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Making a Policy Point: Does Anybody Listen?

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New York

In a posh hotel not far from Central Park, a small group of lobbyists, administrators, and legislators gathered to consider an interesting question: Does anybody in the public schools ever hear the policy debates that rage back and forth at the state level?

The answer, judging from the crowd, is no. Much of what gets said by politicians, bureaucrats, and experts either doesn't make sense or seldom trickles down to educators who can use it.

"Listen, folks, this is pretty discouraging news," said Frank Newman, the president of the Education Commission of the States, the Denver-based clearinghouse on state education policy that held its steering committee meeting here Nov. 21-23.

Among the fiercest--or at least the most plain-spoken--critics of meaningless policy talk was Gov. Zell Miller of Georgia, who found a way to deliver his stinging remarks so that most of the audience wound up laughing.

"We get into too many discussions about whether policies are right or wrong or good or bad, but we never ask if they are useless," the Democratic governor and former Marine drill sergeant said. "And even when policymakers have something useful to offer, they rarely know how to get through to teachers and children and parents.

"Nothing makes me madder than these so-called educational experts who promote all their ideas without ever going into a classroom to see what excellence in working clothes looks like," Gov. Miller said. "And I'm not talking about walking through a school offering a cursory glance from weary eyes. I mean stopping and talking to kids and teachers about what's really going on."

Two educators on the panel with Mr. Miller said they doubt that the bulk of teachers know much about the debate over academic standards or what the plans of state officials might really mean in their classrooms.

"I don't know many people in schools who see policy as supporting the day-to-day work they do," said Aurea Hernandez-Webster, a teacher with the New York City Outward Bound Center.

Montrose Spencer, the principal at the Hansberry Elementary School in the Bronx, agreed. Not only are politicians and policymakers out of touch, she said, but education schools and teacher training programs rarely help connect concepts to reality.

For his part, Gov. Miller said he never would have understood that Georgia's mentoring programs were not working well or that its early-childhood programs were so good without visiting schools and talking to teachers and parents and students. Nor would he have known how teachers coach children to be on their best behavior when outside visitors arrive.

In one Georgia technology classroom, he was amazed that children in headphones were working "quiet as mice."

"I asked one boy, 'What are you listening to?' and the boy said, 'Nothing. Our teacher told us to sit still and be quiet. '"

After hearing the discouraging news about how policy can evaporate before it gets to schools, the ECS steering group of three governors, a legislator, and a state school chief issued an unprecedented proclamation calling for more education policy.

In an open letter to governors and state legislators, the group called on states to clearly define standards for student achievement; look harder at options like charter schools and magnet schools; use technology to change teaching; and stop paying for ineffective programs.

In a session on deregulation, some legislators offered frank interpretations of calls for school change.

Rep. Con Bunde of Alaska argued that while voters and taxpayers say they want schools to change, they rarely want it to happen close to home. "We're reading into what they are telling us more than is there," Mr. Bunde, a Republican, said when the conversation rolled around to vouchers.

Rep. Michael Fox of Ohio, meanwhile, noted that beyond being a way to help poor children in the subpar Cleveland schools, promoting vouchers for urban schools was the only way he could win support from suburban lawmakers for other programs.

"If we have vouchers for Cleveland," the GOP lawmaker said, "then I can build a coalition for staff-development funding and other programs for the whole state."

"Choice and flexibility are not the answers in themselves," argued Rep. Barbara M. Clark of New York, a Democrat. "At some point, we have to decide how good of an education system we want."

--LONNIE HARP

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