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Excerpts From 'Putting Learning First'

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The following excerpts are from "Putting Learning First: Governing and Managing the Schools for High Achievement," a statement by the research and policy committee of the Committee for Economic Development.

A Clear Mission

The first priority of those who govern education should be to establish learning and achievement as the primary missions of the schools. Currently, communities, states, and the national government are asking those who manage our classrooms to be parent, social worker, doctor, psychologist, police officer, and perhaps, if there is time, teacher. ... But we believe that those who govern our schools must put learning first.

The Social Agenda

Schools play an important role in socializing youngsters and preparing future citizens, and they should continue to do so. ...But schools are not social-service institutions; they should not be asked to solve all our nation's social ills and cultural conflicts. States and communities must lift the burden of addressing children's health and social needs from the backs of educators. They must, of course, arrange needed services for children and families, often in collaboration with the schools. But other state and community agencies should pay for and provide these services so that schools can concentrate on their primary mission: learning and academic achievement.

Decentralizing Management

The current emphasis on compliance with regulations should be reduced....

We believe that compliance and control must be replaced by more flexible management that gives more authority and accountability for results to teachers, administrators, parents, and students. This "flatter" management structure must be coupled with a variety of incentives, focused on measurable academic achievement, that will motivate improved performance....

We recommend making site-based management a central part of a new system of school-based accountability in which the school's faculty, in consultation with parents and others in the school community and within a framework of rigorous academic standards, is given real authority to make decisions on curriculum, instruction, personnel, and the use of school resources. In exchange, school personnel must meet achievement goals set forth in a long-range education-investment plan or performance contract. These contracts should articulate the school's mission, specify goals for student achievement, and describe how the school will use its resources to meet those goals.

Charter Schools

In spite of the limitations of current initiatives, C.E.D. enthusiastically supports experimentation with charter schools. We believe charter schools offer an opportunity to complement regular public schools and to demonstrate the ability of site-managed schools to meet student-achievement goals in a less restrictive regulatory environment. However, state authorities should require charter schools to meet basic civil-rights and health and safety statutes, and charters should be held accountable for high achievement standards through the same types of assessments that we recommend for other public schools. ...

We believe that allowing parents to choose the public school their child attends can provide a valuable incentive for schools to improve performance. ...

[W]e do not at this time find the arguments supporting vouchers persuasive enough to reverse our long-standing objection to using public funds to support private education.

Incentives for Students

Few reform strategies have acknowledged the critical need to have students take more responsibility for their own education.

Some students, of course, may not have access to quality schools or other learning resources, such as good libraries. We believe that states and communities should continue to strive to eliminate these inequities in educational opportunity. However, we also believe that if we wait for the elimination of all barriers to equal opportunity before we ask students to assume more personal responsiblity for their own achievement, we will never reach our educational goals. ...

We recommend the development of national performance-based assessments that provide an accurate reflection of a student's knowledge and ability to apply that knowledge. We further recommend that these should be used to provide students with meaningful educational credentials that qualify them for higher education, postsecondary training, and employment. In particular, we recommend that student eligibility for financial aid for college and training, including access to preferential student loans, be based at least in part on these assessments. ...

We believe that grades, teacher recommendations, and measures of conduct, such as attendance and discipline, provide important and useful information to employers and incentives for students. We therefore urge the courts, when interpreting civil-rights laws, to recognize the public interest in allowing employers to make greater use of such information in hiring.

The Federal Role

The Goals 2000: Educate America Act provides important incentives to create a set of challenging academic standards for all students. We strongly believe that school effectiveness should be judged by whether students can meet challenging national content and performance standards in a variety of core academic subjects. We believe that these standards should apply to students in all parts of the country. We also support national assessments to determine whether students are, in fact, attaining these standards.

Students should be required to demonstrate academic proficiency in order to earn a high school diploma, be eligible for admittance to college, and receive financial aid. We also support national achievement examinations that can be used to provide students with certificates of mastery in a variety of academic and vocational subjects.

Adequate School Funding

Money matters, not across the board, but only if schools are organized to use it effectively to promote achievement. ...

We believe that without reforms to increase effectiveness, overall increases in funding will be unproductive. In most districts, policies should aim first to induce schools to reallocate expenditures to more effective uses within current real-spending levels. This must be accompanied by greater control of resources by the schools. Increases in real resources should be tied to progress toward agreed-upon achievement goals in a school-investment plan or performance contract with the district. Such investment plans should explicitly take into account the different costs for schools to educate students of different backgrounds and with different needs.

Reprinted with the permission of the Committee for Economic Development.

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