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Reflections of a Skeptic

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I am intrigued by reports about successful programs of public school reform, particularly when they claim success achieved through community consensus. Such reports momentarily relieve the despondency which has overtaken me after nearly 20 years as an "involved'' parent and advocate for the public schools where I live. However, the relief never lasts, and I do not really believe the reports. It is not that I question the integrity of their authors. I just wonder at their optimism. My gloomy expectations arise from the following assumptions and observations.

A clear answer to "who's in charge?'' is the sine qua non of an efficient political system--hard to realize in a democracy. Teachers and principals working with parents and communities in the best interests of children is the sine qua non of an effective educational system--hard to realize anywhere among adults with full-grown egos, and especially difficult in a society which subordinates the interests of children to other values.

In universal public education the political and school systems converge. Superintendents and school boards who operate at their intersection rarely identify with or champion the schools to which they are supposed to be responsive, because they are perennially caught up in conflicts over "who's in charge'' and preoccupied with asserting their own authority, or saving face when they fail to do so. Educators and families struggling to care for students in their own communities are not immune to power struggles among themselves. But communities that transcend these struggles are then faced with the choice of either erecting a defense system against the political decisionmakers and education bureaucrats who control funding, set standards, and establish the framework within which schools must survive, or drifting at the mercy of centralized management.

Students in combative communities, where school and parent leaders stand by their own best judgment, may fare better than students in acquiescent communities, vulnerable to whatever whim or experiment outside authorities may impose on them. However, neither setting adequately supports teaching and learning. In the first, attention and energy are drawn away from education into endless political battles. In the other, "schooling'' becomes "adjusting'' to one change after another.

Reports coming from such places as Chicago, Charlotte, N.C., and the state of Kentucky describe the evolution of new policymaking and management configurations. Characterized by consensus-building, these new structures are said to promote "democratic deliberation and community interaction.'' In Chicago, school reform has focused since 1988 on dismantling costly and oppressive bureaucracy and centering authority at the school site in the control of parent-teacher-community councils. In the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system in North Carolina, John Murphy, appointed superintendent in 1991, is attempting to implement a philosophy which insists that "schooling involves everyone in the community'' and assumes that "edicts from on high must stop. (Except for the edict that ends all edicts.)'' Radical change on a statewide scale in Kentucky involves the training and empowerment of citizen committees and school councils. Proponents of this process have suggested that it has national application, as a way to "tap the power of citizen action to support necessary shifts in American public education.''

These are the visions of the planters of seeds. They all acknowledge that we must wait until harvest time to judge the success of the planting. Meanwhile, I would not underestimate the old growth which remains, and its power to choke out budding new ways.

Observers describe the setting in which John Murphy is working as "riven by political and education factions'' and note that "the jury is out'' on whether he will be able to sustain the support he has mustered so far. Reform in Kentucky, according to one of its enthusiastic backers, is "a hard sell--it runs against the political grain.'' Other reports on Kentucky note resistance from "overbearing administrators and stubborn school boards.'' Three years after "revolution'' began in Chicago, researchers reported that that school system "remains a highly centralized and bureaucratic operation.'' As a result, they said, "local school councils are limited in their ability to transform schools.''

Meanwhile, in the city where I live, the central school administration waxes eloquent about its commitment to "shared decisionmaking'' while communities under its aegis have spent the last several months mobilizing against its plan for "comprehensive rezoning.'' Whatever the rationale and merits of the plan, the manner in which it was written and promulgated, and the manner in which the bureaucracy responded to the dismay of parents and communities, violates every guideline for reaching "public judgments through informed discussion, tolerance, and mutual respect.''

This latest example of countless frustrating and disillusioning experiences with public school functionaries reinforces my skepticism about the likelihood of educational reform. Maybe positive change will prevail in Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina, and other places about which I read. But from where I am writing, after years of election promises, blue-ribbon commission reports, and media campaigns, I see only a recurring pattern of sabotage. Decisionmakers may say that they understand the sine qua non of effective education, but their actions almost always contradict their profession.

Jo Ann O. Robinson is a professor of history at Morgan State University in Baltimore.

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