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My Ordinary Career

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Louis Romano became a teacher almost by accident. He earned a bachelor's degree in business administration in 1958 at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, went into the Army for two years, and then worked long enough in business as a management trainee to decide that he did not care for the world of commerce. Like the good young Catholic that he was, he went to his parish priest to seek guidance.

The priest had an idea. He said that the parish school needed teachers and that Lou ought to give teaching a try. That was more than 30 years ago. Now, Romano--whose real name is not being used here in the interest of candor--has decided to call it quits. He is almost 61 years old and will retire next year from a public school district in a small city in northern New Jersey where he has spent nearly his entire career.

His move to the public schools came just two weeks after his career began in the parochial schools. It seems that the only thing that the priest who hired him had said about salary was that it would be "a living wage.'' When the first check came and it amounted to about $75 for two weeks' work, Lou, who was on the verge of getting married, left the Catholic school to accept a job in a nearby public school district, where his future brother-in-law was superintendent.

Romano's career, like that of most teachers, has been rather anonymous. He is an average teacher with admittedly old-fashioned ideas who doesn't receive the attention of those inclined to take notice of only the most stellar performers. Like other members of teaching's rank and file, he works diligently and unspectacularly, carrying out his duties in ways barely different from what he has done for years.

At this juncture, more than three decades after presiding over his first class, Romano's musings provide a useful touchstone against which to examine veteran teachers generally and to gauge the impact of the waves of change that have periodically attempted to surge through the schools. No teacher, of course, is typical of all teachers. In his ordinariness, though, Romano--who has taught mostly in elementary school, but also in high school--just may resemble legions of teachers whose educational views and practices, while unfashionable, are widespread.

In an era in which hardly a paragraph can be written about education without the word "reform'' creeping into print, it is sobering to be reminded that many teachers around the country, women and men like Lou Romano, are traditionalists who are barely conversant with the reforms being urged on elementary and secondary schools.

These are people whose educational world is circumscribed by the four walls of the classroom, a caldron in which day-to-day reality bubbles to the surface and theory disintegrates. They have not read and may not even be aware of the outpouring of reports that have attempted to steer the public schools in new directions during recent years.

In fact, so far as Romano is concerned, the reform movement is a figment of someone's imagination. "I don't see any reforms that have drastically changed things,'' he says. "Curriculum and teaching are basically the same as they were 10, 20 years ago. There's been no reform movement that I know of.''

Even as he offers this observation, though, Romano notes with displeasure changes that he says have made the teacher's lot more difficult--less homogeneous grouping and more social promotion, for instance. He speaks wistfully of a time when, at least through the rose-colored glasses of memory, teachers ruled supreme and parents--there tended to be two of them per child then--could be relied on to back the school in dealing with their children.

Thus, as he simultaneously peers into the future toward his upcoming retirement and reflects back on what it has meant to be a teacher in an America not always sure of what it wants of its public schools, Romano personifies the collective attitudes and experiences of an aging teacher force.

These are the veterans--almost one in five teachers is now older than 50--who have occupied classrooms for at least a couple of decades and are apt to remain in place for at least a decade or longer. Theirs is the influence that is often discounted as others plot the course of a reform movement that has hardly penetrated their precincts. But when observers wonder why school reforms have not taken hold, this is where they would do well to look.

More has been at stake for people like Lou than what happens in the classroom. Teaching in the public schools provided the income--he now makes $70,000 a year--for him and his late wife to buy a house and raise two sons in comfortable middle-class security. The son of immigrants who were brought to this country as children from Sicily, Lou has been able to grab a piece of the American dream as a result of what schoolteaching has meant to him financially. For years now, he has been sufficiently comfortable to take off the entire summer, no longer having to work as a custodian or a bus driver to supplement his income.

He is a short man with a full head of hair that remains naturally dark brown, giving him the mien of someone five to 10 years younger. His paunch belies his continued athleticism. He is an avid golfer and still devotes Saturday mornings during the summer to playing second base on an over-50 softball team. His first wife, a secretary, died nine years ago, and he has remarried. His sons have moved to other states, one to be an advertising-account executive and the other, a forest ranger.

The fact that Lou Romano has spent all but the first two years of his career in a single district enhances the continuity of his perspective and lends him a stability that he shares with the many experienced teachers who also have disdained the peripatetic for the security and predictability of remaining in one place. Fully 37 percent of public school teachers with more than 10 years' experience have taught in their current schools for more than 10 years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and, of course, the portion who have stayed in one district that long is even greater.

