Teacher's Guide To School Reform

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In mid-March, the New American Schools Development Corp., a creature of President Bush's America 2000 strategy, announced--with some amazement--that 686 teams had submitted proposals in the nationwide competition for 30 grants to create "break-the-mold schools.'' The proposals came from every state except South Dakota; the teams included thousands of individuals and involved 240 school systems, 226 businesses, 140 colleges and universities, and 136 think tanks, associations, and foundations. This unexpectedly large response, officials say, is dramatic evidence that the message of the past decade is finally being heard: America needs new schools for the new century.

But less optimistic observers worry that even if the message is being heard, it is not being taken to heart by the general public or even a significant proportion of professional educators. National polls have consistently shown that while people acknowledge that there are serious problems with the nation's schools, they think those in their own communities are doing just fine, thank you. And there is ample empirical evidence to suggest that many teachers and administrators are not wellinformed about the major reform efforts or tend to view them as educational fads that will soon pass, just as nearly all previous reform ideas have passed. New teachers entering the profession are even less likely to be plugged into the reform agenda because few schools of education have incorporated it into their programs.

Nonetheless, the current school reform movement has demonstrated remarkable staying power. Popularized in April 1983 by the much quoted "rising tide of mediocrity'' report, it has steadily gathered momentum, rolling into the 1990s with powerful support from many quarters. President Bush and the nation's governors have formulated a set of national education goals to be met by the year 2000. Virtually every state has embarked on major school improvement plans, as have many school districts. Congress is expected to act this spring on the first federal legislation in history that earmarks significant funding for systemic change in K-12 education.

Leaders in business and industry have become more deeply involved in school reform activity than ever before. Corporations have significantly increased support for precollegiate public education, and many of them have developed school improvement programs of their own. AT&T, for example, has committed $3 million to its "Teachers for Tomorrow'' program; the Annie E. Casey Foundation has earmarked $50 million over 10 years for its "New Futures'' project for systemic change in five school districts; the Panasonic Foundation has supported a school-restructuring project for several years that now operates in nine school districts. Scores of general philanthropic and community foundations are also actively funding and working for school reform.

Even the two major teachers' unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, have broadened their focus from traditional bread and butter issues to school reform issues.

There are literally thousands of programs and projects under way in the United States to improve one aspect or another of the educational system. Indeed, the efforts to reform schools and improve the educational system are so widespread, so diverse, and so uncoordinated that nobody has the complete picture of what is happening. But even a partial picture makes clear that the level of activity is unprecedented.

What follows is intended to be a primer on school reform--a teachers' guide to some of the movement's more prominent ideas, programs, and projects. This report begins with an in-depth look at one of the newest and most rapidly spreading school reform ideas: Total Quality Management. The other reform efforts have been grouped under three broad headings: Changing Schools and Classrooms, Changing the Profession, and Changing the System. But like the problems they address, these efforts overlap and do not fall neatly into any single category. Many of the specific reform efforts, for example, reflect recent findings in research on cognition, and they share basic concepts about teacher and student empowerment, school restructuring, and the use of educational technology. Some focus on a specific part of the education system but are designed to leverage change throughout the system. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, for example, was created to help make teaching a profession like architecture or law. But its founders believe that its success will also compel change throughout the system, from the way teachers are prepared to the way schools are organized and operated.

Teacher Magazine already has reported in depth on a number of these reform programs and will continue to do so in future issues. This special section does not purport to include all of the school reform projects worthy of notice, but rather to summarize in one place some of the major efforts and ideas that may shape tomorrow's schools. --The Editors

Vol. 03, Issue 08, Page 1-24

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