In School District in the Heartland, National Reforms Escape Notice

By Jonathan Weisman — October 09, 1991 7 min read
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When Ellen Brentine switched on her car radio last week after a frustrating day at West/Indianola Elementary School, the airwaves crackled with bad news.

U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, she recalled, was telling the nation how poorly its schools were performing as he released the National Education Goals Panel’s first report card.

Minutes later, she arrived at home to find her husband glued to the television and waving her over to hear the same discouraging news she had just turned off. She told him she had had enough.

“You know, you hear all this stuff, and sometimes you just want to tune it out,” she said wearily. “It all just sounds like a broken record.”

In Ms. Brentine’s Seaman School District, a few miles past where the concrete of Topeka gives way to the rolling grasses of the Kansas prairie, folks do not put much stock in the national education goals or any of the other policy moves coming out of Washington.

Instead, the real concerns of Seaman educators are the budget cuts that will keep the debate team from traveling this year. High-school athletes will have to shell out up to $91 this year for sports insurance, and lab fees have gone up. And there is a new mathematics textbook to try out.

Although they have heard of the national goals, not one of the many teachers, administrators, and students interviewed last week could name all six. Most froze after “drug free schools.”

“I have them written down somewhere, and I thought about each one of them when they came out,” said Karen McConnell, a 5th- and 6th grade teacher at West Indianola, “and I thought at the time how ridiculous each one was.”

No one here has heard the pleas of Gov. Roy Romer of neighboring Colorado for every community to publicly adopt those goals he has worked so hard to publicize. The last staff meeting teachers can remember having on a national issue was in 1983, with the release of A Nation At Risk.

And President Bush’s education package--and his call for every community in the nation to become “an America 2000 community” have apparently escaped the notice of Seaman educators and students entirely.

“He just wants students to challenge themselves more,” ventured Kristi Feyh, a 12th grader, when asked what Mr. Bush had proposed for education. Parental choice, she said, “is telling parents they have to get more involved.”

‘A Few Years Behind’

It appears the education revolution supposedly launched two years ago at the Charlottesville summit will have to go on for now without the Seaman School District, although faculty members here promised to catch up later.

“There’s a difference between Kansas and the coasts,” Ms. McConnell explained. “We’re always going to be a few years behind.”

West Indianola Elementary and nearby Seaman High School are spread out flat against the prairie, as if they were trying to hide from the winds that whip across the fields that surround them. The expanse of land gives the impression that the two schools have plenty of room to explore and develop.

Yet around Topeka, the district has the reputation of not really having a distinctive identity. They may not be the best schools, but neither are they the worst; nor are they the richest, or the poorest.

Their students are solidly “middle, middle class,” as Principal Donald Pierce of Seaman High put it. Many of their parents work at the nearby Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company factory.

Classes at Seaman High are neat and orderly. There are no drive-by shootings, metal detectors at the doors, or crack dealers at the gates.

At the same time, there is also “not much in the way of reform or innovation going on,” according to Kay Coles, a spokesman for the Kansas affiliate of the National Education Association.

Seaman is the kind of district that does not get much attention these days but that fills out the bulk of American education. And it may be the kind of district that is hardest to change, some observers say.

“In Washington, they’re saying we’re in a crisis, but people in the Midwest don’t realize they’re talking to us,” said Nancy Fusaro, a 1st grade teacher. “They don’t realize we’re all a nation at risk.”

‘One of the Top Now’

In Dawna Edmond’s 12th-grade government class, students last week did not know about the national education goals, although the two competing newspapers in town--USA Today and The Topeka Capital Journal ran stories about the reportcard release on their front pages.

With a little prompting, though, students were willing to speak up anyway. The nation certainly will be first in the world in math and science by 2000, Rachel Raher said. “We’re one of the top now,” she asserted.

Others placed their country somewhere in the middle. Asked whether their school will be drug-free by the turn of the century, they giggled and unanimously shook their heads “no.”

Teachers at Seaman High actually seem insulted by the goals.

“When we heard about those goals, no one jotted them down or felt they had to do an about-face,” said Denise Lohness, an English teacher. “We were moving in that direction already.”

“Those goals weren’t really meant for teachers,” ventured Ms. Edmonds. “They’re meant to give education a national focus beyond the schools.”

The resentment springs from a feeling that solutions keep being imposed on them from far above, while politicians closer at hand, like Gov. Joan Finney, block the resources they need to get the job done.

Governor Finney in May vetoed a line in the state education budget that would have increased aid to schools by $55.1 million. Earlier in the spring, she killed a measure that would have raised $138 million in sales and income taxes. In response, the Seaman School District was forced to cut back on instructional supplies, new equipment, and expenditures on libraries and extracurricular activities.

Pamela Tipton, a math teacher at the high school, for example, is using a new textbook that calls for computer instruction. With computers in such short supply, however, she usually just demonstrates the exercises on the lone terminal in the back of her room.

“All that hype coming out last week makes me fairly angry,” Ms. McConnell said. “They’re basically telling us what a poor job we’re doing, but what are they doing for us?”

Ms. Brentine said the last time the federal government helped her was back in the early 1960’s, when she received a National Defense Education Act grant to study pedagogy in Texas and a National Science Foundation scholarship to go to a six-week math seminar in Wisconsin.

Now, the teachers say, they cannot even get transportation money for a field trip past the next county.

Looking for Direction

Yet teachers here also say they need direction from policymakers, or at least better direction. They admit that the reforms they are undertaking are scattershot--a bit of “whole language” here, some “outcome-based education” there, but without the wholesale changes they know they need to make it all work.

“At the national level, they say ‘restructure,’” said Jane Klusenur, a 3rd-grade teacher, “but by the time it filters down to us, all that’s left is a little whole language.”

Teachers said they favor year-round schooling, a break from the traditional dally schedule of six 55-minute classes, an extended school day, night-time community programs, and more integrated curricula.

“We need to have the right structure to put all these new theories [of pedagogy and curriculum] to work,” said Kelly Walker, a student-teacher at Seaman High.

But the teachers also recognize that the conservative community in which they work is far from ready to have education radically different from the way it looked when they were young.

Signs of Change

Still, educators here do see some evidence that change is under way. Rick Hull has been using more cooperative learning in his senior physics class, earning mixed reviews from his students. There is an informal, energetic feel to Ms. Edmonds’s popular government class. “1 think teachers realize now to learn, you have to be more relaxed,” said one of her students.

The math department at Seaman High is buzzing about a new textbook that stresses problem-solving over rote learning. Students grumble that they have more and harder homework, but also acknowledge that they are learning more as well.

“I can remember what I learned last chapter,” said Julie Adams in Ms. Tipton’s multi-grade Algebra 2 class. “I haven’t done that before.”

Thomas Hamre, a 17-year-old exchange student from Norway, smiled at his classmates’ complaints. His homework load these days is far lighter, he said, than it was back home in a nation the United States will supposedly surpass in math and science within nine years.

“I’d like to catch up to whatever countries we’re behind,” Ms. Adams said. ‘Rut it’s just hard to change the way I’ve always studied.”

It is obvious, some teachers here say, that national education authorities will have to do a better job reaching the school hinterlands if their revolution is going to reach its goals.

“I see a lot of money being spent to correct this big global problem,” Ms. Fusaro observed, “but nobody is coming out to Topeka and saying, ‘This is Topeka, Kansas. This is what needs to be done here.’”

A version of this article appeared in the October 09, 1991 edition of Education Week as In School District in the Heartland, National Reforms Escape Notice


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