Even his school district, in the well-balanced composition of its ethnicity, adds to Romano's standing as a kind of Everyman of education. This is a school system of more than 4,000 students that is almost exactly one-third white and one-third black; the remaining one-third is made up largely of Hispanic-Americans and Asian-Americans.

And it is not a place of "white flight,'' but rather a more or less stable community--a hybrid between suburb and small city--in which the ethnic equilibrium is maintained. It was not always this way. The system was overwhelmingly white when Romano assumed his post in the 1960's, though even then a black population of long standing was already in residence.

If a single theme threads its way through Lou's reminiscences it is a lamentation for what he considers the erosion of the teacher's authority. "Thirty years ago,'' he says, "the teacher controlled the classroom. The teacher was like the captain of the ship. People took the word of the teacher. All that has changed. Teachers today are like peons. They don't have clout any longer.''

Administrators tend to act the villains in Romano's drama of declining teacher influence. "They forget that they were once teachers,'' he says. More than 30 years on the front line have engendered a sour taste for administrators. He apparently has encountered few of the sort sometimes referred to in the literature as "instructional leaders.''

The kind of principal he could respect, Romano says, is one able to step into a classroom and teach a lesson in exemplary fashion. He recalls the many administrators he has heard say that something should be taught one way or another. "I say, 'O.K., show me how.' And they leave the room because they can't do it. I have very little respect for those people. But I had one superintendent that I admire to this day. He came into my classroom and took over my class and taught it.''

What one hears in a discussion of this sort are echoes of the debate over whether principals and teachers can collaborate to the degree that they must if the reforms proposed for schools are to have an impact. In an era in which conversation abounds about shared decisionmaking, Romano evinces cynicism over the willingness of principals to collaborate with teachers.

He focuses his dissatisfaction on the various committees on which teachers are asked to serve in the schools in which they work. In his experience, administrators are simply seeking validation for decisions they have already made and not looking for opinions that may differ from theirs. "The committees are there, but someone in the ivory tower, as we call it in our district, is making all the decisions,'' Romano says. He continues:

"The decisions trickle down to us. 'You'll do this, you'll do that.' You voice an objection at one of those committee meetings, and right away you're considered an agitator. It doesn't make sense. You've got to go with the people in the trenches--the teachers. They're the ones who are with the kids every day. But they want 'yes' people on the committees, people who will go with them on the decisions.''

"When I first started teaching,'' Romano says by way of elaboration, "the teacher had the final say in what happened to a student, meaning that, if the kid was not able to progress, we could say he had to stay in the grade for another year. Unfortunately, now they put the teacher on the back burner. If we want to see the student retained, we have to talk to the principal, the guidance counselor--we don't have guidance counselors anymore--and the social-services person. And, then, in cases where the parents refuse to have the kid retained, there is not much we can do.''

Lou objects to social promotion because, he says, "it gives kids the message that they can get away without doing something.'' He concedes, though, that the threat, or even the reality, of making a student repeat a grade is no guarantee that a student will work harder since no child is held back more than once at the elementary level.

To Romano, social promotion symbolizes the laxity that he thinks has come to pervade education and society in general. "Unfortunately, it doesn't sink in with the family or with the school that these students are failing and not doing well,'' he says.

In a conversation that takes little cognizance of the arguments of critics who maintain that holding back students serves no useful purpose and is perhaps destructive to them, Lou rues the lost authority of the teacher. His concern seems to be not merely with insuring that the student masters the work before going on, but with punishing those guilty of performing less than satisfactory work.

"The kid knows that he can fail all the tests and still get promoted,'' Romano says. "He knows he can flub his way through. Social promotion gives them the message that they can get away with anything. They know that they will just keep moving on. If a kid saw an example made of others, it might be different.''

Lou's opinion apparently is not unusual. More than two-thirds of the teachers surveyed in 1990 by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching agreed that "students at my school want to do just enough to get by.'' But he does not deem nonpromotion a cure-all, recognizing its limits at the same time that he mourns changes of policy. "If a student is held back several times and ends up much older than the others, he becomes a discipline problem,'' Lou observes.

He blames administrators, not teachers, for social promotion, a position that is also apparently shared by the more than two-thirds of the teachers surveyed by the Carnegie Foundation who said they had virtually no role in setting student-retention policies. Romano cites instances in which he knows of colleagues being compelled by administrators to change grades to a passing level "because an irate parent has complained and the principal will not back the teacher.'' The New York State United Teachers found in a survey of teacher leaders that 85 percent of them said they were pressured by school administrators to give students passing grades and that 63 percent said such pressure was exerted by parents.

