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Advice to the New Administration: Come Up With a School-Reform Stimulus

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What can the Clinton Administration, with its laundry list of priorities and precious little spare change, do to improve public schools?

The federal government, after all, is a bit player financially, paying only 6 percent or so of the nation's public education bill. The President and his Secretary of Education, Richard W. Riley, unquestionably can use their respective bully pulpits to more constructive effect than their predecessors. More Chapter 1 funding would doubtless help, provided, of course, that Washington guards against the "substitution'' phenomenon, by which financially strapped school districts use the extra federal aid to compensate for other cuts in state and local tax-levy support.

But even if the money could be found, would that form of assistance be the most productive use of scarce federal dollars? It would continue to leave the improvement of schools largely to chance. With American competitiveness and the quality of our children's lives at stake, Washington can ill afford a laissez-faire attitude. Yes, public education is a prototypically American institution, with largely decentralized control and funding. Yet the need for improvement is so acute and so key to the nation's future that it's entirely appropriate for the federal-funding tail to wag the local-education dog. The issue for me is how, not whether.

By all accounts, American students are not measuring up to their counterparts in developed countries, much less mastering the skills needed to function effectively in the labor force and life in the 21st century--this, even though parents by and large are content with their children's schools. To stem the slippage, national curriculum groups and state departments of education are busily formulating loftier standards and stiffer curriculum frameworks. The definitions of competency posited in the U.S. Labor Department's óãáîó report and the Bush Administration's America 2000 are plausible starting points, with their shared emphasis on the fact that employees of tomorrow will need more sophisticated skills than assembly-line workers of old.

Public education faces three formidable challenges: (1) to lift all children to the world-class standards of competency needed for the next century; (2) to eradicate the achievement gaps between our kids and those in rival industrialized countries; and (3) to raise the achievement levels of the disadvantaged youngsters in impoverished urban and rural school districts who are bringing up the rear academically.

President Clinton and Secretary Riley could do the cause of school reform a big service by using their bully pulpits to help parents understand, in plain English, the shortcomings of their children's education given the requirements of the decades ahead. We need to puncture the parental complacency so that they demand more of their schools and so that educators feel consumer pressure to improve. The typical parent lacks a comprehensible frame of reference for doing this. The President and the Secretary should emulate the erstwhile Surgeon General C. Everett Koop in drumming these deficiencies home to parents.

Still, higher standards and impassioned exhortations aren't enough. Promulgating tougher standards is (comparatively) easy. The hard part, which most school districts have ducked to date, is overhauling teaching so that teachers are properly equipped, attitudinally and professionally, to help children--especially those at risk--meet society's loftier expectations. Teachers in urban schools especially have been inundated by reform ideas. They develop an attitude that this too will pass, and invariably they're right. As Milbrey McLaughlin of Stanford has observed, today's teachers are not trained either to cope with today's kids or to cultivate in them the competencies and skills increasingly expected of them. Indeed, many practice what the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee educator Martin Haberman has aptly called the "pedagogy of poverty.'' In other words, teachers use instructional techniques that stress basic skills, rely on rote learning, and foster passivity among students. Transforming this outmoded pedagogy will be a tall order because educators must undo what they've learned about their profession and elevate their lowly opinions of many poor and minority children.

Happily, this is anything but a hopeless cause. Though much remains to be researched, many educators and reformers argue convincingly that we know enough now to make a marked difference in children's schooling and achievement. That's largely because the 80's were a decade of robust experimentation. Daring principals and teachers, along with reformers like Theodore Sizer, James Comer and Robert Slavin, among others, devised innovative techniques for improving inner-city schools and boosting student achievement. Thus, we have moved from the crippling skepticism of the late 70's that schools could ever be made to work for poor children to the point today where a substantial knowledge base for real progress exists. Nevertheless, the innovative work continues largely to be carried on in the nooks and crannies of school districts. The school-reform movement today confronts the classic conundrum of change, namely how to take knowledge--and hope--to scale.

Mr. Haberman argues that two conditions must pertain in order to transform the pedagogy of poverty. First, the whole school faculty and school community, and not just individual teachers, must be the engines of change. Second, there must be patience and persistence of application. With rare exceptions, neither situation characterizes the current state of school reform. The requisite transformation simply cannot occur without a significant investment in the training and retooling of educators. More specifically, there must be a sizable and sustained commitment to the professional development of educators. Not more of the desultory stuff they usually get, but exposure to new knowledge and methods. In fact, professional development may well be the next, albeit the least exotic, frontier in school reform. Incentives and compulsion have their uses, and their limits. Since education is the quintessential people business, educators must be state-of-the-art if we expect their students to be as well.

Public schools have much to learn on this score from the private sector. A recent series of profiles in The Wall Street Journal indicates that enlightened corporations take in-service training of managers and line workers seriously. Their training stresses el20lteamwork, vision, initiative, discretion, risk-taking and, yes, acountability. Ford reinvented itself by shifting more discretion to people in plants and investing in their capacity to take initiative. Johnson & Johnson maintains a culture that kindles intellectual conflict and spawns innovative ideas from scores of small teams. The hugely successful Saturn unit at General Motors sent teams of middle managers and factory workers abroad to learn about new production approaches.

Yet indispensable as it is, even professional development alone won't suffice in the absence of will at the top and license for building-based educators to reform. Those corporations that have turned the corner decided at the C.E.O. and board levels that they must radically change the ways they do business. As Jennifer O'Day and Marshall Smith of Stanford University have argued, the vision of change in education must be powerful enough to focus all levels of governance on a set of common purposes and to sustain that focus over an extended time. Absent the combination of vision and consensus, there are recurring policy collisions between needed reforms and predecessor policies which confuse teachers and thwart progress.

