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'A Catalyst For Educational Improvement'

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I recently chaired a project on improving education governance and management for the Committee for Economic Development, a national nonpartisan policy organization of top business executives. The report we produced, Putting Learning First: Governing and Managing the Schools for High Achievement, was the CED's fifth education study and the product of more than 10 years of ongoing research and vigorous debate by a committed group of business leaders on the most effective strategies for improving student achievement.

Among the report's key conclusions was that change cannot be mandated from the "top down"; it must be generated from the "bottom up" by teachers, students, administrators, parents, and school board members.

However, bottom-up reform does not mean that policy makers at higher levels of government and education leadership should abandon their efforts to improve our public schools. On the contrary, we will not be able to re-energize teachers and students in the classroom if we fail to provide them with effective governance and management support at the local, state, and federal levels.

Local school boards are most directly responsible for placing learning as the first and foremost goal of the schools. As a former Rye, N.Y., school board president, I know that too many school boards micromanage the day-to-day operations of schools. During my five years on the board, we spent no more than 5 percent to 10 percent of our time on strategic and policy issues related to learning. School boards, as the governance structure closest to schools, must take on more responsibility for overseeing the district's education policy.

In their zeal to rectify the educational failures of the past, many states have heaped mandate upon mandate on local districts and schools--to the point where teachers and administrators have more incentive for complying with rules and regulations than for focusing on student learning and achievement. This "compliance and control" mentality has sapped incentives for students as well. Students quickly learn that if they follow the rules and do not cause trouble, they will eventually graduate--despite their lack of useful knowledge or skills.

Fortunately, the nation's governors have taken the lead in supporting systemwide education reform, and many state education departments have been changing their ways. Unfortunately, research has shown that well-meaning reforms are sometimes even more prescriptive than the programs they are replacing, or that the regulations governing older programs remain in place even as a new initiative has begun.

The federal government has been to blame for much of this state of affairs. Historically, the federal government has played only a minor role in elementary and secondary education, with federal funds rarely exceeding 6 percent of the typical school budget. However, federal actions have an impact on educational decisionmaking that far exceeds the actual level of funding. State education departments have had to devote a large portion of their resources and personnel toward ensuring compliance with the regulations attached to federal funds.

Under the leadership of several presidents and secretaries of education, the federal government has been working hard to break away from business as usual. In recent years, the U.S. Department of Education has taken strides toward eliminating overlapping and overly intrusive regulations and coordinating policies and programs that affect children and young people with the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services.

Perhaps more important, the federal government has assumed a new and potentially powerful role as a catalyst for educational improvement. President Clinton has made such issues as raising achievement standards, improving the school-to-work transition, and increasing the use of classroom technology focal points of his administration.

Unfortunately, Congress has begun eliminating or cutting back many of the programs started under recent education initiatives, including the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, which provides states important incentives to create challenging academic standards for all students; and the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, which gives states seed money to help communities develop comprehensive school-to-work systems. This is a shame, because the design and passage of Goals 2000 and the school-to-work act were bipartisan efforts that sent a strong signal to states and local school districts that this nation was serious about raising standards and improving learning.

From my vantage point--as an employer of people from many states in many jobs--I see clearly the federal government's critical role in preparing students for the workforce. National policies, those that do not vary by state, are crucial in preparing students to compete in the global marketplace.

The federal government must continue to provide leadership that inspires educators and students to raise their levels of performance. States and districts need carefully targeted programs--like Goals 2000, the school-to-work act, and the administration's new education-technology initiative--to provide the guidance for local change and the incentives, like seed money and technical assistance, that help get local initiatives off the ground. Furthermore, we need a strong federal research program to assess the efficacy of these activities and disseminate model practices that can bring worthwhile efforts up to scale.

Given the wide diversity of school systems and student needs, the most effective solutions to our educational problems will stem from local initiatives. But without strong federal leadership to establish the importance of high academic standards and provide effective incentives for innovation, local initiatives are likely to wither on the vine.

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