Romano depicts administrators at the district office, as well as those in school buildings, as the bugbears of teachers. He believes that when decisions are promulgated at the district level and the input of teachers is ignored, the results can be disastrous. His district is now implementing a mathematics program that he thinks illustrates the point. The program is in place in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grades and will be extended to the 4th grade, Lou's level, next year.

Romano feels he's not leaving soon enough so far as this program is concerned. Students are introduced to mathematical terms and concepts that they did not previously encounter so early in their schooling. Many students are struggling with the program, unable to cope with terminology that is too difficult for them and unable to maintain the pace that the district has demanded of teachers using the program, according to Lou.

Longevity in the public schools inevitably means exposure to many innovations of this sort, one panacea after another that is reputed to be the vaunted breakthrough that will forever improve education. Lou believes he knows better. And he thinks he understands, too, why some ideas that may be perfectly good do not work.

Too often, the failure is in the implementation, he says. Teachers are not consulted. Teachers are not even led through the paces so that they can carry out the innovation properly.

He refers to what he considers a mistake in the implementation of the math program in his district. "They brought in teachers from another district to show us what they had done with the program, but they were from a district with rich kids and what they were telling us just wasn't appropriate for our kids,'' he says.

Lou maintains that schools also make the error of trying to implement a new idea on too wide a basis at the beginning. He thinks that pilot efforts in just a few classrooms would provide an opportunity to fine tune a program before trying to spread the concept on a wider basis.

In this regard, he recalls his district's foray into open education. Teachers were simply assigned to teach open classrooms without regard to their wishes or their backgrounds. "It was total bedlam,'' says Lou, who was one of the teachers. "You can't throw something like this at people and say, 'You will do this.''' Predictably, the five teachers soon reverted to traditional methods, struggling to reduce the noise level in the vast open space that their classes shared by acting as if invisible walls had been erected.

What he remembers fondly about his brush with open education, however, was the "togetherness'' of the teachers, a feeling of professional solidarity that he has experienced in no other setting during his entire career. He says: "We discussed what was going to be taught and, sometimes, how to teach it. We shared ideas that were working. We planned as a team. I literally saw those four other teachers every minute of the day. Not being able to do that is a disadvantage of self-contained classrooms.''

All in all, though, Lou thinks that orders from district headquarters have an adverse impact on the flexibility of teachers. For example, he says that teachers in his district once had a wide choice of readers they could use in their classrooms. He remembers a room in an elementary school that was filled with sets of readers, four or five for each grade level. Teachers browsed and decided which to use.

"No more,'' Lou says. "Now, they throw the book at us and say you will use it. They've taken away the feeling of professionalism that you ought to have. As a teacher, I know what I want to do. I know the kids that we have and what they can do.''

Increasingly, his school system, like others across the country, has tried to be more prescriptive in terms of what teachers teach and how and when they do so. "The upper echelon decided that everyone will teach math the first thing in the morning, everyone will teach reading the next part of the morning, and so on,'' he says. "This kind of kills things you may have wanted to have done. You can't take a whole afternoon to do something anymore. You can't say, 'Today we're going to do nothing but math.'''

"We used to have carte blanche in doing what we wanted to do. Now, if they came in and saw I was doing math when I was supposed to be doing reading, I'd get my tail in a sling. To me, a plan should simply say, 'This is what I'm going to do this week.' It's a guide, and it shouldn't be written in stone. I shouldn't have someone coming in and asking me why I'm not on page 59.''

In part, Lou's resentment of administrators seems tied to his own inability to get a foot on the administrative ladder. He was rebuffed in his several attempts to gain an elementary school principalship even though he returned to graduate school in the mid-1970's and spent five years as a part-time student to obtain a master's degree in administration and supervision.

At one point, after someone died and a position opened, he even filled in for six months as an acting assistant principal and still was not appointed to a permanent spot. "It was the bitter disappointment of my career,'' he says, judging that he was ultimately harmed by his frankness and his refusal to cultivate political connections.

This final setback also occurred around the time his first wife was dying. Dispirited and disheartened, Lou--usually outgoing and gregarious--fell into a funk. In retrospect, he thinks that this was the only time that he suffered burnout. "I had worked hard and kept my nose clean, and what did it all do for me? I started to feel then that I wasn't getting anywhere.''

