Excerpts From Alexander’s Writings on Issues in Education

January 09, 1991 4 min read

“Five Deep Ruts Hurting Our Schools,” speech on Founder’s Day at the University of the South, Sewanee, Tenn., October 1984--[E]ducation today has fallen into a series of deep, Texas-sized ruts.

Convincing educators in these ruts to try something new is a sport only for those who are ready for the hardest, meanest, bloodiest thing they have ever tried to do. ...

Here are my nominees for the five biggest ruts, the Grand Canyons of American public education. All of these ruts can be found in Tennessee; so far as I know, all of them can also be found all over America.

1) It has become O.K. for one-third of Tennessee’s 9th graders not to have 8th-grade skills. ... 2) Citizens--especially citizens like [the Texas businessman] Ross Perot and the Governor of Tennessee--are ridiculed as dangerous outsiders, amateur meddlers in education whose ideas ought to be resisted until the meddlers wear out. ... 3) School buildings are locked half the year. ... 4) Some people honestly believe that there is no fair way to pay teachers more for teaching well. ... 5) Coercion, not choice, has become the American way for American public schools.

Remarks at a seminar sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C., December 1984--No amount of lecturing by governors or regula8tions from state legislatures can improve public education as well as allowing parents to make marketplace choices. It would straighten public education right up.

If no one buys Fords one year, the guy building them is fired and someone else is brought in to do the job. A voucher plan would produce the same sort of changes in education. If the line is long outside one school, it must have something good to offer; if the line isn’t that long, it’s going to have to make improvements if it wants to stay in business.

“Time for Results: The Governors’ 1991 Report on Education,” National Governors’ Association Chairman’s Summary, August 1986--Governors are ready for some old-fashioned horse-trading. We’llregulate less, if schools and school districts will produce better results.

The kind of horse-trading we’re talking about will change dramatically the way most American schools work. First, the governors want to help establish clear goals and better report cards, ways to measure what students know and can do. Then, we’re ready to give up a lot of state regulatory control--even to fight for changes in the law to make that happen--if schools and school districts will be accountable for the results. We invite educators to show us where less regulation makes the most sense. These changes will require more rewards for success and consequences for failure for teachers, school leaders, schools, and school districts. It will mean giving parents more choice of the public schools their children at4tend as one way of assuring higher quality without heavy-handed state control.

“Let’s Pay Our Best Teachers More,” article in Reader’s Digest, April 1988--Bob Bingham, a 33-year-old history teacher in Kingsport, Tenn., was a star of his middle-school faculty, valued by his principal and loved by his students. Yet he had to earn extra money by coaching and, in the summers, by working long hours managing a swimming pool for barely more than the minimum wage. In 1983 he sadly pondered quitting teaching to earn enough to support his growing family.

Today, thanks to an incentive program Tennessee launched in 1984, both Bob Bingham and the state’s students are better off. Tennessee has formally recognized Bingham as a Master Teacher, which brings him extra pay for outstanding classroom performance. That rating also enables him to earn thousands more by working beyond the usual 10-month contract, in his case directing a summer school.

When Tennessee began the program, the academic quality of education majors was rock-bottom, and scores on certification tests were embarrassingly low. Moreover, too many of our best teachers were leaving for other jobs--not surprising since our veteran teachers ranked near the bottom of all states in salaries. In addition, a third of our 8th graders did not possess 8th-grade skills.

Today these trends have reversed.

“What’s a University President Supposed To Do?” speech at the inauguration of Thomas H. Kean as president of Drew University, Madison, N.J., April 1990--During the 1980’s, Tom Kean and I and most governors began probing the condition of American schools. We became part of something one might call the “Better Schools Movement.” This movement has turned out to be not only about fixing schools. It has also become a series of lessons about personal responsibility, a fundamental exercise for Americans about how to keep our feet on the ground in a fast-changing world.

Our lessons went like this. First, we were shocked: Our schools, we discovered, were graduating children prepared for the 1950’s. Next, we looked for answers. This caused great trouble, because we found no cookie-cutter solutions. Now it is dawning on us that we must figure out most of the answers for ourselves, community-by-community, school-by-school, family-by-family, relationship-by-relationship.