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Alice in Reformland

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There's a distortion at the heart of much of our national debate on school reform. Teachers, parents, and students get too little respect from national reform groups; "analysts'' and "experts'' get too much. Unless there are attitude changes on the part of a number of New York- and Washington-based reform groups--liberal and conservative alike--we may get results that look, outside the wonderland of Washington, "curiouser and curiouser,'' as Alice would say.

Here are a few of the mistaken habits of mind such an attitude shift might correct:

1. Ignoring outstanding teachers. Despite their skill and talent, many of our finest teachers become frustrated and cynical. Not surprising, considering that all too often policymakers ignore those who know the challenges of the classroom best and have developed superb ways of dealing with them. The recent independent Commission on Chapter 1 is an excellent example. (See Education Week, Dec. 16, 1992.)

When I was asked to join the commission, I suggested that it include several outstanding teachers and principals. The response? "Not necessary.'' The commission included three lawyers, and its leadership hired two more. But they would not include a current teacher or principal. Representatives from the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are important; so are central-office administrators. But wouldn't our work have been enriched by including folks who work daily with students? I think so.

Several of us also urged that the commission hold hearings with teachers, administrators, and parents around the country before beginning to develop, or to finalize, its recommendations. The response, again, was "no.'' We urged that the commission visit outstanding Chapter 1 schools to talk directly with those who are actually making a difference in the lives of youngsters. "Not necessary.''

The problem is not a new one, and there are many other examples, but one from a few years back might best illustrate my point. After the National Governors' Association hired me in 1985 to coordinate its "Time for Results'' project studying what governors should do to help improve schools, articles appeared in several Washington-based publications citing insider unease with my appointment. I wasn't a "policy analyst.'' My 15-year career, first in Head Start and then as an inner-city public school teacher and administrator, didn't count for much.

Later, people in Washington and New York City were similarly stunned when the N.G.A. announced it would hold 18 hearings around the country, and wanted to hear from parents, classroom teachers, and administrators, as well as from "experts.''

"What do you expect to learn in Billings, Little Rock, or Jefferson City?'' insiders asked. "Isn't this just politics? Why don't you just assemble a panel of experts?''

Actually, one of our first steps was to meet with officials of the American Educational Research Association, describe the N.G.A.'s plans, and invite them to assemble the best research available in seven key areas. We needed it in six months. Despite follow-up phone calls, we heard nothing for 10 months, which was much too late. Then we got a long, rambling videotape. Several governors told me they were not surprised. Many of them have little faith in the research community.

While we waited for the researchers, we met with educators. Then-Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas was fascinated by award-winning elementary and secondary school principals with whom he met for three hours at one of the hearings. These remarkable administrators helped convince him that they would accept greater responsibility for results if given more flexibility and building-level authority over how to achieve them.

President Clinton became interested in public school choice by listening to educators and parents, not by talking with experts. The governors talked directly with teachers who had helped create distinctive public schools. Many of them pointed out that choice was based on the recognition that there is no one best kind of school for all students. Some youngsters will thrive in a more flexible school, they said, while others will need more direction.

Other educators explained how choice fit with the move toward teacher professionalism. Giving teachers the power to create new, distinctive schools means recognizing that not everyone will want to work in a Montessori school, or a continuous-progress program, or a school using Howard Gardner's ideas of multiple intelligences, or one of Theodore Sizer's Essential Schools, they said, so choice is an important part of freeing teachers to carry out their dreams and visions.

These educational and professional rationales for choice are almost never heard at the policy level. That's because most debates are like one recently put together by a Washington-based think tank and televised by C-SPAN. Not one teacher or principal was on the 10-member panel, no one with day-to-day experiences--positive, negative, or mixed--with choice plans.

These oversights are not aberrations; practicing educators quite often are not considered necessary for a thoughtful discussion on policy. That's sad, silly, and wrong.

2. Dumping on parents. "Students give their parents 'D' for school involvement.'' Newspapers around the country grabbed The Washington Post's recent flashy headline and story. Educators throughout the country cited this poll.

