Of Time, Reform, And the River

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Greenville, Miss.--A few minutes before the final bell at Coleman Junior High, a science teacher argues that the best way to understand the gap between the "neat prescriptions" of education reformers and the daily reality of teaching is simply to watch the hallway between classes. "I'd be careful about standing out there, though."

She is being a bit stark and probably knows it. But the teacher, a small, soft-spoken woman who is decidedly skeptical about the state's 1982 Education Reform Act, has quietly made her point. There is something inherently unsettling about a thundering five-minute stampede of teen-agers.

For her and many other educators in this Mississippi river-port town, the idea of imposing statewide reforms on public schools still disrupted by court-ordered desegregation is equally unsettling.

Many of the reform measures, the Coleman science teacher complains, are too bureaucratic and prescriptive, too much a product of the "regulate the teachers" mindset to deal with the complex, real-world problems that trouble the Greenville schools. Legislation, she says, can do little about the "intangibles"--students' behavior and "their language"; an indifference to discipline; parents' lack of interest in their children's education.

Nor can reform change community attitudes, adds Coleman's school librarian. When district officials here talk optimistically about enticing white students back from the private schools, Lottie C. Catholic is not impressed.

"That's a nice dream," she says. "But the only way white people would come back here in herds--the way they left in herds--is if the black people would suddenly become white. And right now I don't see much sign of that happening."

Another Greenville teacher put the town's educational quandary this way: "One big problem you can't 'reform' is that we're dealing here with many parents who aren't education-oriented--kids whose parents, and I mean black and white, grew up without any education."

'Stumps To Hide Behind'

Yet the Education Reform Act of 1982 was not concocted in isolation by a small group of professional planners, to be imposed on unsuspecting local districts. Though itsframework was a study of Mississippi's educational problems prepared by State Research Associates in Lexington, Ky., the final reform package was shaped during months of public and legislative debate.

William Winter, the governor at that time, acted against the advice of most of his supporters when he called a special legislative session in December 1982 to act on the reform proposals. Mr. Winter had twice before failed to push major education reforms through the legislature and, as he says today, "there was a fear that we would bring everybody to Jackson, nothing would happen, and everybody would look bad."

But the Governor believed there was a groundswell of support for school reform in Mississippi. Besides that, he didn't think he had any choice.

For too long, Mississippi's place at or near the bottom on most educational and economic measures had hampered the state's ability to attract business and industry. At the time of the 1982 special session, for example, Mississippi had the highest dropout rate in the nation (over 40 percent), the lowest teachers' salaries, and the lowest per-pupil expenditure. It was also the only state with no public kindergartens.

"I was sure I understood one thing," Mr. Winter recalls, "and that was that anything significant would have to be accomplished in a special session with a closed agenda and the spotlight on the legislature. Otherwise, there would be too many stumps for people to hide behind and never get to education."

Hailed as 'Turning Point'

After a two-week legislative flurry, Mr. Winter came away with much more than he expected--a $100-million education-reform package that included statewide public kindergartens, aides to assist classroom teachers with reading and basic-skills instruction in the primary grades, a new compulsory-attendance law and truant officers to enforce it, salary increases for teachers, provisional one-year certification standards for new teachers and administrators, new systems for statewide testing and "performance-based" school accreditation, management training for school administrators, school consolidation, and authority to begin planning for a merit-pay system.

The reform's passage was covered by most of the major national news organizations and praised widely as a "turning point" for Mississippi education.

A Lost Identity

Today, however, Coleman Junior High does not yet look reformed. A worn and dingy building in a predominantly black, working-class section of north Greenville, it sorely needs a paint job, inside and out, and could use new locks on its student lockers. Discipline has not been a perennial problem here, but the school was jarred last year when a student shot and killed a classmate at school.

Coleman is not necessarily a4school gone bad--it has a dedicated staff and students eager to learn--but it is a troubled school in a district still struggling to get beyond the upheavals of school desegregation.

