City Chiefs Eye Teacher Issues in Funding Context

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Toledo, Ohio--Using terms popularized by teachers, urban superintendents and school-board members say they are well aware of the need to reform teaching and administration in their districts.

But they insist that inadequate funding remains a formidable obstacle to achieving widespread change.

As the top leaders from some 40 of the nation's largest urban districts met here this month, phrases such as "decentralized decisionmaking" and "teacher empowerment" echoed through their workshops.

Many of the participants' wish lists for professionalizing teaching included higher salaries, smaller class sizes, and more time for teachers to consult with colleagues.

In both their conference sessions and a new report released by the sponsoring organization--the Council of Great City Schools--the school leaders addressed issues raised in a series of recent national reports urging reforms to make teaching and administration more responsive to the needs of so-called "at risk" students.

The Council's 45 member districts enroll 12 percent of the nation's schoolchildren, including 30 percent of all minority students.

A disproportionate share of their students are considered at-risk for school failure due to a concentration of such environmental factors as poverty and family breakdown.

"What stands between these children and a long life of economic deprivation and social dislocation are two people other than their parents: the teacher and the principal," states the first page of the new report, "Teaching and Leading in the Great City Schools."

"If they come to that classroom in September and encounter a teacher with an emergency certificate, or an inexperienced teacher with no support system, or an ever-changing string of substitutes, or a principal who never has time for their problems," it continues, "they may begin to wonder about the value school places on their education."

"By March, the joy, the continuity, and the meaning of education will have fluttered out the door with the wind."

"Teaching and Leading" offers a mixed portrait of reform efforts in central-city school districts.

Mixed Portrait, Dissenting Voice

On the one hand, a survey of the council's member districts found that "some of the most adventurous and effective solutions to the problems of teacher shortage, retention, and training were being forged in urban systems."

But on the other hand, the programs described in the report generally serve only a small portion of the staffs--and ultimately, the students--who are most in need.

"Those districts which have not addressed some of the challenges," the report says, "frequently have not done so because they cannot find the necessary funding."

"Even cities which have programs in place need funding to expand them beyond the pilot stage," the report says. "Some districts are operating their teaching and leading programs on a shoestring: they would like to be able to pay their mentors, for example, employ consultants, give stipends to participants, or expand into other schools, but they cannot."

The report adds that member districts "are moving ahead, with or without the additional funding, because we cannot afford to wait."

But at least one big-city leader raised a dissenting voice amid the chorus calling for more funding. "I'm not willing to say it's more money yet, until we start using the money we have a little more wisely,'' said Ramon C. Cortines, superintendent of schools in San Francisco.

The restrictions placed on cate8gorical programs, he explained, often reduce the role of schools to that of "employment agencies" for education specialists.

"We keep kids captive many times [in Chapter 1 or bilingual-education programs, for example] because that's the only way a school has to generate money," he said.

"Both the federal and the state governments need to start looking at how to use money as an incentive to move children along," Mr. Cortines argued.

Counterproductive Reforms

While recent reports on teaching and administrative quality nationwide have spurred change, some reforms have produced unintended consequences when evaluated from a uniquely urban perspective, the city chiefs said.

In some cases, their report notes, proposals advocated elsewhere have hindered the ability of urban school leaders to improve teaching quality in their own districts.

"We found proposals for reform that just weren't working in urban areas," the report says. "For example, shutting down teacher-education programs with low aggregate passing rates on teacher competency tests could aggravate minority- teacher shortages that plague our urban schools."

The movement to increase teacher salaries has also produced unintended consequences in urban districts, the report says, by eroding the traditional salary differential enjoyed by teachers who choose to work in city schools.

During the 1980-81 school year, it notes, the Council's 45 member disel15ltricts paid teachers about 10.6 percent more than the national average; last year, the differential had narrowed to only 3.5 percent.

James F. Regan, a school-board member from New York City, said his state's Regents examination has created an incentive for principals to match their best teachers with the students most likely to score well on the tests, which are patterned after the Advanced Placement exams.

New York principals are "under the gun" to boost the number of students taking and passing the voluntary exams, he said, because the test results are widely reported as a gauge of their schools' quality.

"You should be able to get those other students up into the Regents classes, too," he maintained. "Maybe they're not going to be able to score a 93 on the exam, but they could score a 67, and they would be taking a Regents course, rather than a watered down general course."

"That's better for everybody," he added.

Centralization 'Pitfall'

"Teaching and Leading" also offers a candid assessment of some problems that have resulted from urban districts' own actions.

The report calls centralization, for example, a "pitfall" that "may not always make sound educational sense."

"In some districts, a teacher cannot rearrange the seats in the classroom without committing an infraction of district policy," it says.

Both teachers and principals, the report adds, "complain about centralized policies that require them to fill out stacks of paper but make it next to impossible for them to get tablets of paper for their students."

Several of the council's member districts have begun to experiment with decentralized decisionmaking, from school-based management to the provision of discretionary funds for teachers.

