School & District Management Opinion

But Then What?

By Kalman R. Hettleman — March 12, 1997 7 min read

The Baltimore city schools are headed for a radical city-state restructuring of governance. In November, the mayor of Baltimore and the governor of Maryland settled two lawsuits over school aid. Subject to approval by the state legislature, the city is to receive an additional $254 million over five years. The governor would get to jointly appoint with the mayor the members of the city school board from a list submitted by the state board of education. The position of superintendent would be changed to that of a chief executive officer who need not have education experience. (“Deal Gives State New Role in Baltimore Schools, Boosts Aid,” Nov. 20, 1996, and “Md. Counties Take Aim At Baltimore Aid Proposal,”Feb. 12, 1997.)

But then what? Despite its unique form, this would still be a reorganization at the top--the school reform that’s been tried and failed the most. Superintendents and boards come and go like football coaches after losing seasons. State takeovers of low-achieving local districts in New Jersey and elsewhere have by and large produced scant student gains. And the jury is still out on the new management structures in Chicago and Washington. Moreover, the additional state dollars for Baltimore aren’t such a big deal either. The extra $50 million a year would amount to only 7.5 percent of the current school budget, not much more than enough to cover inflation and teacher-pay parity with the suburbs.

So, if the state legislature, as expected, approves the settlement, the new city-state board members will be frantically trying to figure out what reform policies might actually improve the academic performance of the city’s overwhelmingly low-income and poor-performing students. I have a “top 10" list of policies for their consideration. Unlike the other guy who regularly compiles top-10 lists, I begin with the most important one first.

1. It’s the classroom, stupid. Poor Johnny or Jennifer can’t read or compute because school reform has failed to focus on the only place it can succeed: in classroom instruction and teacher-student interactions. The national school reform debate is dominated by ideology and over-simplification--for example, choice (especially privatization and school vouchers) and teachers'-union-bashing on the right and politically correct diversity and money-is-all-that-matters on the left. Yet, as David Tyack and Larry Cuban make clear in Tinkering Toward Utopia--A Century of School Reform, schools only change “from the inside out.” The city-state board in Baltimore should not adopt any policy that does not carry with it a classroom-impact statement: How will it improve the everyday learning process between students and teachers?

2. Develop a coherent core curriculum with detailed lesson plans and stick to it. Teachers are falsely portrayed as obstructionists to reform. Resistance and rejection occur, say education historians, when innovations are fads that ignore classroom realities. One chronic reality is the experience of one innovation being piled upon another, with little regard for consistency and overload. Teachers want a compromise truce in the Hundred Years’ War between pedagogical traditionalists and progressives and will support clear standards and instructional tools. Moreover, the astronomical rate at which inner-city children change schools--probably one-third move annually in Baltimore--alone requires common curriculum content and teaching methods.

3. Draw up a list of instructional best practices and link additional money to them. Not enough is known about what works and doesn’t work among the myriad reforms being tested across the country. Kenneth G. Wilson, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, has written a book lamenting the absence in education of the research and development that has led to strategic growth in industry and science; the process, he states, “has no counterpart in our schools.” The most unheralded provision of the Baltimore settlement is the creation of a strong R&D unit in the city school system. Every new budget proposal should carry a justification that is research-based. In time, the budget should be rebuilt from ground zero based on R&D.

Special education dollars are supposed to follow the children, but that’s unlikely to happen in these tight budget times.

4. Rein in special education. Too much effort nationally and locally has gone into procedural compliance at the expense of instructional improvement. But beware of pushing “inclusion"--that is, putting special education students in regular classrooms--too far, too fast. Inclusion models are still in their infancy but clearly require extensive training and costly supports for regular teachers. Yet part of inclusion’s popularity stems from the hope that it will save money. Special education dollars are supposed to follow the children, but that’s unlikely to happen in these tight budget times, despite the additional state money and the best intentions of educators and advocates.

5. Beef up bureaucracy. No kidding. Sure, there’s some deadwood. But more typically, middle-management capacity--not just in R&D but in budget, planning, accounting, auditing, personnel, facilities, and information systems--is excessively sacrificed on the altar of unspecified bureaucratic waste. For example, Advocates for Children and Youth, a local group, found that Baltimore’s research and evaluation unit had about one-tenth the number of staff members as a similar unit in a comparable urban district in another state. An independent management audit should be conducted to determine the adequacy of staff positions and skills in all core administrative functions.

6. Don’t create unrealistic expectations about school-based management. School improvement teams, with extensive teacher and parent involvement, must play a vital role. But there are limits to any individual school community’s ability to develop or specify the best instructional practices. Research shows that school-based management rarely affects classroom practice or student achievement. Schools with persistently poor test scores should be required to choose from among a menu of programs known to work or hold promise.

7. Don’t expect solutions from the state. State performance standards are a commendable step in the right direction. But they only tell you what you’re doing wrong, not how to get it right. Most state educators, like their city counterparts, are dedicated and hard-working. But they don’t know any more about school reform (there’s a revolving door among state and local officials) and need more capacity of their own to fulfill expanded R&D and technical-assistance responsibilities. The Council of Chief State School Officers put it this way in a 1995 report: “Test results tell us what students know and can do, but they do not tell us why achievement is poor or how to improve it. ... Information on instructional practice, curriculum content, and other conditions must be collected and disseminated in effective ways.”

8. Don’t scapegoat the teachers’ unions. Collaborative management models work best, and the Baltimore Teachers Union has been reasonably open to working cooperatively on several pilot reforms. Nationally, its parent body, the American Federation of Teachers, has boldly supported higher academic standards, more rigorous teacher certification, tougher discipline, and instructional innovations. AFT and National Education Association affiliates also lend political muscle to poor school districts that are increasingly powerless.

9. Don’t expect schools to solve all social problems. Historically, the nation has asked public schools to take on tasks that are social, economic, and political as well as educational. Today, more than ever, the temptation and tendency is to saddle schools with family and community duties that are beyond their expertise and create unrealistic workloads. Most such responsibilities--for example, student service learning and the delivery of social services to families--are worthwhile but, in the real world of daily schooling and painful priorities, dilute the focus on classroom instruction.

10. Be accessible and open to criticism, yet resolute. Don’t hype your plans or pander to the pressure for quick fixes. Balance responsiveness with steadfastness. Many school innovations get freshly planted, but as the saying goes, politicians and education policymakers keep pulling up the roots to see if they’re growing fast enough. Also, as in Chicago, employ an outsider to do insider audits that spot breakdowns in implementation of management and instructional policies.

And, oh yes, stock up on antacid and headache pills. Thanks for giving it your all, and good luck.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 12, 1997 edition of Education Week


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