More important, it is a school without an identity. The forces of history changed what it used to be. But in what one Coleman teacher calls the city's "'new' dual school system," no compensating sense of mission or purpose has yet emerged.

The success or failure of Mississippi's ambitious attempt to improve its public schools depends largely on the graceful evolution of schools like Coleman. Yet recent Greenville history--and a walk down the school's corridors--suggest that Coleman's transformation has so far been in name only.

Desegregation's Legacy

Across the hall from the school library is an odd memorial to just how much desegregation changed things in Greenville. Sealed and locked behind plate glass in a small room is a display from Coleman's years as an all-black junior- and senior-high school. "The time capsule," as one teacher called it, consists mainly of row after row of proud Coleman graduates photographed in caps and gowns.

The oldest of these pictures is from 1944, the last from 1969. The years after that are commemorated only by a hand-lettered sign taped to the window. It reads:

"STILL #1: 1970-1982." By graduation day in 1970, Coleman's strong identity had been sacrificed in the school restructuring made necessary by a 1969 federal court order requiring the district to scrap the "freedom of choice" desegregation plan it had used--voluntarily--for the previous five years. Under the district's court-approved plan (which has since been altered), most elementary schools were "paired" and secondary schools were fragmented.

Coleman's arch rival--T.L. Weston, a formerly all-black high school in southwest Greenville--was made a 10th-grade-only school. Greenville High, formerly all-white, was restructured to house grades 11 and 12.

Coleman became one of three integrated junior high schools. It was a conversion that angered the many black teachers, parents, and students who valued Coleman's tradition and wanted the school preserved as a high school in the new unified school system.

'Quality Education' Talk

The city's desegregation was already under way when, in October of 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court declared, in a case called Beatrice Alexander v. Holmes County (Miss.) Board of Education, that the time for allowing Mississippi districts "all deliberate speed" in school desegregation had come to an end.

Gov. John Bell Williams, who had defeated a lawyer named William Winter in the 1967 Democratic gubernatorial primary, publicly endorsed the immediate creation of a private-school system for whites only. Said the Governor: "Desegregation will cause serious damage to quality public education in Mississippi--perhaps even the destruction of public education itself."

Bob Boyd, who covered education for Greenville's Delta Democrat-Times at the time, ruefully observed that every time the courts did something to speed up desegregation, Mr. Williams and other Mississippi politicians proclaimed the end of "quality public education."

"Hmmmm, that's 'Quality Education' Williams," Mr. Boyd wrote, "who had such a consistent record in Congress for voting against federal-aid appropriations to assist states in improving their educational systems."

'White Flight' and Reform

But Governor Williams was prophetic. As would happen in many Mississippi communities, especially those in the heavily black Delta region, large numbers of white students immediately left Greenville's public schools. The initial burst of white flight (over 15 percent of the Greenville system's whites left the first year), was followed by a slower but persistent flow of white students out of the public schools. And the flow has not yet been stemmed, much less reversed.

In 1968, one year before desegregation, whites in the Greenville public schools were already a minority of 44 percent. By 1977, the figure had dropped below 30 percent. This year, according to the district's latest figures, whites make up only 13.5 percent of the system's enrollment.

Thus, any talk about "reform" in Greenville necessarily involves two distinct issues: first, the goal of improving education for the blacks and whites who attend; and second, the hope that improvements in the schools will make whites who have fled the system take another look.

Without the latter, educators here say, the broad community support essential to lasting improvements4will be missing, regardless of what reform measures are passed.

The arrival of an energetic new superintendent has given Greenville parents and educators considerable optimism, despite their reservations about some of the state's reform package, that the first goal can be reached--that the schools as they now exist can be improved.

But there is much less optimism about the second goal. Most townspeople think Greenville's schools will be virtually all-black in a few years. "That is," one teacher says, "except for whites whose parents can't afford private education, or whose parents will always support public education, no matter what."

