Schools Must ‘Reconnect’ Pupils, Cultivate 'Leadership for Change'

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Ever since “A Nation at Risk” was issued in 1983, I’ve been plagued by the nightmare that education reform will go the way of the hula hoop, the twist, and the Edsel. It’s awfully hard to keep Americans thinking about something that doesn’t lead to easy resolution, something that takes a long time to do thoroughly. In looking at the problems we have now in many states, particularly in the American heartland, it’s easy to see how people could become discouraged in their efforts to deal with education problems. So many things need to be done; it’s tempting to say: “We’ve made some progress in education in the last few years; let’s move on to other pressing areas.”

That would be a mistake. As a governor and as the new chairman of the Education Commission of the States, I am keeping education at the top of my priority list because I think we have started something that we have to finish. The education-reform movement of the early 80’s was not a fad. It was a response to social and economic forces that continue to transform the world around us. The reasons we must radically improve our education system are more compelling now than they were then.

Remember the reasons that lay behind the reforms triggered by “A Nation at Risk,” “Action for Excellence,” and other reform reports:

• Our economic survival depends upon having a stronger education system. That is even truer today. In the last five years, 40 percent of the American people have suffered a decline in their real incomes. Why? Because we were dragged kicking and screaming into worldwide economic competition and we weren’t ready. If 4 Americans in 10 are going backwards in terms of real income, we are headed for deep trouble. Our greatest resource is our children’s minds; our best hope for dealing with the changes in our economy is to cultivate those minds far more productively than we have had to do in the past.

This Commentary was selected for inclusion in The Last Word: The Best Commentary and Controversy in American Education, published in 2007. Get more information on the book from the publisher.

• We also began reform because we thought schools could do better. And we have made significant improvements in many states. People are clearly trying harder, even in those difficult times. But four or five years of incremental improvement is not sufficient.

• We began our reform initiatives in the name of all our children. It has become clear, however, that we are still not addressing the needs of all children. Even when schools have gotten better, too many children remain unaffected. Too many students move out of grade school without basic skills; too many fall prey to teen-age pregnancy alcohol, and drug abuse. Too many students are failing, too many are coasting, and too many are dropping out.

What I want to do first and foremost in the coming year as E.C.S. chairman is to focus on what we can do to “reconnect” those youths who are now disconnected from school, family, the workplace, and the values and skills they need to become productive adults. We simply cannot accept a system that is so unproductive and so inhumane as to let as much as a third, and in some places a majority, of students drop away before receiving their degrees.

What can we do to make our bucket less leaky, to hold out the promise of education to people for whom it appears totally irrelevant, for whom all of our efforts are still failures? If we don’t answer this question, I don’t think anything else we do to improve schools will work in the long run.

The intelligence is there to be tapped. Where cynicism about “the system” stands in the way, we must find ways to counter cynicism with promise. Where lack of motivation stands in the way, we must find ways-undoubtedly working with people throughout the community-to motivate young people. Where emotional and family problems stand in the way of learning, we must find ways to mobilize community resources and harmonize them so that learning can begin.

The only way I know to deal with these kinds of problems is an old-fashioned way: one on one. South Carolina and Texas have some innovative early-schooling programs that bring more one-on-one possibilities into the schools. Let’s study them and share our knowledge. In Arkansas, we are requiring each school district to develop an individualized education program for every child whose test scores place him or her below grade level. Other states are looking for ways to further individualize the attention so many students need.

We all need to publicize what works and share it. We may not all be able to reach a dropout rate of 5 percent, but I think every state can reach a dropout rate of 10 percent to 12 percent. We can’t do it alone, of course; we will need to work with all of the other agencies that help youth in our states.

The second major issue I want to focus on is related closely to the first. How do we build alliances for change at the school level? I don’t think there is any question about the need to restructure the schools. The Holmes Group, the American Federation of Teachers, the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, the E.C.S., and many other groups are in agreement that the kinds of changes that must take place are structural, not cosmetic.

But what exactly does “restructuring” mean? It means building working partnerships that unleash people’s creative energy in a way that makes them free to do their best. It means more involvement of teachers in decisions that affect their daily lives. It means less trivial, meaningless work for teachers and more professional responsibility. It means more involvement of principals in leading people, less in managing the status quo.

Restructuring means, above all, cultivating a leadership for change. The leadership will have to come from all quarters. We need parents, school-board members, and teachers willing to take the lead. We need governors continuing to lead as forcefully as they have in the last decade. We need legislators sticking their necks out for change in education, taking risks, and empowering the people closest to the problems to come up with innovative solutions. And we need vigorous new kinds of leadership in our principals and superintendents across the country.

Some months ago, I chaired a task force for the National Governors’ Association on educational leadership and management. The testimony I heard at our meetings opened my eyes. I learned that districts often fail to set priorities for principals and that, as a result, principals spend most of their time managing things-“doing things right” instead of “doing the right things.” I learned that many principals find their jobs characterized primarily by fragmentation, their interactions characterized by brevity and incoherence. Most teachers do not see their principals as leaders and do not receive from their principals helpful advice, feedback, or assistance about instruction or curriculum. I learned that the way we use time in schools, the way we have organized staff roles, the way we have structured the curriculum and distributed the authority within schools all constrain the kinds of activities that so many of us now want to see going on in the classroom.

So we’re going to have to change the way we train principals and administrators. We’re going to have to change the way we use time and staff in schools, the way we structure activities.

It’s equally clear to me that state policy can encourage or frustrate leadership. We are going to have to look to the policy community to provide the incentives, the support, and the resources necessary to generate the kinds of leadership for change that are necessary. We are going to need more dialogue between legislators, state and local board members, superintendents, college of education faculty members, principals, teachers, parents, and community groups about what it is we want from our schools and how we are going to collaborate to get it.

We’re going to have to take a hard look at certification requirements, the education of administrators, and the evaluation of administrative performance. We’re going to have to find ways to reward principals and entire schools for their performance. And when we find the high-performing schools and principals, we’re going to have to give them the publicity they deserve.

Much of what we have been doing in education reform has been in response to demands from outside the education system. Often education leaders have been forced into defensive action. The time has come to look upon radical reform in a more positive light, to build a process that promotes continuing reform within the system. After all, reform is what this country has always been about.

The time has come to embrace the challenges of an exciting, if complex and frustrating, time in our lives. The call for new leadership for change is not simply a call for new kinds of administrators. It is a call to take charge of the changes that are upon us and guide them productively toward the ends we all have in view: a sounder, more enabling, more responsible education for all.

Vol. 06, Issue 01, Page 48

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