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The Blab Meets the Blob

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I recently had the opportunity to visit an old school in Dayton, Ohio. It was a preserved model of the schools that dotted the country in the last century. While there, our group of administrators and partners was subjected to lessons given by a teacher who taught us the old-fashioned way. While the whole experience was fascinating, especially the evidence about those things that have and have not changed, the most interesting moment came when we were all asked to read, out loud, simultaneously from different passages in the venerable McGuffey Reader. Imagine the noise! This cacophony of sound was known as "blab school," and it is amazing that anyone learned to read in those "good old days." And for those who may be wishing for simpler times, and who think that readers were better then, we must note that reading literacy in America is higher today than at any point in history. The least literate portion of our population is the elderly, who were subjected to these methods in their childhood.

The real lesson I received revolved around the fact that we were visiting the school during the same week the nation's governors and business leaders were meeting at the national education summit in Palisades, N.Y., to determine the future of American education. The rhetoric as a result of the summit was very reminiscent of the meaningless babble I heard at "blab school." I had to wonder how a group of reportedly intelligent and well-informed people could get together and restate so much bad information, and create an atmosphere so counterproductive to the future of education. (See Education Week, April 3, 1996.)

Let me make one thing quite clear. I believe that higher standards and wider and more effective use of technology are absolutely essential to improving education in this country. I also completely agree that a major transformation of schools must occur if our children are to have any chance at all of a successful future. I salute the business community and governors for focusing on these things and for drawing attention to them.

What I cannot salute is the random havoc that they perpetrated on the millions of educators who are being asked to make the adjustments necessary. This violence displayed itself as unwarranted criticism and ignorance about the context within which these educators currently labor. It is hard to understand how anyone can believe that people can be bludgeoned to greatness. I am reminded of a sign I once saw that pictured slaves in the galley of a ship, madly rowing to the beat of a whip, with the slogan, "The beatings will continue until morale improves." If educational improvement could come from mindless and mistaken criticism, the schools in this country would have improved a long time ago.

It is important to note that the handful of so-called education advisers invited to the conference were relegated to the back rows and not given microphones to allow their participation. Educators were all but left out of the process. It was assumed that those doing the work today, and who will be asked to carry out the ideas developed, had little to contribute to the discussion. The sheer arrogance and stupidity of this thinking can best be exemplified by a modest suggestion that we have a national summit on the failure of state government to address the needs of children, the inequity of state education funding, and the failure of the American business community to provide adequate high-paying jobs for young people. Further, that we conduct this summit by gathering educators together, invite a few token governors and business leaders, and sit them in the back of the room so they can witness the criticism. It might make us feel better, but it wouldn't help improve the ideas under discussion.

The fact is that society is a complex social system. Good education starts before children are born. They must have sound prenatal care and healthy mothers. Children must have a healthy and stimulating preschool experience provided by primary caregivers. They must go to schools that are adequately funded, with good teachers and safe environments. Their chances should not be determined by where their parents can afford to live. They must have parents who have incomes and who have not been "downsized" out of work. They must know that what they did in school will mean something to an employer. And they must have the possibility of a job that will give them an adequate living when they leave school. If all that can be made possible, then school reform will be a snap.

President Clinton was the only speaker at the conference who even acknowledged that when we speak of international comparisons, we must consider the different contexts facing children. Much of what he had to say made sense and was useful. Unfortunately, he fell in to the temptation to trash school leaders as being part of the problem.

School leaders have been under attack for a number of years. That was taken to new heights by former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, who popularized the notion of the "blob" to designate all those hordes of administrators who were sucking the lifeblood out of schools and shifting money from classrooms to the "bureaucracy." He pointed out that half of the money in schools in America goes to the classroom and the other half to the bureaucracy. Even President Clinton uses the statistics from New York City that indicate only half of the money spent on education goes to classrooms. Without arguing over the statistics, it should be pointed out that few of the participants at the summit could survive a day of teaching in many of the schools in our cities.

What the president and others have failed to discuss is what that bureaucracy entails. When you examine the facts and shift those resources back to the classroom, you could make some difference. You could have smaller classes and higher-paid teachers. But you couldn't really shift it to the classroom, because you wouldn't have a classroom. Some of the "bureaucracy" money is money to pay for the building, to pay for heating the building, turning on the lights, getting the children to and from school, feeding them, keeping the building clean, putting textbooks on students' desks and computers in the back of the room. It pays for secretaries, counselors, special-education teachers, and psychologists. And yes, it pays for administrators.

How much? According to a study done by the Education Research Service, central-office administrators, the "bureaucracy," make up about 1.6 percent of the education workforce nationally. Another 2.9 percent of the workforce are building-level administrators. About 4.3 percent of district budgets go to administration, which ironically is almost exactly the same amount that went to administration in 1960--long before various federal and state mandates on equity and special education reshaped the education landscape and created myriad new requirements for oversight and monitoring. So, despite major new tasks, the "bureaucracy" hasn't gotten any bigger in the last 30 years.

It is more than ironic that a group of governors and chief executive officers would get together and, as part of their reform agenda, defame school leaders, since they, themselves, are all administrators. Perhaps I'm overreacting. Perhaps they really do understand the need for leadership. Perhaps they do believe that higher standards, improved performance, and better use of technology will require leadership and capacity-building. Perhaps they realize that someone has to connect top-down reform coming from the state level and bottom-up reform emanating from the building level. Perhaps they think that education is just too top-heavy and needs to be lean and mean, like government and business. Perhaps they need to visit the facts.

Currently, education has one manager for every 14.5 employees. Business ranges in manager-to-employee ratios from the transportation industry, which has 9.3 workers for every manager, to communications (the dreaded media), which has 4.7 workers for every manager. Public administration (which presumably includes the bailiwick of governors) employs one manager for every 3.6 employees. And, of course, this analysis does not factor in the reality that school administrators must also manage hundreds of students and their intensely interested parents, a challenge the private sector is mercifully spared.

The moral of this story is that people who live in glass houses ... well, you know the rest. People should not make presumptions about others based on their own situation, or at least they should have some facts before pontificating.

The real fact is that schools need to change dramatically to meet the new demands placed on them, so that every child can have a chance to grab the brass ring in a more complex and difficult social and economic setting. The fact is higher standards and better use of technology will help get us there. The fact is that all of us, politician, business leader, and educator, will have to work more closely together to make it happen. The fact is those who are doing the work now, and who must do the work of educating in the future, must be respected and empowered to accomplish it. And the fact is, change in any setting requires good leadership and sound management.

The good news from the summit is that, perhaps for the first time since we started on this long and tough journey toward school reform, a real consensus is starting to emerge around what a new mission for education might be. The other good news is that there is now a stated goal of the politicians and business leaders to roll up their sleeves and help with the heavy lifting.

The bad news is that, right now, we only have their rhetoric, much of it negative and based upon bad assumptions. No one is ready yet to say what it is we are going to do with the bottom third of our population who come to school hungry and ill-cared-for.

Governors can propose laws to change things. Business leaders can refuse to accept raw materials that don't fit their specifications. The fact is, parents send schools the best children they have and schools must educate them all. To do so, we must improve the process of educating. Higher standards and technology will help. We must also improve how we treat our children, so that they'll have a chance at education. At some point, perhaps we'll have a summit on how we can help our society improve the condition of its children. That will give all of us something to cheer about--then the "blabbing" will have some meaning.

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