Reputation and Reality

To some, the fact that whites have continued to leave Greenville's public schools at a time when white flight has slowed or stopped in some parts of Mississippi is especially puzzling alongside the reputation for racial progressivism that is deeply rooted in Greenville's history.

It is a reputation that hinges largely, but by no means solely, on the words and actions of some of Greenville's writers. (See accompanying story on this page.)

Many non-Mississippians who have read William Alexander Percy's Lanterns on the Levee, for example, know the story of how Greenville's citizens worked together to keep the Ku Klux Klan from establishing a strong foothold in Greenville during the Klan's nationwide revival in the 1920's.

And it was with the financial backing of a group of Greenvillians led by Mr. Percy and fellow writer David L. Cohn of The Atlantic Monthly that Hodding Carter came to Greenville in 1936 to launch what would eventually become The Delta Democrat-Times. The newspaper's crusading editorial stance drew widespread attention and earned Mr. Carter a 1946 Pulitzer Prize.

More recently, a 1977 report on Greenville's desegregation progress by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights commended Hodding Carter 3rd--his father's successor at the newspaper--for his strong editorial support of Greenville public schools during the early, disruptive days of desegregation.

The commission also applauded the Greenville school board for voluntarily experimenting with its "freedom of choice" integration plan and with a fairly successful voluntary teacher-transfer program in 1964--five years before being ordered to desegregate by a federal judge.

Both these actions outpaced desegregation progress elsewhere in the state and were roundly condemned at the time by Mississippi's segregationist governor, Paul T. Johnson.

Yet today, there remains the reality of "the new dual school system."

'Watered-Down' Standards

There are several theories about why so many whites have left Greenville's public schools. Observers of Mississippi private education say that segregated private schools have tended to thrive in areas with large proportions of blacks, and they point out that blacks made up almost 60 percent of the Greenville population in the 1980 census.

"Much of it has to do with the number of black teachers in the system, which is about 45 percent," says Mary M. Haynes, a black woman with 32 years of teaching experience who is now serving her first year on the Greenville school board. "You still have many white parents who just don't think blacks are competent to teach their children."

Another black educator suggests that Greenville's reputation for progressivism is simply unwarranted.

But other Greenvillians say it is not fair to level charges of "racism" at parents who put their children in private schools if the public schools are not doing the job. And in the opinion of several supporters of Greenville public education--both black and white--the brisk white flight of the middle-to-late 1970's coincided exactly with the system's low point in terms of educational quality.

As one white public-school teacher puts it: "Our first loss of white students was because of integration. The second was because standards were watered down."

Partly, this "watering down" is blamed on the general slackening of academic standards now associated with the 1970's. But with surprising consistency, Greenville parents and teachers also say the school system had a severe leadership problem in the 1970's.

According to Robert Jones, a Greenville parent and the current president of the Mississippi Parent-Teacher Association, the former superintendent, though a competent financial manager, was deaf to the ideas and concerns of parents and teachers and "had an uncanny aptitude for eradicating support."

Teaching to Tests

In addition, several Greenville educators say it was "common knowledge" that the practice of "teaching to" standardized achievement tests--allegedly to the point that teachers actually reviewed test questions with a class before administering them--was widespread over the last decade.

Since 1977, when the state first began administering the California Achievement Test (cat), there have been several dramatic test-score gains reported in Greenville. For example, the percentile ranking of Greenville 4th graders tested in 1983 was 20 points higher on the cat than 4th graders from two years before.

But, says one former Greenville high-school teacher, such improvements were not reflected on the American College Testing examination (act), the preferred test for college admissions in Mississippi and many other Southern states.

Nolan L. Vickers, Greenville's new superintendent, declines to discuss either the testing question or the merits of his predecessor. He makes it clear, however, that the act is the measure he will pay the most attention to as he tries to gauge the district's progress under the reform act--at least until the state testing program mandated in the reform act is in place.

