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The Roundtable: 'To Get Change, You Need Pressure and Support'

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EW: After more than a decade of school-reform efforts, there is no shortage of ideas about what needs to be done to fix the nation's educational system. But there is no clear idea of how to actually do it.

One school of thought is that there needs to be some kind of national strategy that includes a role for the federal government, for states, for school districts, and schools--in other words, a coherent plan for who does what and when to get from where we are to where we want to be.

Another school of thought is that reform can only be done on a school-by-school basis, and that federal and state governments should provide the resources and get out of the way. Let the schools do what they think is best.

Whatever position one takes, the how-to question is still the tough one. How do we actually bring about change in a vast, complex system that is notorious for resisting change?

MR. MILLS: We haven't helped administrators and teachers become masters of change, and we haven't become masters of change ourselves.

We propose changes, but we really don't know how to help people through it. There are some among us who are experts at this, but we almost never invite them in.

Michael Fullan is an example. He's a Canadian scholar, and he's very painstakingly assembled the research on what's known about teachers and principals and superintendents and what's known about change. He points out some things we've all experienced. There's a performance dip when you try to do something different. Things tend to get worse before they get better.

In educational communities, as soon as things start getting worse, the change is dropped. That's the behavior of an amateur in any other field, but that is what we do all the time in education. We try something, it runs into problems, and so we drop it, and we try something new.

We do it with people, too. A kid has a problem learning something, and we conclude the kid's not going to make it. The principal's been in the job for four years, and things are going a little ragged, so let's get somebody else. We just don't know how to persist through the difficult times.

Fullan also says to get change, you need the right mixture of pressure and support. We've got the pressure, but we don't provide the support.

MR. PETERKIN: The superintendent from Louisville [Ky.] and the superintendent from Hartford [Conn.] came to talk to my class about how their communities are involved in trying to restructure schools. Both are very thoughtful people and have given a lot of thought to the process of change. Both are supportive of change--one supports the Kentucky Education Reform Act, and the other supports the equitable treatment of kids in Hartford. And yet both, I would argue, feel somewhat blindsided by these changes.

In the process of change that their communities have been going through--that they helped design and lead--it seems like some external force has suddenly come in and superimposed another change, which may or may not be beneficial.

We don't have a mechanism to support the people who are taking the risks in the process of change that's been ongoing.

In addition, many people who are burned out on the changes of the 1980's are finding it hard to accept the responsibility for change in the 1990's. They got behind all the basic-skills stuff and standardized testing and high graduation rates and the like, and now find themselves almost vilified as we go through the next developmental stage of reform.

We never were very explicit until about two years ago that we had changed the rules of the game. I mean, school systems never had a chance to celebrate the shift from basic skills to advanced skills.

EW: Some people argue that the great majority of teachers, administrators, and school board members have not really bought into standards and performance-based education yet.

If you are going to try to change the minds of the public, you may have to start by changing the minds of the education establishment.

MR. MILLS: It must be very frightening for teachers reading about all the reform activity and imagining more and more and more being layered on.

We need to bring a lot more people into the design of these things. Partly so that we have their ideas, but partly so that they can say, "Wait. We need to throw out something if we're going to add more on.''

The deputy commissioner of my state was always talking about planned abandonment. It's not for a commissioner of education or secretary of education to say some of these things need to be cut away. Local school communities need to be in a position to make those decisions.

The system feels clogged now. Schools are trying to do everything we said they should do in the last half generation, and we are now giving them more to do.

MS. FINE: For us, this latest stage of reform is a new set of ideas. We have abandoned the 80's. But teachers haven't. They are still having to do all of that other stuff, and then we add 16 more layers.

It's not just adding standards and performance-based assessments, either. It's that the conditions of teachers' work lives haven't changed, that they haven't really gotten control over the time and resources.

MR. BILLUPS: We've got to convince a lot of people that change is necessary. Too many school-based people don't see a need for change. We try to solve a lot of the problems of the schools by initiating new projects, when what we really need is systemic change. I don't think enough people in education see the need for real change.

MS. HAYCOCK: We shouldn't skip the education community, but I'm not sure the established organizations are the best way to reach them. I think networks ...

MS. GRAHAM: I agree with networks.

MS. HAYCOCK: That is a very powerful way. We have to learn from that.

MS. GRAHAM: I think they ought to be part of the conversation.

MR. CROSS: And then there is the problem we have within the system of getting people to accept and to acknowledge what works and to make use of what works.

MR. BILLUPS: If we could put some of these programs into policy form, and institutionalize them on a large scale, we might begin to get to the point we want to get to.

EW: There are structures in place that could play a central role in that process, such as the National School Boards Association, the secondary school principals, the elementary school principals, and the American Association of School Administrators. These groups have affiliates in every state. They are spending time and money and energy informing their members. They hold national and state conferences. Their members occupy key positions in schools and districts.

GOVERNOR ROMER: These organizations representing various educational interests rise up and represent their members in Washington. Somebody ought to be thinking about how you get them on board for these changes. It's kind of like putting an army together. It's like in the Revolutionary War. They called the militia out on the green, and they had to organize themselves in platoons, and decide, here's the leader. But somebody has to get the battle plan, and say, "This is the strategy, this is the battle plan, you've all got a role to play. Now go train yourself to do that role.''

I don't think that we are looking at the whole picture well enough.

MS. GRAHAM: The way to influence teachers and administrators and some school board members is not directly but indirectly. People whom they look up to as being powerful can help them see how things are changing for them and get them to participate in the conversation about why changes are necessary.

But a frontal-assault method is not likely to be as effective for schoolpeople. Traditionally, they have changed things as a result of public pressure.

GOVERNOR ROMER: One problem with changing the system is that it doesn't have a "clean-out mechanism.'' In the private sector, there's a very convenient thing called bankruptcy that cleans out those companies that are not successful. We need a mechanism for the bankruptcy of public institutions. We live with them too long when they don't work.

How do we get a serious conversation about these issues going throughout America? How can we get governors, state school officers, superintendents, all these folks in America to take the need for real change seriously? Because, if we don't have an ongoing serious discussion, we're going to cobble it up.

What discourages me is that we had a kind of boomlet a few years ago when we said we're going to go for the goals. Remember, the President of the United States and 50 governors had a summit, then we had the [national education] goals panel, and, for a while, we had great stuff on C-SPAN. We began to educate a lot of America through that. Then, zip! It just sort of slowed down.

I'm worried that we're not going to get to the hearts and minds of the leadership of this country on this issue.

We need a national movement that says, If we don't do this one right, and if we don't do it quickly, we're in real trouble.

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