Goals and the panels and commissions established to develop implementation strategies.

I have been an educator for 32 years. Never, until now, have we had anything resembling national goals. Furthermore, the effort to define them hasn't simply been the product of the federal government. Governors, legislators, educators, business and community leaders, and others were instrumental in the development process. Bill, you certainly know that because you played a major role in that process. To revise the goals would require more time and money that probably aren't needed. It would also mean that the time and effort already given by many people at local, state, regional, and national levels to implementation strategies will have been wasted. That is a sure-fire way to kill the impetus and enthusiasm for educational change that has been generated.

  • The basic principles and procedures of America 2000.

If you can't live with the America 2000 label, we can understand that, but look behind the label. The strategy requires local, grassroots initiative. To become an America 2000 community, all segments of the community must decide that (a) they want to change their schools, (b) they will work together to do so, (c) they won't depend entirely on the federal government to fund and define what they need to do, and (d) they will control their own educational destinies by designing their own schools for the future to meet their needs.

Maybe you haven't attended America 2000 community meetings or any of the America 2000 regional leadership workshops, but I have. There is excitement and commitment to restructuring schools in many, many communities that have bought into America 2000. They intend to move ahead, regardless of who is in office. Support them, don't undermine them or blunt their momentum.

  • Emphasis on systemic restructuring of schools.

Many of the illustrations of this concept have now achieved clichÀe status, but they are still true. Schools are like automobiles. Both systems (one for education and one for transportation) are composed of several subsystems that must all work together to take us where we need and want to go.

We have finally learned that tinkering with one or another of the educational subsystems (curriculum, testing, school organization, governance, funding, educator preparation, etc.) won't produce the needed results. We have to redesign all the subsystems more or less simultaneously. That notion has been paramount in the educational-restructuring literature of the last few years and in the Bush/Alexander initiative. This kind of education redesign is just beginning to take hold out here in the states and local communities. We need to complete the designs and move them into implementation. Let's not change direction now.

  • Coordinated federal funding for educational research and development.

I don't know what else to call it, so let me explain it. Like many other educators, I spend a great deal of time working with federal grants and contracts. During the past two years, almost all requests for proposals (R.F.P.'s) generated in the U.S. Education Department have required that the programs and research proposed be directly tied to the national goals and that they address "front burner'' issues such as enhanced standards for student performance, new methodologies for student assessment, parent/community involvement, etc. These requirements hold regardless of the division of the Education Department from which the R.F.P. emanates.

This is the first time in my memory that the department has approached educational improvement with a rifle rather than a shotgun. Often, there has been little evidence of coordination and collaboration within the department. If we are to achieve meaningful, systemic education reform it has to be a coordinated effort in Washington as well as in local communities.

You will notice that I haven't mentioned the levels of funding needed from Washington. That omission is purposeful. Our philosophies may differ, but let's acknowledge that continued coordination of funding may contribute as much or more to education improvement as increases in funding for research and development that work at cross purposes.

  • Emphasis on the interrelatedness of education at all levels.

We are finally recognizing that education is a cradle-to-grave voyage and that the lines between preschool, elementary, middle school, secondary, and postsecondary education, and many community and life experiences, are arbitrary at best. Education for the workplace can and does occur in schools and elsewhere in the community. Schools have to serve adults as well as children and teenagers. Schooling won't change significantly until teacher- and administrator-education does. The Bush/Alexander initiative has begun to break down barriers at the federal level and to encourage states and local communities to do the same. Continue the good work.

  • Emphasis on an initiating role for the U.S. Education Department; de-emphasis of the regulatory role.

There is still a long way to go, but federal requirements have been loosened in many programs; paperwork has been somewhat reduced, and local distinctiveness in program design and implementation has been encouraged. Dissemination and interchange of ideas and results and provision of assistance have been featured in the department. Those changes at the federal level encourage change at the state and local levels.

  • The involvement of the corporate sector.

The Bush/Alexander initiative has acknowledged that all segments of the community are stakeholders in our educational future. Corporate and community leaders as well as educational and government leaders have been brought into dialogue and policy setting at the federal level. This was evidenced by the role of the former Xerox Corporation ãŸåŸïŸ, David Kearns, in the U.S. Education Department, as well as by the relationship between the department and agencies such as the National Chamber of Commerce and the New American Schools Development Corporation. Those relationships send signals to states and local communities, and they have helped those of us out here relate in new ways.

  • Emphasis on intergovernmental collaboration.

Recently, we have seen and experienced collaboration on educational goals and issues between federal departments such as Energy and Education, Labor and Education, and Health and Human Services and Education. That didn't just happen, because it hasn't always been the case. The problems we face in education are complex. They require intergovernmental discussion and interdepartmental support.

  • The principle of school choice.

I have worded this item very carefully. It appears that you and I might disagree on implementation of the principle, but I would hate to think we disagree about its validity.

Choice has been a founding principle of our country. It is unthinkable that parents should not be able to exercise choice in their selection of schools for their children. The school-choice dialogue has begun, and experiments are under way. Both the dialogue and the experimentation need to continue with full support from Washington.

Thanks for taking time to read this letter and seriously consider its contents. Let's admit that George and Lamar have done some things right and build upon them. There's still more to be done than any Administration can accomplish.

Russell French is a professor of education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He has worked actively in education-reform efforts in a number of states over the past decade.

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