Reporter’s Notebook

August 02, 2000 4 min read

Looking for a ‘Breakthrough’ at Annual ECS Conference

The author and consultant David Osborne opened the annual meeting of the Education Commission of the States by telling the assembled public officials, educators, and researchers why he believes a breakthrough in student achievement requires a fundamental change in the way schools are governed.

“There’s a pervasive sense that we’re stuck,” Mr. Osborne contended during his keynote address at the July 9-12 gathering here. “And the root cause is a school system that is designed for an earlier age.”

As long as they are run by a centralized bureaucracy that is often held captive by employee groups, schools will never be able to respond quickly to information-age change, shed their one-size-fits-all approach, and cater to parents, said Mr. Osborne, a co- author of the influential 1990 book Reinventing Government and a managing partner of the Minneapolis consulting firm Public Strategies Group.

Instead, he argued, schools should be given control of their budgets and their personnel, while parents should have the power to chose among public schools. Even better, Mr. Osborne said, every school in a district should operate under a five-year charter or contract with the school board.

Both models were put forward last year by the ECS’s National Commission on Governing Schools, on which Mr. Osborne served. (“ECS Report Tackles K-12 Governance,” Nov. 10, 1999.)

Mr. Osborne closed with a plea to state legislators, more than 40 of whom were at the meeting, which focused on the theme of “Breaking Through to High Performance.”

“States define the rules of the game,” he told them. “You have the power to support such a movement in your state legislature.”

Deborah Wadsworth

In a later session, public-opinion expert Deborah Wadsworth questioned one of Mr. Osborne’s tenets. Remarking that “very few parents feel comfortable as school activists” and are “not especially well-informed or vigilant consumers” when it comes to schools, she wondered how realistic it was to look to them as a force for change.

Parents look to teachers for a meaningful assessment of their children’s progress, said Ms. Wadsworth, the president of the nonprofit opinion- research group Public Agenda, based in New York City. The reach for higher standards, therefore, falls on the shoulders of classroom educators, she said.

“They serve as ambassadors for standards, the interpreters,” she said. “And they can undercut parental support for standards in a nanosecond.”

On the other hand, Ms. Wadsworth stressed, public opinion endorses higher academic standards. “Support for raising standards is rock- solid in every part of the country and among people of every background,” she said. “Members of the press insist on finding a backlash to standards that we do not find.”

In accepting the ECS’s James Bryant Conant Award for outstanding service to American education, John I. Goodlad skewered many of the ideas that underlie today’s school reform efforts.

A leading education researcher for 40 years, Mr. Goodlad currently directs the Institute for Educational Inquiry at the University of Washington in Seattle.

In his address, he decried what he sees as a focus on preparing students for the workforce, lamented the lock-step progression of children through age-defined grades, and called for secondary school to end at age 16. At the end, he received a standing ovation.

Afterward, in the elevator, someone asked: Why did people applaud ideas that have mainly been honored in the breach?

“Well, a lot of us would like to see them become reality, but we don’t have the power,” answered one educator.

“The political will isn’t there,” offered another.

Said a third conference-goer, with a sigh: “It requires too many people to change.”

The education journalist John Merrow struck a personal note at the end of a session he moderated on the politics surrounding a perceived teacher shortage. Introduced as, among other things, the father of two New York City public school teachers, the host and executive producer of “The Merrow Report” on public television remarked that, sadly, the statement was no longer true.

His son, Josh, who had taught design at a “second chance” school in Brooklyn, recently resigned “in frustration with [the] leadership of the school,” Mr. Merrow said.

And his daughter Elise had handed in her letter of resignation just the week before. For three years a teacher of English and Italian at a Harlem middle school, she wearied of preparing five different lessons for more than 150 students a day, her father said.

On the final day of the meeting, Jim Geringer, the Republican governor of Wyoming, handed the reins of the bipartisan ECS to Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, the governor of New Hampshire.

As the new chairwoman of the Denver-based organization, Gov. Shaheen intends to concentrate on early-childhood education. She has formed an advisory group of education experts, business leaders, and others to help increase awareness among state policymakers of recent brain-development research. Ms. Shaheen said she particularly wanted to increase business spending on early learning and improve connections between early-childhood programs and elementary education.

The group formally began work July 12 and will convene for a two-year period.

—Bess Keller

A version of this article appeared in the August 02, 2000 edition of Education Week as Reporter’s Notebook