Fixing the System From the Top Down

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On April 26, 1983, the afternoon papers and evening television newscasts led with a startling story: A federal report released that morning proclaimed that a widespread failure of public schools had placed the nation “at risk.” A blue-ribbon panel, appointed by the U.S. secretary of education, decried “a rising tide of mediocrity” in education that was eroding the very foundation of society.

With unusually powerful rhetoric, the 60-page document began: “Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.” And it concluded that “if an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

In 18 months of hearings, debate, and study, the National Commission on Excellence in Education had found little excellence. Instead, it encountered widespread deterioration of student achievement. The report cited, among other evidence, a steady decline in average Scholastic Aptitude Test scores from 1963 to 1980; “consistent declines” in such subjects as physics and English, as measured by College Board achievement tests; and, between 1975 and 1980, a 72 percent increase in the number of remedial mathematics courses taught in public four-year colleges.

To address these ills, A Nation at Risk offered specific recommendations, including: strengthening high school graduation requirements; increasing standards and expectations for student performance; lengthening the school day and the school year; and improving the teaching profession through higher standards and higher salaries.

Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell later recalled the attention given to the release of the report: “Our press-clipping service revealed that the commission's report was on the front page of all the major newspapers in every city—small, medium, and large—across the nation. Phone calls and letters poured in from across the country. We had hit a responsive chord. Education was on everyone's front burner.”

Although A Nation at Risk is credited with launching the current national effort to reform education, limited efforts had been under way in a number of states since the mid-1970's. And many of them reflected a disenchantment with teachers.

By the end of 1981, 18 states required competency testing for teacher certification, and 13 states required such tests for admission to teacher-training programs. Several months before A Nation at Risk, California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig announced a basic-skills test to screen prospective teachers. “I realize that this means some candidates won't receive a California teaching credential,” he said at the time, “but our children have to come first.” Two months later, Honig proposed a sweeping plan that would impose statewide high school graduation requirements, lengthen the school day, provide higher salaries for starting teachers, and loosen procedures for dismissing teachers.

Also in 1983, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee became the first governor to propose a statewide career-ladder plan for teachers—which the legislature passed despite heavy opposition from the Tennessee Education Association (an affiliate of the National Education Association). But the excellence commission put the topic of school reform on the national agenda, and triggered a frenzied period of reform actions in virtually every state capitol. A 50-state survey conducted by Education Week at the end of 1983 found that:

  • More than 100 formal state commissions had been established to study public education and make recommendations for improvement. In 1983 alone, 54 state-level commissions were formed to study reform.
  • That same year, 33 states considered changes that would increase salaries and status for exemplary teachers. State legislatures in both California and Florida approved career-ladder plans for teachers.
  • Seven states—California, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, North Carolina, and North Dakota—had approved legislation to extend instructional time either statewide or in selected districts. Other states had considered extending the school day or requiring that the use of instructional time be improved.
  • In states with the most comprehensive reform packages, the changes were championed by governors. Former Govs. Robert Graham of Florida, William Winter of Mississippi, and Richard Riley of South Carolina, for example, worked with their legislatures through several sessions to enact sweeping reforms.
  • The Education Week survey and a follow-up report by Bell in the spring of 1984 made clear that the reform movement was essentially a “top-down” regulatory effort being driven by governors and legislators.

Many of the state actions seemed predicated on the notion that the main cause of educational failure was laxness, an abandonment of standards and accountability. The response, therefore, was more often than not to get tough: to raise standards, tighten accountability, increase testing, beef up curricular requirements, and demand better teachers and better teaching.

Two years later, another 50-state survey by Education Week found that “the drive to improve schools has generated an unprecedented level of legislative and policymaking activity in the states.” It took 18 tabloid pages of small type to publish the survey's results. Among its findings: 43 states had raised high school graduation requirements; 15 of those states required an exit test for graduation; 37 states had acted to institute statewide assessments of students; and 29 states had upgraded teacher-education requirements to include a mandatory competency test. In addition to increased accountability for teachers, some states had moved to recognize better teachers with better pay. And 18 states had increased teachers' salaries: Alabama, for example, increased salaries by 15 percent, bringing the statewide average to about $20,000. School reform was sweeping the nation, but not everyone was pleased with the manner in which it was being enacted. Wrote Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching: “It's ironic that while American business is beginning to recognize the importance of the worker, in education we still are trying to fix the system from the top down. The time has come to recognize that school renewal should be led, not just by politicians, but by educators, too. Principals and teachers must be given not only more responsibility but more empowerment as well.”