Lou wanted to be alone. He isolated himself from the rest of the faculty and finally requested a transfer to the high school, deciding he could no longer remain at a school that, to him, had grown emblematic of personal failure.

Little did he know that this temporary reassignment would end up revivifying him psychologically. A new school, a new faculty, and a different age group turned out to be the ingredients from which he could brew an elixir of professional rebirth. He felt especially relieved not to have to spend the entire day any longer with the same group of students.

"If I had known how well I would do at the high school,'' Romano reflects, "I might have become a high school teacher originally. The rapport I had with the kids was great. It was a fun time. Elementary school teaching is definitely harder than teaching in high school.''

While at the high school, Romano was one of several teachers handling the basic-skills classes that all students, the best and the worst, took before sitting for the New Jersey High School Proficiency Test, a battery administered in reading, writing, and mathematics. The minimal demands of the examination were such that it was not inappropriate for such classes to be taught by someone whose experience was largely confined to the upper elementary grades.

Uncertain what post best suited a lifelong elementary school teacher working in a high school, the administration then assigned Romano to the adult school. Now, he was teaching dropouts who had decided to pursue a General Educational Development certificate, including some who had been his students in elementary school. "That was especially rewarding,'' Lou recalls. "These were people who really wanted to learn something.''

Having seen students in elementary school and again after they had dropped out of school and were seeking to make an educational comeback has made Romano wonder whether school systems everywhere "are losing an awful lot of talent.'' He has decided that many students are being forced to turn off on education by being held captive in courses in which they have no interest.

"We need something different to help kids who can't sit in the classroom, who become disruptive, who don't pay attention,'' he says. For one thing, according to Romano, too many students lack thinking skills. He insists that problem-solving was more apt to be stressed 25 years ago--an arguable hypothesis--and that, "for some reason, it got pushed back and more emphasis was put on things like just being able to compute.''

Romano suggests that one approach to use with students who are not now being reached would be to direct them into vocational and technical majors that they could pursue throughout secondary school. He is persuaded that this would help them maintain an interest in their education because they would then see a connection to a job.

By coincidence, a report prepared this year by the School-to-Work Project for the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation proposes that school-to-work programs begin by the 9th or 10th grade rather than grades 11 or 12 so they can "reach at-risk students before they become disengaged or drop out.''

If Romano has any concern about this being a form of tracking, he does not mention it. "I'm not saying that I totally agree with the European idea of taking a test after the 5th grade, but it could mean that they would enjoy school more,'' he says. His opinion is shaped by what he has seen of children in the 4th and 5th grades who can't read the books they are supposed to be able to read to succeed in upper elementary school. He explains:

"How do we help the kid who can't read on the 4th-grade level by giving him a 4th-grade book? There is a whole group of kids who are not served by the schools. They are left by the wayside to flounder. There's nothing wrong with the child except he can't grasp the normal work. I'm not saying these kids can't learn, but they are having a lot of trouble calculating and figuring things out. It all needs to be done slower for them, not pushing them so fast.'' His idea of self-paced learning fits within the scope of some people's idea of reform, but, at the same time, Romano appears, unconsciously, to leave himself open to the criticisms of those who argue for higher expectations.

Apparently, the optimism of teachers across the country fades with each passing year on the job. The Metropolitan Life Survey in 1992 found that 93 percent of new teachers had entered the classroom believing strongly that "all children can learn.'' At the end of their first year, 88 percent believed this, and, after two years, 86 percent. What do they think after 30 years? Ask Lou.

Learning difficulties of another sort, those afflicting children who are assigned to the mainstream after being in bilingual education, also are on Romano's mind. Students in bilingual education, an area that has burgeoned as the district has received growing numbers of Latino students, are tested at the end of each year to see if they are ready to move to regular classes, a transfer that he thinks the district seems too eager to see them make.

"The test is too easy,'' Lou asserts. "The kids leave bilingual education for the mainstream and have problems. The test should be more stringent, and some of them should remain in bilingual longer.''

The worth of tests in general, he says, is not in seeing how a student matches up with a norm, but in determining the gains the student has made since the last time he was tested. "Tests are most important to me in terms of gauging individual progress,'' he says with no trace of criticism of standardized, norm-referenced testing except that he doesn't think that "national norms merit all that much attention.'' Performance assessment? Lou never heard of it.

He acknowledges that, ideally, a teacher is supposed to differentiate instruction so as to reach each child, regardless of learning needs, but he finds this philosophy impractical. At least no one ever showed him how to do it successfully for the members of an entire class. "Give me a class of one kid instead of 24 and I will do it,'' he says.

