E.C.S. Mulls How To Counter Public Hostility Toward Change

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PITTSBURGH--Members of the Education Commission of the States met here last month to grapple with the budget woes that have plagued them for the past several years and to ponder what many described as a growing trend: public hostility toward reforms sought by education experts and school officials.

It was fitting that the meeting was held here, since Pennsylvania has been the scene of an especially heated conflict between established education interests and a vocal group of parents and conservative activists.

At one session, a panel of Pennsylvania officials outlined the battles they have fought in recent months over the state's plans to shift to an outcomes-based education system.

Opponents bitterly criticized the plan, which they said would inculcate liberal moral values in students. The critics were able to mobilize so much political opposition to the plan that the state board of education eventually was forced to modify it.

The state officials complained at the session that they were unable to defend the more overarching school-improvement aims.

"The other side defined the terms of the debate, which is something you never want'' to let happen, said Rep. Ronald R. Cowell, the chairman of the House education committee. "To some extent, we were dumb.''

The Pennsylvania delegation urged states to solicit opinions from and provide information to the public early in the process of forging serious reforms in order to head off an emotional backlash.

The Positive Side

Finding ways to make the best of a difficult situation was also a theme stressed by the four governors who addressed participants on positive ways to look at budget cuts resulting from a stagnant economy.

The hard times have made state leaders set more concrete priorities, said Gov. Evan Bayh of Indiana, while at the same time alerting officials to the possibility that runaway spending on programs such as Medicaid will make such wish lists irrelevant.

"If you care about education, you have to care about health-care reform, because it is eating us alive,'' Governor Bayh said.

Even in a time of program cuts, educators should realize that expectations and public attitudes are not standing still, said Govs. John R. McKernan Jr. of Maine and Edward T. Schafer of North Dakota.

"We just can't afford the old system anymore,'' Mr. McKernan said. "We've got to improve performance and at the same time make it more affordable.''

Connecting state budget decisions to a long-term vision is essential, Governor Schafer added.

"We have to make an effort to build the credibility of government back,'' he said. "It is important to show these cuts are sensible and regain public support.''

Training Coordination Urged

Also at the conference, E.C.S. officials released a report arguing that a lack of coordination between teacher education programs and state school-reform agendas is holding back the potential for classroom changes.

The draft report urges state legislators in particular to look at how their mandates for reform square with practices in state colleges where new teachers are trained.

"Elementary and secondary schools struggling to restructure are handicapped with the arrival each year of an estimated 120,000 new teachers who come from teacher education programs that operate aloof from growing public demands for reform,'' wrote the report's author, Calvin M. Frazier, the associate director of the school of education at the University of Denver.

The report recommends that states make clear that higher education and public schools are intended to work together in preparing teachers. Moreover, the report suggests, standards and induction methods should be changed to prepare teachers for new expectations.

The report argues that sweeping changes will require greater involvement from college faculty in public schools, an expanded role for professional-development centers, and consideration of making the first year of full-time teaching part of the formal teacher training process.

Vol. 12, Issue 40

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