Officials of districts that have earned headlines for efforts to reform teaching conditions--including Dade County, Fla.; Pittsburgh; Rochester, N.Y.; Seattle, and Toledo--presented details on how their proposals have been implemented.

And those at the meeting here seemed, for the most part, to accept these reforms' underlying premise: that teachers are the key agents in successful school-improvement efforts.

"My only role, and the principal's only role, and the central-office people's only role, is to help the teacher do the job," said Mr. Cortines.

But few expressed much willingness to provide teachers with authority extending beyond their classroom door.

"I don't think teachers ought to be running buildings," said David Tilsen, a school-board member from Minneapolis. "But I do think that they should able to devise and participate in the development of programs for children and to teach each other--the master teacher/mentor teacher ideal."

George McKenna, formerly principal of Garfield Preparatory High School in Los Angeles and now superintendent of the Inglewood, Calif., public schools, warned the conference participants that if they "dilute" the power of school principals, "you're going to take away the only power you have to make sure that school is running better."

"Because you and I know that the principal can always be changed," he said. "The teaching staff cannot be changed."

Warming Relations

Some urban leaders have also found their efforts to improve teaching conditions stymied by bureaucratic inertia, according to the participants.

In New York City, for example, board members and the past and current chancellor have decried the use of electronic timeclocks in the schools to record the hours kept by teachers. But their efforts to replace the timeclocks with a more personal system have failed.

"If I was still a teacher, I think I'd go and say, 'He said so,' and just take it off the wall," said Mr. Regan.

The leaders reported more success in reducing the confrontational tone that collective bargaining has brought to the relationship between district and teacher-union officials.

Most of the districts have negotiated contracts that allow provisions to be waived in schools where a certain percentage of teachers agree to experiment with new models.

Many of the participants reported that relations between union and management are improving as leaders recognize that their agendas overlap in significant areas.

"We may not always agree, but at least there's a trusting relationship there," said Ruth L. Scott, superintendent of schools in Toledo.

"If there's a trusting relationship, you can work together," she said.

Bread and Butter Issues

But while novel reform ideas dominated the conference agenda, an informal poll of the participants revealed that most believe the major obstacles to effective teaching remain the traditional bread and butter issues: salaries, class sizes, and inadequate time for teachers to prepare their classes, mentor new teachers, or participate in staff development.

"I would say the number-one priority for improving teaching is to increase salaries, to make it a more attractive profession," said Eugene T. Reville, superintendent of schools in Buffalo, N.Y.

"Even if we were not having the reform discussion, teachers have been undercompensated in society, so the salary issue has to be raised," said Richard R. Green, chancellor of the New York City schools.

Higher salaries and the authority promised by reforms have to "go marching hand-in-hand," Mr. Green said.

The urban leaders' stress on the traditional quality-of-life issues for teachers may relate to the problems urban districts are currently experiencing in attracting and retaining teachers.

"Let the researchers quibble about whether the country will face teacher shortages and when," says their report. "For urban districts, the problems of finding and attracting qualified teachers are here, and they are severe."

"The sad truth is that most new teachers would rather teach anywhere other than a large city," the report says, referring to recent surveys of prospective teachers.

In reponse to the problem, many of the council's member districts have begun nationwide recruiting, particularly for minority teachers.

But the competition is stiff, according to Mr. Reville, who said that "we found ourselves going down to some of our black colleges, and for every candidate, there would be four or five recruiting teams."

Several of the districts have created programs to recruit their own high-school graduates into teaching. In San Francisco, for example, the board of education recently agreed to fund five years of tuition for 15 of the district's students who intend to pursue teaching careers.

"While this sounds like good practice," the report says, "it may not produce the supply of teachers that urban educators would like to see, because the pipeline that feeds urban candidates into teacher education programs is narrowing ... to a soda straw."

Funding Obstacle

The report describes how high teacher-turnover rates have the greatest impact on schools with the poorest student populations, the highest minority enrollments, and the worst physical plants.

"Because the teachers with the most seniority generally have some choice over the location in which they teach," it says, "school administrators send younger, less experienced teachers into the very situations that cry out for seasoned professional educators."

Large amounts of new funding would be required to address the most common complaints of teachers, the report says, such as deteriorating facilities, inadequate support staff, and shortages of books and equipment.

"Eliminating other major obstacles to teacher retention," such as revising seniority and 'bumping' rights that allow senior teachers to select choice teaching assignments, "may send shock waves through the system," the report says.

It also notes that "urban educators must do a better job of preparing future teachers and upgrading the skills of current teachers."

"A strategy in which the most disadvantaged students are taught by bottom-of-the-barrel teachers is a strategy for the demise of urban education," the report says. "Yet that is happening in some of our schools."

"Teaching and Leading" includes a compilation of programs that have proven effective in alleviating some of the urban problem areas it details.

"We want to make clear that although the needs of urban schools are critical, the situation is not without hope," the report says.

Copies of "Teaching and Leading" can be obtained by writing Jakki Dennis, The Council of Great City Schools, 1413 K St., N.W., 4th Floor, Washington, D.C. 20005.

Vol. 08, Issue 06

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