High School, Boyer's own critique of secondary education in America, had been published within months after A Nation at Risk. And it was soon followed by two other major reports, Theodore Sizer's Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School, and John Goodlad's A Place Called School.

About the only thing that these three books had in common with the Bell Commission report was their criticism of the nation's schools as currently organized and operated. But where A Nation at Risk concentrated on tightening standards and increasing accountability, the Boyer, Sizer, and Goodlad books stressed the need for radical restructuring of American education, including the empowering of teachers, to meet the needs of a changing society.

A Nation at Risk and its view of schooling clearly dominated the first phase of the reform movement, but by 1986, many were questioning the effectiveness of top-down reform. And some were beginning to advocate the bottom-up approach to school improvement recommended by Boyer, Sizer, and Goodlad. In this second phase of reform, two major themes were to emerge: the need to give special attention to “at-risk” students, and the need to professionalize and empower the nation's teachers.

The Excellence Commission's report found the nation at risk, but said nothing about at-risk students. That message was left for the National Coalition of Advocates for Students, whose 1985 report—Barriers to Excellence: Our Children at Risk—made the term “at-risk students” part of the reform lexicon.

“What the board did was spend the year listening to what people's experiences in schools were and what their worries were,” explained Joan McCarty First, director of the NCAS. “We wanted to find out why a large number of children continue to be excluded from schools, why a large number of children in school fail to learn conceptual and problem-solving skills, and why a large number of young people experience unemployment and underemployment in the workplace.”

The NCAS report was sharply critical of the top-down regulatory approach to school improvement for overlooking what it deemed the most serious problem facing schools: at-risk students. “Policymakers at many different levels talk of bringing excellence to schools and ignore the fact that hundreds of thousands of youngsters are not receiving even minimal educational opportunities guaranteed under law,” said the report, adding: “From the minute they walk into school, many low-income students get the message that society does not really care about their education, that schools expect little from them.”

These at-risk children—most often poor, nonwhite, handicapped, or female—cannot possibly benefit from a reform movement that emphasizes quantitative changes over qualitative changes, the report argued. “Schools, indeed, should set high standards,” it said. “But schools must also help all students meet those standards.” Raising standards for students who can't meet even the lower ones they now face simply forces more children to drop out, critics charged.

The NCAS report was followed by several others calling attention to the nation's neediest students and recommending massive efforts to bring them into the educational mainstream. Perhaps the most impassioned in its critique was the report of the Committee for Economic Development, an organization of the nation's largest business corporations. “Clearly, high standards and expectations are necessary if the high school diploma is once again to become a meaningful measure of educational achievement,” said the report, titled Children in Need: Investment Strategies for the Educationally Disadvantaged. “Yet raising standards for all students without increased efforts to help children who may not meet those standards will go only partway toward realizing the nation's educational goals. It will leave a significant proportion of the population underskilled and probably unemployable.”

What, then, should be done? The report urged “early and sustained intervention into the lives of at-risk children,” through prenatal and postnatal care for young mothers, preschool for disadvantaged 3- and 4-year-olds, increased parental participation in education, greater autonomy at the school site, and dropout-prevention programs that combine education with basic work skills.

Business, the report said, should become “a driving force” in the reform of education. “These children need a champion,” said Owen Butler, retired chairman of the Procter & Gamble Company and chairman of the subcommittee that produced the report. “Somebody who is accustomed to taking a long-range view of what our society needs has to step in, recognize this problem, and become an advocate for both more money and better programs. We think that businessmen are ideally suited to do that.”

Just as A Nation at Risk launched the regulatory phase of the reform movement, and Barriers to Excellence shifted the spotlight to at-risk children, a major report sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York called the nation's attention to the crucial role of America's teachers.

A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century, issued in 1986 by Carnegie's Task Force on Teaching as a Profession, garnered almost as much newspaper space and television time as A Nation at Risk. The report stressed the need for a new status and a new role for the nation's school teachers: “If the schools are to compete successfully with medicine, architecture, and accounting for staff, then teachers will have to have comparable authority in making the key decisions about the services they render,” said the report.

