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Toward a Unifying Agenda

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Twelve years after A Nation at Risk highlighted the urgency of school reform, a unifying agenda remains to be developed. The basic question hasn't been asked: What policies will help schools change quickly, inexpensively, comprehensively, effectively, and permanently?

Each approach which I've investigated produces the same result. Transformation is optimized by concentrating reform on decentralization of decisionmaking, individualization of instruction, and technology.

A state-approved school in Iowa has implemented this agenda. The private, K-8 school delivers its curriculum through computers, with 60 modern computers for 91 students; a student-teacher ratio of five to one; an individual learning plan for every student each week; licensed teachers only; and the purest form of decentralized decisionmaking, with no principal or other administrator on site. Student achievement, parental involvement, and stakeholder satisfaction are high. The cost per pupil is slightly higher than the state average.

But the school has no hot-lunch program, no foreign-language instruction, no music instruction, no physical education, no vocational programs, no transportation, no severely disabled students, and few books other than reference works in its media center. Teachers work on a 12-month contract for 20 percent less salary than for a 10-month contract in nearby schools. Transformation has been achieved by dismantling the comprehensive school.

A similar dynamic exists for charter schools. Developing them is expensive, but only California provides a grant--$5,000--to support the design and application process. No state provides weighted enrollment to compensate for the additional costs which accrue when a special population is pulled out of a general population, which is the charter-school pattern.

These schools aren't about innovation, but finance. They were created to demonstrate that transformation can occur without spending substantial new sums. Some may succeed, but success in a specialized setting provides little insight into the root question: Is additional spending needed to transform comprehensive schools?

Before 1983, these schools were asked to provide equity, and they did. Our schools were the first to provide every child with a chance for an education, regardless of race, creed, gender, color, national origin, or even ability. But to remain competitive, promote democracy, and give everyone a chance for personal fulfillment in a technological age, America now needs schools which educate every person to the fullest.

This isn't a mission which has failed, but one which didn't exist prior to 1983. This new mission is unprecedented. No nation has ever provided mass instruction on an individualized basis. Our schools are being asked for a new way to grow a human mind.

This is more complicated than designing a razor. When the Gillette Company reinvented its razor, it took 10 years and spent $110 million on development. The result is so good that it's imported by Japan.

But schools are being asked to find a new way to educate children with no money for research, development, testing, retooling, marketing, or training--and to deliver by next Tuesday. No business could succeed under such constraints.

For 12 years, our national policy has been to ask schools to redesign learning without money for R&D. This policy is a failure. Schools can't be transformed without recapitalizing them, unless one is willing to dismantle the comprehensive school.

These schools are the piston of opportunity in our culture. Dismantling them wrecks the engine of social mobility. Lack of mobility leads to class warfare and intergenerational struggle. This is occurring in the 20-something generation, which no longer believes that its standard of living will equal that of its parents.

Loss of faith in national purpose leads to loss of vitality, from which recovery could be impossible, as in ancient Rome. From a historical perspective, the comprehensive school--along with religious faith and the family--is necessary to maintain vitality and values.

Like any enterprise, education can't take on new missions or improve output significantly without marginal investment. Government accepts this concept for law enforcement and defense. When it wants to improve them, it spends more money. But when Washington wants to improve education, it spends less money. Such a policy is neither enlightened nor sincere.

Of course, money should be spent wisely, with maximum results per unit of investment. But those who say that education's problems can't be solved by additional spending are overlooking money's principal advantage: Having money solves the problems caused by not having money. Education lacks money for recapitalization. That kind of problem can be solved by adding money.

When reform is attempted without new investment, change is directed by one level against another. Since 1983, the national level, which is responsible for infrastructure, has worked on direct instructional outcomes, an area which is beyond its span of control. The local level has dealt with systemic change, as if it could control the whole system. The state level has been dealing with salary policy, technology networks, and curriculum--infrastructure and direct instructional issues, where it has limited capacity to deliver. Without new spending and a unifying plan, this stalemate will continue.

Even with new investment, schools can't transform by attempting to change all systems simultaneously. This "Eisenhower strategy"--advancing along all points of the line at once--requires unlimited logistical resources and unified public opinion. Neither exists today.

Resources are meager nowadays, and public skepticism is great. The situation requires the best results from the least resources and casualties. Our best chance is a "MacArthur strategy"--bypass the opposition's strong points and fire for effect on the fewest targets which offer the greatest promise for breakthroughs.

Education needs to concentrate reform on the smallest set of systems which can transform schools quickly, comprehensively, permanently, inexpensively, and effectively. The smallest set is personalization of instruction; decentralization of decisionmaking; and technology which increases productivity and quality.

Such an agenda can be implemented at all levels, local, state, and national. It relates to all three functions: infrastructure, administration/support, and direct instruction. It has a single message, which is easy to understand and accept. It has symmetry, which supports its validity. Its elements interact. There are only three items, the minimum necessary to create a dynamic system, so it's likely that it's a minimum set. These three are compatible with existing systems, which promotes implementation. Finally, empowerment, autonomy, and technology promote change by injecting stimulus into static systems.

Bipartisanship is needed to generate consensus on recapitalizing schools for transformation. The 1994 elections provide a reason for optimism. Republicans now have responsibility for solving problems; Democrats continue to support "people" programs. Both require an agenda that will unify education's stakeholders and the nation.

With such an agenda, schools can be transformed. Without it, schools will fail, slowly, as two more generations of children are sacrificed to a system which is already obsolete.

James Sutton is a senior policy analyst in Des Moines.

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