'An Astounding Reversal'

Recent act scores in fact provide a stark illustration of how far the Greenville district has to go to regain the confidence of large numbers of white parents. The mean composite scores of students at Greenville High School, which was almost all-white prior to desegregation, have hovered near 13 for the past four years. With a national mean score of around 18.5, a spokesman for the act said, the Greenville High performance is "quite low--in the bottom 10 or 15 percent nationally."

For Greenville High, such a ranking is an astounding reversal. "Reform" there now means simply regaining a tradition of academic excellence that has slipped away.

Before desegregation, Greenville High (called Bass High until 1954) enjoyed a solid academic reputation in the state built up over decades of achievement. In the mid-1960's, the school's English department--headed at the time by Nell H. Thomas--was chosen as one of 150 outstanding high-school departments nationwide in a study by the National Council of Teachers of English. Between 1953 and 1967, Ms. Thomas says, Greenville High's team won seven state championships in debate.

But Greenville High was not available to everyone. "Unfortunately, it's definitely true that things were not as sparkling in the all-black schools," Ms. Thomas says. "On standardized tests, Greenville High usually was in the 70th percentile, but when the schools were averaged together the district would end up in the 30th percentile nationally. We really didn't know what they were doing over there."

Ms. Thomas stayed at Greenville after the changes came. "You know, there were many of us who stuck in there after desegregation and we were going to make it work," says the English teacher, who is now retired. "But here we are, 1970 to 1985. Back then I said, 'Give us one full educational span--12 years--and we'll see some improvement.' By the 1980's, I saw that things were worse."

Academies Shun Reform

Last year, nearly one-quarter of the town's 13,700 students attended private schools--either one of the city's two Catholic schools, which have black students, or one of the three all-white private academies.

At the largest of the academies--the Washington School, a 1,200-student, grade 1-12 school founded in 1970--the mean composite score on the act test is usually between 20 and 21.

The Washington School's headmaster, Larry Shurlds, says the attitude toward school reform there is essentially this: We hope it helps public education, but we want no part of it.

Almost unnoticed in the publicity generated by the reform act is the fact that Mississippi's private schools are supposed to comply with many of its provisions in order to keep their accreditation. But Mr. Shurlds says his school will no longer seek state accreditation.

He and other private-school officials are aware that such a decision could result in legal action by the state. But he says, "The bottom line for us is this: With the amount of red tape, reporting, and record-keeping required by the act, and considering that we get no money from the state--absolutely none--it's no longer worth it for us to seek accreditation."

The Economic Factor

Such divisions in the school community notwithstanding, some think that economic pressures on Greenville may strengthen the incentive for school reform. In the past five years, the unemployment rate in Greenville and surrounding Washington County has nearly doubled, from 7.2 percent in 1979 to 13.9 percent in 1984. Greenville's population, now roughly 41,000, has declined over the past two decades, a time when lost jobs in agriculture have not been replaced by new industry. By 1980, agriculture--once the linchpin of the local economy--accounted for less than 6 percent of the county's total employment.

Local business leaders express little doubt that the region's ability to attract industry was hurt by the reputation the public schools developed in the 1970's. Says one: "A company looking at this town sees that its black employees would be stuck with the public schools, and the whites would be burdened with the additional cost of private education."

Last March, however, the Greenville economy received a much-needed boost when the Boeing Corporation announced it would locate an aircraft repair and refurbishing operation in the city. The new plant, to be built on the site of an old military base at Greenville Municipal Airport, could create as many as 1,000 new jobs.

Predictably, Boeing's announcement has created excitement in Greenville. At this point, most townspeople are uncertain what role the positive publicity surrounding Mississippi's school-reform act played in Boeing's decision. But no one thinks it hurt.

Making Reform Work

What remains, however, is the task of translating the promise of reform into a reality that can turn the Greenville public schools around. And on the how's and whether's that surround this point, public opinion is still divided.

Many educators are skeptical about the specifics of reform but hold out hope that the whole reform package--and, more important, the spirit behind its passage--will initiate needed changes.