“Within the context of a limited set of clear goals for students set by state and local policymakers, teachers, working together, must be free to exercise their professional judgment as to the best way to achieve these goals. This means the ability to make—or at least to strongly influence—decisions concerning such things as the materials and instructional methods to be used, the staffing structure to be employed, the organization of the school day, the assignment of students, the consultants to be used, and the allocation of resources available to the school.”

Sharon Batson, an English teacher at Westbury High School in Houston, told Education Week, “All of us want this change. People who have not been in a classroom for 10 or 15 years are making decisions for us. They tell us what to teach and how to teach it and they don't even know the children. We know our students' needs. We can develop a curriculum as well as anyone else. I have no qualms about their defining the ends for the children. But they hired me to teach and they should trust me to do that.”

Her message—and that of the Carnegie Task Force—was simply that the time had come for teaching to make the transition from occupation to profession. The Carnegie report, prepared by a 14-member task force of business officials, educators, minority-group leaders, and state and national policymakers, laid down a number of specific recommendations, including:

  • Creating a National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to certify teachers.
  • Restructuring schools to provide a “professional environment” for teachers, giving them autonomy within the classroom while holding them accountable for student progress.
  • Introducing a new category of “lead teachers” who would guide and influence the activities of other teachers.
  • Requiring that teachers earn a bachelor's degree in the arts and sciences before entering the professional study of teaching.
  • Developing a new professional curriculum in graduate schools of education leading to a master's degree.
  • Mobilizing the nation's resources to prepare minorities for teaching careers.
  • Linking student performance to teacher compensation, and providing schools with the technology, services, and staff necessary for teacher productivity.
  • Making teachers' salaries competitive with those in other professions.

The essence of A Nation Prepared was that reform begins at home—schools must be restructured to permit teachers and principals to shape and manage them at the local level. Governors, legislatures, and district superintendents, for their part, need to remove regulatory restraints to allow for experimentation and change.

A year after the release of A Nation Prepared, there were notable examples across the country that its ideas were taking root and its recommendations were being incorporated into state legislation and school district policy.

A school-reform bill in Massachusetts, for example, was closely modeled on the proposals laid out in A Nation Prepared. And in Rochester, N.Y., the superintendent of schools and the president of the local teachers' union painstakingly negotiated a radical three-year contract based on the spirit and recommendations of the Carnegie report.

The Rochester agreement gained national attention and signaled that teachers' unions were ready to negotiate for school improvement as well as the traditional bread and butter issues. Similar contracts have been forged in cities such as Boston, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Miami, and Pittsburgh.

The 1980's have probably brought more ferment, more attention, and more change to American education than any other decade in history. But has the school-reform movement really improved schooling in the United States?

There is no shortage of skeptics—including some teachers. According to a survey of 13,500 teachers conducted last year by Ernest Boyer and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the school-reform movement deserved a C. One in five teachers gave it a D or F, and nearly half the teachers believed that morale within the profession had substantially declined since 1983. “We are troubled that the nation's teachers remain so skeptical,” wrote Boyer. “Why is it that teachers, of all people, are demoralized and largely unimpressed by the reform actions taken?”

More recently, U.S. Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos was equally critical in a news conference last spring asserting that the nation's educational performance is “stagnant.” “The good news is that the schools are not worse; the bad news is that we are not making progress,” Cavazos said. “We are standing still, and the problem is that it's been this way for three years in a row.”

Some reform-watchers, however, take a longer view. “I don't think we've gotten to the heart of the problem yet,” Theodore Sizer has said. “We're still talking about testing everybody and putting the screws on the existing system even more. The problem is the existing system. And until we face up to that unpleasant fact that the existing system has to change—we're not going to get the kinds of changes that everybody wants.”

Just as there is no consensus among reformers and reform-watchers about the accomplishments of the 1980's, there is no consensus about what the 1990's hold for the movement to improve schools. But there is unanimous agreement that the stakes are high—indeed, that perhaps more than ever before America's future is directly linked to the success of its educational system, and that teachers are the key to that success. “What is urgently needed—in the next phase of school reform—is a deep commitment to make teachers partners in renewal, at all levels,” says Boyer. “It's time to recognize that whatever is wrong with America's public schools cannot be fixed without the help of those already in the classroom.”

Vol. 01, Issue 01, Pages 50-55

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