The very same worry about teachers being overwhelmed by having to accommodate too many academically needy children leads Romano to object to what he sees as the tendency to move special-education students into regular classrooms. Though he's not aware of it, he is in accord with Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, who says that "the rush toward 'full inclusion' of disabled children in regular classrooms'' is destructive.

"They are stealing time from the other kids,'' Romano says of the disabled children he has to teach in a regular classroom. "It's a ticklish situation. The pendulum swung too far in one direction, and now it is swinging too far in the other direction. For years, kids were tested and put in special education without even getting their parents' permission.''

"Now, too many are getting out of those classes and into regular classes, where it's frustrating for the teachers. Some of them should be sent away to special schools, but the board doesn't want to do that because it's expensive. I think this mainstreaming will cause a lot of problems; it will cause some parents of kids who aren't handicapped to take their kids out of the public schools.''

Amid such concerns, Romano nonetheless remains imbued with the sense of regeneration that his sojourn at the high school provided. The benefit he got from a change of venue leads him to suspect that more teachers should seek reassignment as an antidote to burnout.

He says, for instance, that a lot of teachers in elementary schools would be refreshed by moving to a different grade level instead of staying with one grade, year after year. But teachers are loath to do this, Romano asserts, because they think it is easier to continue doing the same thing.

Burnout is more prevalent among veteran teachers than outsiders realize, according to Romano. He suggests that the problem could be measured along the calibrations of what he terms the "headache index.'' "When teachers are frustrated, you see it in their absenteeism,'' he explains. "In many cases, they wake up with a headache, and they use it as an excuse to stay home. They feel they need a rest.''

Often, when teachers act this way, it is because they don't get the backing that they think they should get from principals, or because parents and students are uncooperative, Lou says. "That's when you can't see the light at the end of the tunnel; it's getting worse instead of better, and you're doing more yelling than teaching.''

As a result of transcending such professional agonies, Lou's disposition has been such that he takes very few sick days. "I advise others to walk out the door and leave their problems behind them, in school. A lot of them tell me they have a heck of a time getting up in the morning. I don't find that. It's a new day for me every day.''

This doesn't mean that he never allows himself to be annoyed by the changes that he has witnessed over the span of more than 30 years. It has become almost trite, for instance, to speak of the demise of discipline in the public schools, but the transformation in student conduct has been so profound that, however banal the subject, it nonetheless arouses visceral feelings.

In fact, a report last year on education reform in Kentucky by the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a citizens' advocacy group, found that teachers thought that discipline problems and lack of respect for teachers by students were among the chief issues distracting educators from pursuing the state's new reform goals.

Lou Romano, as someone whose career has spanned the grades, says the change can be seen among children as young as those in kindergarten. "They have no fear, no respect for adults,'' he says even of the tots.

The situation is exacerbated by the circumscription that has been placed on the teacher's latitude for enforcing discipline. In years past, a youngster could be kept after school for detention, but liability laws no longer allow that to happen in Romano's district because officials do not want children to be making their way home after the crossing guards have gone off duty.

Furthermore, district guidelines no longer allow for disciplining children by denying them the privilege of going to the playground or to gym. "I do it anyway, but not too much because I don't want to get myself in trouble,'' Lou says.

He finds that barring students who misbehave from participating in gym or art helps improve conduct. He also has tried to exercise discipline by not letting those who act up go to music class or the library, but discovered that "they hate those classes so much that it's not punishment to them.''

One of the few recourses to discipline that remain for a teacher, according to Lou, is to ask the principal to send a child home and require that the child return to the school in the company of a parent. However, the principal is reluctant to do this, which Lou maintains is a reflection of the principal's desire to avoid having high suspension statistics. "The bottom line,'' Lou says, "is that it is hard to stop disruption.''

Closely allied in many people's minds to the problem of discipline is the issue of homework, which also suffers the slings and arrows of student recalcitrance. As one might expect, a teacher of Lou's duration has seen enormous changes in the willingness of students to do homework and in the amount that they accomplish. He assigns homework four nights a week and estimates that it should take a child between 30 and 40 minutes to do it.

Years ago, Romano could expect that 95 percent of the students would do a homework assignment. That figure has declined to between 25 percent and 50 percent, given the assignment and what might be on television that night. Forget about having them put proper headings on the papers and follow the format that Lou provides at the beginning of the term. They seldom take heed.

