'We Must Press for Pervasive Change'

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The turbulent political weather in Washington bodes ill for public education, especially urban school districts. The threatened rescission of federal funding for urban schools, not to mention the talk of eliminating the U.S. Education Department entirely, means it is show time at last for systemic school reform.

Some politicians seem to be wearying of the sluggish education reform effort, while conservative groups are challenging school reforms in some communities. This is the decade when change-minded educators and school reformers must deliver the goods for America's children, especially those most in need.

The world today bears little resemblance to that of a mere half-decade ago, much less a generation ago. Communism has crumbled, and market economies reign supreme. This ruthlessly competitive world waits for no nation, no corporation, no ethnic group, and no individual. Should any competitor falter, there's always an emerging country, a lean, mean start-up company, an entrepreneur, or an eager immigrant poised to fill the void.

In such a cutthroat economic environment, all youngsters must possess state-of-the-art competencies, such as critical thinking and computer skills, in order to compete in the labor market. Crudely put, if they are not equipped to put something on the table, they will not be at the table of opportunity in the 21st century.

The challenge is especially daunting for low-income youngsters in struggling inner-city schools who start out so far away from the table. Yet, if the rhetoric that reformers espouse--"All children can learn"--is ever to become reality, the pace of positive change in urban school districts must escalate--and soon.

I confess that I am no student of systemic change. But my experience as a participant and observer in several social movements over the last quarter century prompts a few thoughts that might be worth pondering. It strikes me there are several levers for effecting systemic educational change:

  • Establishing national academic goals that set competency standards for all students to meet, and all school systems are responsible for seeing that their students meet.

  • Formulating a crisp and convincing vision of the kind of education we want for all children and communicating that vision aggressively so that opinion leaders and the public, including non-parents, business leaders, and the media, understand and embrace the vision.
  • Providing adequate financing for public education so that educators have the wherewithal to do their work and all children have equitable access to the learning tools, from textbooks to technology, to profit fully from instruction.
  • Modernizing teacher training, induction, and professional development so that educators have the skills and, in Howard Gardner's parlance, habits of mind to serve children in all socioeconomic circumstances well.
  • Empowering parents and guardians to function as sophisticated, insistent, and, yes, constructive consumers of their children's education.
  • Providing for some form of choice within public school systems to keep educators on their toes and to give parents genuine options to change schools if they are unhappy.
  • Making certain there is an adequate developmental infrastructure in place after school and over the summer to support the social and intellectual development of youngsters, especially preteens and teenagers, in ways that reinforce their formal education.
  • Having listed these ingredients of change, I am less sure of the recipe for bringing each about. But this I do know: The knowledge base about how to educate poor children exists, from the classroom innovations of maverick educators to the work of noted school reformers. We can no longer be content with sterling examples of world-class education in scattered inner-city classrooms. And we can no longer tolerate reams of excuses from principals and teachers in those very schools about why this cannot be done building wide.

    For the sake of poor children as well as for the future of public education, reformers must not be reticent about pressing for pervasive change.

    Public education enjoys solid support in many communities, especially comfortable suburbs. But urban school systems are increasingly coming under fire for poor performance. It is folly to expect alternatives like vouchers and privatization to fade away.

    There is an increasing skepticism the world over about big public bureaucracies and a growing fascination with nongovernmental organizations and the private sector as more nimble, efficient, and accountable providers of services long considered public. Corporations, foundations, and community groups have invested heavily in education reform. If they lose heart and head for the hills along with disenchanted parents, public education could lose some stalwart and influential allies.

    Public education receives moral and financial support from businesses, the nonprofit sector, community leaders, and, of course, parents. Why? They intrinsically recognize that education, specifically public education, means something to us as a democracy. So these citizens look for ways to improve their neighborhood schools. Not only to turn out better writers and more proficient mathematicians, but also to promulgate a more informed and responsible citizenry.

    Reformers and maverick educators have searched furtively for interventions that make a demonstrable difference in the lives of poor children. They've endeavored to alter, among other things, the behavior of school bureaucracies. This is grueling, often exasperating, and lonely work.

    Meanwhile, those who don't believe much in government-run institutions have gleefully crowed, "I told you so." Their answer is to privatize public education, even though this might shortchange many poor children. Advocates of public education should not underestimate the simplistic appeal of this anti-government message. If the pace and spread of reform does not accelerate soon, the quest to improve urban education could lose ground to those who espouse a radically different vision of, in Rush Limbaugh's words, "the way things ought to be."

    I recall arguing five years ago that the end of the millennium would prompt all manner of soul-searching about what is working and what is not in America. I suggested back then that urban districts had a decade at the outside to shore up their credibility and to recapture the public's confidence.

    The seismic elections last November, and their aftermath, confirm that such soul-searching is now well under way, at least within the souls of lawmakers. Many programmatic cows long considered sacred are feeling the Congressional scalpel. The Education Department is fighting to justify its very existence. Even Big Bird seems destined to have his wings clipped.

    ~A Nation at Risk, published over a decade ago, sounded the clarion call to arms for school reform. There followed a decade of useful experimentation and thoughtful innovation to discover what works. We found much that does work. It's time now to take school reform to the next plateau by reaffirming why the reforms that are so crucial--to children, to public education as an institution, and, finally, to democracy.

    Vol. 14, Issue 30, Pages 36-37

    Published in Print: April 19, 1995, as 'We Must Press for Pervasive Change'
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