C.E.D. Seeks Reordering of School Focus

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Public education has "lost its sense of priorities," charges a report released last week by a group of the nation's top business and education leaders.

"Instead of focusing on what is most essential--improving learning and achievement--our society has turned the schools into social, ideological, and financial battlegrounds," the report from the Committee for Economic Development says. (See excerpts.)

The report, which has been endorsed by the C.E.D.'s research and policy committee, advocates that those who govern education make learning and achievement the primary mission of schools.

"Putting Learning First: Governing and Managing the Schools for High Achievement" calls for the development of national education standards and assessments as an "integral component of efforts to raise student achievement."

It also urges groups other than the schools to pay for and provide the health and social services that children need to succeed academically.

"States and communities must lift the burden of addressing children's health and social needs from the backs of educators," the report says. "These services may be placed in the schools, they may be delivered through the schools, but they should not be made the responsibility of the schools."

The statement is particularly strong for the C.E.D., which has long advocated integrated services for children and their families. But Roy Bostock, the chairman of the research and policy committee, said the new report is consistent with previous C.E.D. statements.

"We firmly believe that these services, in many school districts, need to be delivered," he said. "But they should not be the funding responsibility of the school district, nor should the expertise be provided by school personnel."

"Teachers should not be devoting time to family counseling, to health-care counseling, and so forth," Mr. Bostock said.

The C.E.D., based in New York City, is an independent research and public-policy organization comprising some 250 corporate chairmen, chief executives, university presidents, and other leaders from business and education.

A New 'Contract'

To help schools reassert their primary mission, the report recommends a new "contract" between the schools and those who govern education.

Each school would sign a performance contract or "long-range education-investment plan" with its local school board. The school's faculty would develop the contract in consultation with parents and others in the school community. It would spell out the school's mission, its goals for student achievement, and how it would use its resources to meet those goals.

In exchange, the board would give schools real authority over hiring and firing, the use of resources, and curriculum and instruction within the framework of rigorous academic standards.

The proposal reflects some elements of charter-school agreements, in which semiautonomous public schools are created under a contract with states or school districts. But it attempts to bring a similar degree of flexibility to all schools within the system.

"We support charter schools and see them as a way of testing the waters on the flexibility and site-based-management concepts," said Sandra Kessler Hamburg, the director of education studies for the C.E.D. "We see no reason why this method of accountability can't be applied on the district level for every school under the jurisdiction of the school board."

Focus on Incentives

The report advocates that states and districts reduce their emphasis on rules and regulations as a way to improve schools. Instead, they should create incentives and consequences for performance.

"We do not believe that overseeing the operation of individual schools is the best role for the state," it argues. "We believe that the primary state role in education governance is to establish broad educational goals and to insure that local authorities, whether at the community or the school level, have the support services, resources, and oversight to attain those goals."

It urges states to limit their goals to "measurable academic achievement" and to avoid adopting vague, value-laden goals and objectives.

Local school boards, it adds, "should abandon their penchant for micromanagement and concentrate on educational policy."

High-Stakes Testing

Students, in particular, need incentives to take responsibility for their education, the report says.

It suggests several incentives for educators and students:

  • Teachers' salaries should reflect prevailing, regional labor markets, with higher pay for those with specialized skills.
  • Teachers and principals should receive group bonuses and other professional rewards for improving student achievement.
  • Students should have to demonstrate their academic proficiency to earn a diploma, get into college, land a job, or receive federal financial aid.

The report seeks the development of national performance-based assessments that could lead to "mastery certificates" for students in a variety of academic and vocational fields.

"Our trustees felt very strongly that students, no matter where they are living, should be able to perform to the same standards in basic academic subjects as students anywhere else," said Ms. Hamburg.

The report acknowledges that some students may not have access to high-quality schools or to the resources needed to excel academically. But, it argues, "if we wait for the elimination of all barriers to equal opportunity before we ask students to assume more personal responsibility for their own achievement, we will never reach our educational goals."

Money Matters

States must insure that sufficient funds get to the classroom to improve learning, the report says. States must also see that each school has the funds needed to raise student achievement to the desired levels, given its particular student body.

But it recommends that real increases in resources be tied to a school's progress on the achievement goals spelled out in its performance contract.

"Money matters," argues the report, "but only if schools are organized to use it effectively to promote achievement."

Copies of the report are available for $17.50 each from the Committee for Economic Development, 477 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10022; (212) 688-2063.

Vol. 14, Issue 04

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