Mention of homework readily provides a segue to the subject of parents. Given Lou's longevity in the district, some of the parents of his students are themselves former students of his. "Some I have a good rapport with, some are no different than when they were students,'' he says. He does note, though, that some former troublemakers have matured into responsible parents.

In general, though, he has found that parents have grown more vocal and more aggressive in dealing with teachers. Some of his colleagues have told him of being verbally abused by parents, but Lou--currently the only male teacher in his school--says he has not suffered this indignity.

He believes, incidentally, that young children behave differently with male teachers--"especially if you bellow a little,'' he laughs--and that elementary schools would be better off with more men on their faculties.

One way he has avoided clashes with parents has been by adopting a more cautious stance. "When I'm getting a student whose parent was abusive of other teachers I treat that parent with kid gloves so I don't cause a problem.'' Now, when he receives his student roster for a new term, he speaks to the teachers who had the students the previous year to find out about the deportment of the parents. "It doesn't mean that the parents will act the same way toward me as they did to another teacher, but I just want to know about it.''

With a veteran's savvy, Lou is able at this point to cope with almost any problem that might confront him in a school. Even paperwork, a target of complaints by many educators, "has never really been a pain'' to him. But he does believe that rather than having to learn to deal with all their problems simply by experiencing them, as he was compelled to do, new teachers should have the benefit of a more formal and more thorough induction into the profession.

"Too much of it is sink or swim,'' he says. He thinks it would be a good idea to provide mentors for new teachers. In retrospect, he feels fortunate in having spent his first two years in a system filled with high achievers who seemed to do every assignment well. He did not realize at the outset of his career just how much trouble could arise for a novice teacher.

When he moved to his current district, he was frustrated by the discovery that there were other kinds of students. "I had to back off and slow down,'' he says. He was sustained, however, by the joy of his first two years and gradually "reconciled myself to work with what I had in these kids and do as much as I could at the speed and ability at which they could learn.''

He found that formal education courses that he took over the years to satisfy requirements on the salary steps and to get his master's degree were of little help. "A lot of garbage,'' he says succinctly. "Professors would tell you this or that, and then you'd get in front of a classroom, and you'd find out it was totally different. You'd get questions you didn't expect to get; you'd get problems in areas in which you didn't expect to get problems. I had to learn through on-the-job training.''

In-service sessions offered in the district have proved to be of slightly more worth to Romano, especially when the presenters were "teachers in the system who had done something and could show us how it worked.''

But he scoffs at mention of "professional development,'' which he deems little more than a public-relations term "to make parents think that teachers are keeping abreast of innovations and getting away from the old routines that a lot of us have been accustomed to doing.''

Lou is a committed member of the New Jersey Education Association and has served as the union representative in his school. He has, on occasion, seen what he considers intransigence on the part of the school board, but says that the board and the union have had basically good relations. He is pleased by the steady rise in salaries, which has meant annual raises for him even though he reached the top of the scale some 15 years ago.

Despite his allegiance to the union, Lou draws a line in how far he thinks labor should go to enforce its positions. For example, he does not believe that teachers should strike, a personal conviction that has never been put to the test because his union has never walked out. "Strikes by teachers hurt kids,'' he says. "The union has a purpose, but it has to be realistic.''

Now, back at the elementary level after his temporary assignment and resigned to the fact that he will never be a principal, Lou is filling out his waning days as a teacher. He continues to teach in the same animated style that he has always favored, prowling up and down the aisles, a perpetual-motion machine instead of a statue at the front of the classroom. He thinks students benefit from reading aloud and is forever calling on them to do so. More than 30 years have elapsed with a rapidity that grows apparent only in retrospect.

His answer as to whether he would do it again is to repeat the admonition he once issued to his sons: "I don't care what you want to be when you grow up, but don't be a teacher.''

In explanation of this warning, Lou cites mostly "the frustration of trying to get students to see that they have to learn, that they have to get themselves an education.'' Yet, Romano says, finally: "You stay and make the determination that you want to do the best that you can do and that you can't change the world.''

One is forced after scrutinizing the work of such educational veterans as Lou Romano to reflect on whether the reform movement is doomed to play a tune discordant to an important part of the audience. It's like holding a dance for people who never learned the steps and have not, in their opinion, been given any compelling reasons why they should. One wonders, in fact, whether the musicians in the reform orchestra are keeping all the notes they play within the decibel range of this segment of the audience, whose hearing is not what it used to be.

Gene I. Maeroff is an author and education writer. His most recent book is Team Building for School Change: Equipping Teachers for New Roles (Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1993.)

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