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Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

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In the Westerns I watched on television when I was growing up, all the action happened in town. Horse thieves escaped from jail, barroom brawls erupted, innocent men were rescued at the last minute from hanging, dancehall girls implored cowboys to buy them drinks, the sheriff gunned down the bad guy in a faceoff on the dusty main street.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the women, children, and old folks continued business as usual. While the men were hanging outlaws in town, Ma was hanging clothes on the line. If it was nighttime, she was sewing near the kerosene lantern, serene on the outside for the sake of the sleeping children upstairs, but listening for the sound of horses' hooves that would signal that the menfolk were back from their latest brush with danger and excitement.

Today, as a public school administrator, I'm beginning to feel a little like Ma. There is something going on "in town,'' on the national or state level regarding education--meetings, disputes, facedowns, shoot-outs ... and sometimes even a hanging. But meanwhile, back at the ranch, it is, for the most part, business as usual.

Like Will Rogers, all some of us know is what we read in the papers. Education Week reports that another national advisory committee has been formed "with an eye to improving productivity'' in the public schools ("Group Dissects Education Industry,'' Nov. 18, 1992). This time it's a combination of business leaders, education leaders, and teachers' union leaders. Asks the project's co-chairman, a college president, "Why are we not producing the progress that all of us think we're working toward?''

Who are "all of us,'' I wonder? Some back at the ranch don't know what's happening in town, and some don't care. And a few who have read the papers are busy circling the wagons.

I do not mean to pick on this committee in particular. Like most committees designed to improve public education from a national perspective, this one includes a number of important, intelligent, caring individuals. Their hearts are in the right place. And their "hunch'' that the reason for the lack of real progress "lies in the web that links various levels of government with teachers, curriculum, and students'' is probably right.

Like the Education President, America 2000, and national exams for teachers and students, this new committee is likely to have a negligible (or even negative) impact on the field at large unless, unlike those who have gone before them, the committee members can figure out how to get people home at the ranch involved in their findings and recommendations. Back at the ranch (in my case a large elementary school in rural upstate New York), new ideas move from the town to the field with glacial slowness; and when they finally do arrive, they are met with suspicion. I do not think we are vastly different in this regard from areas less isolated. Unwillingness to change is a function of the institution, not the geography.

There is no question that the most exciting part of problem-solving is brainstorming. Throwing ideas out just as fast as some el-40lone can record them is heady business. Being part of a planning team can be exhilarating. What we in education have never been particularly good at, however, is implementation of new ideas. We are even worse at maintenance of anything other than the status quo.

While I hate to mix metaphors, the reform movement so far in education reminds me of the circus performer who spins plates on poles. Alone in the spotlight, centerstage, he starts with one, then another and another, until he has six or eight plates spinning madly away all at once for a few seconds. The excitement is to see if he can get them all up and running at the same time; once he does, the act is over. The real trick would be to see how long he could keep them all spinning. That is what implementation is all about.

What does it take to move ideas off the pages of educational journals and into the classroom? How can we weave a true web of communication that involves government, schools, and businesses at the local level? How can what happens in town really affect what happens back at the ranch?

Part of the answer, I believe, lies in recognizing the reluctance of people to accept, let alone implement, plans they've had no part in formulating. It follows, then, that early involvement of those who must ultimately implement a plan is crucial to its success. Where are the teachers, principals, and students on these state and national committees?

In the final analysis, the responsibility for success or failure rests in the hands of those charged with the implementation of programs. Schools in the vanguard of reform--Tesseract schools, charter schools, el-76land a handful of truly innovative public schools--have in common the ability to make decisions on site, to chart their own course. The job, then, of various national and state committees, organizations, boards, legislatures, etc., is to provide direction and support for the field rather than more regulations, mandates, and tests.

We in the field need to know that education is important enough to bring leaders together at the national and state levels. National goals and plans for reform are admirable. However, vigorous efforts to involve practitioners must be made or little will be accomplished.

Besides national meetings and state meetings, perhaps regional and district roundtables involving practitioners, parents, and students, community and business leaders are in order. The "town meeting,'' so effective in the recent Presidential campaign, might be a vehicle for education as we labor to bring about a groundswell of reform. We know that the top-down factory-model school is no longer viable; ironically, we continue to follow that model as we attempt to effect change in the system.

Change from within is not easy. In New York, our state department of education has been struggling to metamorphose itself from a regulatory agency to a support system for public schools. Reprogramming hundreds of bureaucrats has been a Herculean task for the commissioner of education, consensus and shared responsibility not being indigenous to the population over which he presides. Perhaps, like President Clinton, the commissioner might do well to charter a bus and take a goodly number of his officials out to the field, stopping at educational town meetings not only in Rochester and Buffalo and Queens, but in Lyons Falls, Victor, and Carthage.

Because, meanwhile, back at the ranch, all is not as serene as it used to be. Change at the local level requires, as it does at the state and national level, commitment, vision, and time to plan. It requires leadership at the district level and trust between districts and unions. And it requires money, for despite well intentioned desires to do more with less, yearly worries about reductions in state aid (not to mention Chapter 1 funds) are serious distractors.

Those at the national and state levels should not be impatient with us in the field. Like them, our hearts are in the right place. The subtlety I missed as a child watching Westerns was that while the shootouts were occurring in town, on the homefront the chores were done, the crops were planted, children were educated, and the fabric of social interchange continued. Exigencies of daily schooling sometimes interfere with our efforts to reform--absentee parents, abuse, transient families, special-education needs, outbreaks of head lice, and the like. I offer these not as excuses, but as a gentle reminder that when committees at the national or state level work for change they probably don't have to worry about who has eaten breakfast, who is pregnant, and who, if anyone, is carrying a weapon.

Suzanne Tingley is the principal of Carthage Elementary School in Carthage, N.Y.

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