"A lot of what's in this reform is very expensive and time-consuming, but we want to go through with it because we want education in Mississippi to improve," says Helen D.S. Moore, principal of Greenville's Weddington Elementary School. "If we put all this time and money in and it doesn't make a difference, it will be 100 years before somebody gets another chance."

Parts of the 1982 Education Reform Act seem popular with nearly all educators and parents. These include statewide public kindergartens, the new compulsory attendance law, and the "teaching assistance" program that provides teachers' aides to help teach basic skills in the first three elementary grades.

And there is also optimism in Greenville that the new superintendent can generate the cooperation and hard work necessary to make the reform measures work. Though his selection was at first opposed by some blacks, who charged he had misused "ability grouping" to set up a segregated "school-system-within-a-system" during his years as superintendent in Starkville, Miss., Mr. Vickers's energy and drive have impressed most school-board members, parents, and educators since his arrival last year.

He has spent much of his time seeking opinions from teachers, parents, and business people about the sources of--and possible solutions to--the public schools' problems. One of his goals, he says, is to foster greater community involvement. He wants, he says, to improve the schools for the people who have stood by them. A side effect of that, he adds, would be to attract white families back to the system.

'Aim for Excellence'

Mr. Vickers has also spent time setting up a management system for the state's "Aim for Excellence" (aim) program, instituted by the education department in 1979, prior to the larger reform.

aim requires all accredited schools in the state to draw up detailed written descriptions of their instructional programs and to set up a systematic plan for the evaluation of these programs.

Among teachers, aim may be the least popular of the reform measures. aim requires teachers to describe, on spreadsheets, the "objectives" they will cover in each meeting of each class they teach. Almost uniformly, they complain that the system generates "excessive paperwork" with few tangible results.

"I like the concept," says Mr. Jones of the Mississippi pta, "but so far aim has taken some very good teachers and turned them into clerks."

Paperwork Burden

Elizabeth Young, a vocational-education teacher who says she also supports the aim concept, describes the rigors of meeting the aim requirements for one of her courses:

"First, you write out what you will do every time the class meets. For each objective, you write out what the students' activities and the teacher's activities will be to achieve that objective. You write down the materials you plan to use, and indicate whether this is an 'introduction' to this objective, or if you are 'developing,' 'mastering,' or 'reinforcing' it. Then you write and turn in questions you would use to test the objective."

Ms. Young says she "couldn't estimate" the amount of time she has worked on her aim plan for one course during the past year. "Just say 'many afternoons after school and many hours on weekends."'

"One thing very frustrating to teachers," she adds, "is how much 'reform' means 'regulating teachers."' To her, it is all a part of the "notion" contained in the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation At Risk, "that only teachers are to blame."

Mr. Vickers, however, supports aim. The questions teachers must write to "test objectives," he explains, will be fed into a computerized test bank from which the district will be able to generate "secure" tests for the future, easily updated each year. The computer will also be able to grade the tests, he said.

The superintendent estimates that the total cost of putting the aim management system into place, including staff and equipment, has been $350,000.

"aim is causing districts to spend extra money," he says, "but it's giving the state a structured curriculum for the first time."

And, says the superintendent, the time-consuming part of aim--writing curricular plans--is now over. "The results will begin to show up in the next few years."

Political Uncertainties

Others are not so sure about the timetable for reaping reform's pay-off. They worry, in fact, that changes in the state's political climate may stall or even preclude any meaningful implementation of the reform act.

Mr. Winter, who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate last fall, is no longer governor, and both the legislature and the new governor, William A. Allain, have given indications that education reform may not rank as high on their list of priorities.

"There's definitely a fear that the reform act will be gutted in the legislature," says Mr. Jones, the state pta president.

Much of the fear stems from an ongoing debate over teachers' salaries that, last winter, resulted in the first teachers' strike in Mississippi history. (Another factor was the relatively quiet death in the legislature of another reform measure--school consolidation.)