But students taking part in that particular survey were never asked to assign grades, and were never asked to focus on parents. They were asked, "In the neighborhood in which you live, how active would you say most parents are when it comes to preparing their children for school or homework?'' Fourteen percent said "heavily involved,'' 43 percent said "somewhat involved,'' 24 percent said "rarely involved,'' and 6 percent said "not at all involved.'' Officials at the National Association of Secondary School Principals and Sylvan Learning Centers, who sponsored the poll, decided that those numbers translated into a "D.'' That grade might be more appropriate for the story.

Powerful people often criticize parents for being complacent and giving their youngsters' school(s) "A's'' or "B's.'' A 1991 Harris poll found that parents rated the quality of education their youngsters received much higher than employers and college educators did.

Why do parents rate youngsters' skills so well? Could it be because their local educators, administrators, and school boards insist that most students are doing well?

Are all educators convinced that most students are doing poorly? Gerald Bracey's widely circulated articles in Education Week, the Phi Delta Kappan, and other education publications assert, as the Kappan's editor, Pauline Gough, put it, that "the system as a whole is doing at least as well as it has ever done--and probably far better than we have any right to expect.''

This view is widespread throughout the land, although not in East Coast policy circles. Parents tend to accept what educators tell them. Should we blame them for believing us?

Criticism of parents' ability to make wise decisions is an important part of the national debate about school choice, regardless of whether it involves public or private schools. A recent report on this subject by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching quotes a suburban Minneapolis superintendent who says most parents are interested primarily in "convenience.''

Carnegie doesn't explain that before former Gov. Rudy Perpich of Minnesota proposed an open-enrollment plan, this particular district had required youngsters to go 14 miles to the nearest school in their district, rather than walk two blocks to the nearest school just across district lines. Carnegie doesn't quote district parents who said their children could be more involved in debate, drama, and journalism activities in the closer school, or parents who felt the closer school, with fewer students, offered more personal attention than the distant school enrolling thousands.

Several careful studies found "academic quality'' was the single most improtant factor Minnesota parents cited in selecting schools. Seventy-six percent of Minnesotans favored the state's public school choice program in a 1992 poll.

Our views toward parents often are schizophrenic. We want greater parent involvement, but when they ask for one of the prerequisites for involvement--proximity--they are dismissed as being interested only in "convenience.'' Likewise, we want more trust between educators and parents, but when parents actually believe the school success stories their local educators tell them, policy leaders accuse them of being uninformed.

3. Devaluing students. We hear constantly that students are more difficult to educate today. What we rarely hear is how hard they will work when confronted with real and important issues, and when they can see connections between school and the outside world. For example:

  • South Bronx students contributed many hours to rehabilitating a former crack house two blocks from their public school, making it a residence for homeless families. Students' math and other skills improved as they saw the very real relationships between this school work and their world.
  • A Minnesota high school student regarded as mildly handicapped became a "star'' and earned a scholarship after serving for a year as "C.E.O.'' of the student-owned and -operated grocery store in Rothsay, Minn. The store grossed $300,000 last year and was cited in The Wall Street Journal.
  • Over a two-year period, St. Paul secondary students convinced three large companies to stop pumping foul-smelling odors into the air around their school.
  • Students in Custer, S.D., studied how much money was leaving their town because local merchants were not stocking items teenagers wanted to buy. Their study helped convince businesses to expand inventories, and helped improve the town's economy.
  • Salt Lake City 8th graders convinced the government to force a cleanup of 50,000 rusting and corroded barrels of dangerous waste products near their school.

The list could go on, but this is the point: Our nation must deal with pressing social and economic problems at the same time it seeks ways to assure that education is funded in a more equitable way. School-reform discussions should begin with the understanding that young people are resources. They are eager to help solve problems. Making real challenges a part of their curriculum helps motivate them to learn the basics and the problem-solving skills they need.

Policymakers also ought to much more heavily involve educators, especially those who've achieved success in difficult circumstances. Ignoring outstanding teachers' experience and insight is unnecessary and unwise.

Finally, let's stop the attack on parents. Educators don't like being attacked. Neither do parents. Like educators, most parents do the very best job they can.

National progress requires making much better use of the insight, talent, and energy of those most closely involved in the business of schooling: educators, parents, and young people. President Clinton understands this. He needs more people who agree. Good intentions are not nearly enough.

Joe Nathan, a former public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute.

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