So where does the financially strapped federal government fit in? I suggest a series of modest but highly leveraged investments by the feds to break the logjam. Let Washington prod the reform movement and provide some tools needed to help sustain it.

For starters, the federal government needs to forge a consensus about the competencies we expect children to possess by the time they finish high school and, equally important, about the investments needed in their education and in the training of those who teach them if these expectations are ever to be met. Thus, we need a clearer sense not only of the ultimate destination, but also of the map we must use to get there.

Professional development of teachers is one key route. Given the sheer numbers of teachers, there is no way the feds can finance the kind of serious and sustained professional-development experience that teachers ought to have. But Washington can help educators define the ideal and then goad school districts to strive for it.

Let me be more concrete. Imagine a federally funded effort to support the design of advanced professional-development experiences that fit within the framework of existing school district budgets. Working, say, with a handful of actual districts, this endeavor might address such issues as:

  • How much money is currently spent on in-service training, certification courses, and other modes of professional development? How might those resources be redeployed to maximum advantage?
  • What are inventive ways of freeing teachers from classroom duty in order to participate in professional-development activities? And if they are pulled out of classrooms for substantial chunks of time, how might the children's time be used productively?
  • What ought to be the "curriculum'' of a visionary professional-development program? What subjects might it cover and how do content and format need to be custom-tailored to localities? What is the desired mix of directed versus discovery activities?

And so forth. These designs must recognize that much professional development is intensely personal and that, in addition to learning from outsiders, educators need to learn from one another. Beyond supporting this design work, perhaps Washington could help real-world demonstrations in a handful of districts. In fact, this might be done in partnership with the growing number of foundations, long committed to school reform, which see professional development as a necessary precursor to widespread reform.

Next, I propose that Washington invest directly in awakening and energizing the principals and policymakers who can make or break reform. The experience I envision for principals is "immersion'' academies which expose them to the latest research and innovation, and which develop modern participatory management and leadership skills. Long-standing experience with mid-career and academy models suggests that they can alter profoundly participants' understandings, perceptions, expectations, and skills. Just imagine if all the principals in a given district were simultaneously "schooled.'' The academies should be long enough--say, two weeks--to permit ample exposure to promising research and practice; plenty of time to practice new management and team-building techniques; and, ultimately, opportunities to examine afresh fundamental assumptions about themselves, their students, and their teachers.

To succeed, teachers and principals need to be supported, not sabotaged, by those who set policy. That means senior district administrators, the superintendent, school board members, state education officials, state legislators and staff members, and the governor. These key players must subscribe to a shared vision for schools, understand the array of changes indicated, from new modes of school management to pedagogical reforms, and appreciate the need for investing in professional development. This kind of experience, perhaps a week in duration, ought to be offered in concert with the academies for principals so that there is synergy between district policy and building practice.

What form might federal aid for these immersion experiences for policymakers and principals take? Washington ought not simply write a check and wish state and local educators well. If not accompanied by strings and overseen with care, this precious new federal money could be swallowed by financially strapped states and school districts without a burp.

Imagine, therefore, a federal block grant to states which provides full funding for these academies, but with stringent provisos about use and oversight. To receive its allotment, a state must first designate a prestigious panel to oversee the use of the funds. Members might include education-minded C.E.O.'s, higher-education officials, children's advocates, local educators, and representatives of parent's organizations. This panel would review and approve all proposed uses of the block-grant funds in the state. The second prerequisite is that key state-level policymakers, from the governor and legislators to the chief state school officer, must participate in the kind of immersion experience described above. Federal funds would cover the cost, of course.

The balance of federal block-grant funds would be available for school districts in the state with substantial percentages of Chapter 1 children, thus assuring a focus on school systems facing the greatest challenges. States would award block-grant funds to those eligible districts that pledge to use the money for academies for principals, school board members, and senior administrators. The state oversight panel would review the district's plan and, if satisfied, authorize the release of funds. The funds could also be used to design an ongoing professional-development experience for teachers that dovetailed with the academies for others in the district. If a nationwide initiative would cost too much in the near term, then Washington might begin by piloting the block-grant approach in a few states.

One final idea. The states of both classroom teaching and mass-communications technology suggest that it's time to create a publicly funded cable-television channel dedicated to professional development. Beamed into schools and the home by cable and satellite, it would be a lean, high-tech, interactive channel that exposes educators to innovative ideas and stimulating people and enables them to converse with distant experts and with one another. Imagine a national program service consisting of documentaries on estimable teachers and sound instructional practices, telecasts of major education conferences, debates on critical issues, Larry King-type shows with provocative teachers and reformers, even live visits to successful schools and demonstrations of effective instructional practices, followed by call-ins. The cable schedule should leave substantial time for locally originated programming, so that teachers in different schools within districts can routinely learn from one another.

Since the invigoration of American public education is a pressing national priority, the professional-development channel should be publicly, not privately, run and commercial free. However public-spirited, a private entrepreneur would inevitably cater to the tastes of advertisers. Thus, the channel should be overseen by a prestigious board and managed by a respected educator backstopped by an imaginative broadcaster. A lean cable operation that relies on low-cost, professionally produced documentary materials would cost little when compared with the yield. And it would instantly become part of the essential education infrastructure in this country.

In combination, these modest federal investments might foment a broad school-reform movement in the 90's which builds on the promising experimentation of the 80's. Given the fateful stakes, the Clinton Administration should aspire to--and settle for--nothing less.

Hugh B. Price is vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation.

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