The 1982 Reform Act stipulated that "... to the extent possible, teachers shall receive salaries that are at least equal to the average of salaries received by teachers in the southeastern United States." But Mississippi teachers and Governor Allain disagreed over the meaning of "to the extent possible."

Teachers have charged the Governor with trying to "renege" on raising salaries. When the reform act was passed, teachers received a blanket $1,000 raise, but there was no statewide raise appropriated for them in 1983-84. The average salary when the walkout began last winter was $15,971, and beginning teachers with a bachelor's degree were starting at $11,400.

Reversing the Argument

Mr. Allain maintained that a state with the lowest per-capita income in the nation could not afford the taxes required for the raise suggested by the state's nea affiliate--$7,000 over the next two years. He offered $1,500--a hike he said would not require a tax increase.

Reversing the economic argument advanced by the former governor, Mr. Winter, and other reform supporters, Mr. Allain listed at the time "several large industries" whose executives, he said, "told me they might move out of the state" if taxes were raised to pay for teachers' salaries.

Central Role of Pay

Although the state legislature overrode Governor Allain's veto to give teachers a three-year, $4,400 pay raise, the strike put into relief the difficulties that lie ahead in resolving one of the issues many believe to be central to improved education in Mississippi.

There was no strike in Greenville, but one of the teachers who showed up at small "informational picketing" sessions held before and after school hours told the Delta Democrat-Times that he was leaving his $16,000-a-year position for a $27,400 teaching salary in Dallas.

And that illustrates what many teachers here believe is a central dilemma of the public schools: the loss of good teachers to states offering better pay.

Yet few Greenville educators see unionization as a way to achieve better pay and working conditions. Many of them oppose the National Education Association for its tendency to, as one teacher put it, "become involved in political issues that have nothing to do with education."

Six years ago a group called Mississippi Professional Educators was founded to provide teachers with "an alternative to the nea," and a Greenville chapter was formed last November. The group now claims a statewide membership of 5,000.

There are other indications that the bias against unions may not include all forms of group action for change. Even some Greenville educators who say they "just don't believe in strikes" had sympathy for the striking teachers last winter.

Gary Dempsey, principal of T.L. Weston High, put it this way: "I'm against striking, but we've been 50th in the nation in salaries long enough. Teacher morale is understandably low. They've seen themselves given lots of extra work, but with little extra compensation."

'Signals' of Future

To many educators, however, the strike's real significance was in its several "signals" of what lies ahead for school reform.

Throughout the strike, they note, Governor Allain warned that raising teachers' salaries would "endanger reform." If the legislature were forced to increase taxes this year for salaries, he said, it might use that as an excuse not to pay for statewide kindergartens next year.

"The big fight next year will be over funding of kindergartens," agrees Mr. Jones of the state pta "I recently heard the Governor say he didn't know where the $40 million for kindergartens would come from next year."

"There's no question in my mind that there will be a fight over kindergarten funding," concurs Leslie D. King, a state representative from Greenville who strongly supports kindergartens.

The New, Old 'Demagoguery'

But both Mr. King and Hainon Miller, a former Greenville legislator, say the Governor's claim that "all tax increases are levied to pay for education" is simply an example of the style of "demagoguery" long practiced in Mississippi politics.

"It is often written and said that the taxes levied in 1982 'paid for' the Education Reform Act," says Mr. Miller, who served in the legislature from 1968 to 1983. "That's just not true. That money went into the general fund, which can be used to pay for education or can be diverted to pay for anything else.

"So when it's said, 'That money was raised for education,' that's only a half truth," he adds. "Probably only 60 percent of it has gone to education. But the public has been sold on the idea that whenever their taxes go up, it's done to pay for education."

Trust Fund

A measure Mr. King hopes may eliminate the necessity of "refighting this issue again and again" was approved by the legislature last spring: a school trust fund to be financed by taxes on oil and gas found on state-owned property.

But even this reform victory remains in doubt for now. Mississippians must still pass a constitutional amendment in the next election to actually establish the fund.

Vol. 05, Issue 04

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