Who Will Lead?

America's best hope for school reform rests with its teachers.

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The only way that America will ever get high-quality public schools is if teachers create them one by one. For this to happen, teachers will have to work together in their schools, reexamine what they are doing and why, and equip themselves with the knowledge and expertise to forge solutions. They will also have to recruit parents and students to their cause and persuade administrators and school boards to cooperate.

Though this task would require an enormous commitment, teachers have powerful incentives to undertake it. At the grand level, it would be an inestimable service to the nation and future generations of children. At the ground level, it would transform schools into learning centers where teachers and students could flourish.

Next to the kids, the nation's 3 million teachers have the greatest personal stake in the success of public schools. But unlike kids, teachers have the clout to make things happen. Many educators and ex-teachers serve in state legislatures. And through their unions, teachers influence policy at the federal, state, and local levels.

Unfortunately, teachers up to now have generally used their collective power to enhance or protect their own status. That may be changing. The leaders of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are calling on their members to put children first and make improving education top priority. Recently, AFT President Sandra Feldman proposed freeing schools from hiring restrictions--unions traditionally insist that teachers with the most seniority get first dibs on jobs--and empowering them to make personnel, financial, and curriculum decisions on their own. She urged teachers to take a bigger role in determining how "schools are organized, run, and staffed," and she called on them to negotiate new kinds of contracts "to meet the higher standards expected of students and teachers."

Our schools would be very different places if teachers heeded Feldman. It might happen if one teacher in each public school began to raise questions and challenge colleagues to act. That's not as Pollyanna-ish as it sounds. Teachers want to be professionals in a workplace that fosters professionalism. Certainly professionals acknowledge problems in their practice and work together to fix them. Isn't that what teachers would urge students to do?

We launched Teacher Magazine a decade ago because we believed that teachers are the bedrock of successful schools and that the best teachers are thoughtful, caring professionals who value information and understand the power of ideas. We wanted to tell stories that would inform teachers, provoke them to reexamine their practice and their schools, and inspire them to act individually and collectively to help schools succeed for all children.

We were influenced by A Nation Prepared, the 1986 report of the Carnegie Task Force on Teaching as a Profession. The report argued that in organizations of professionals, authority is vested not in supervisors but in the collegial relationships of the professionals themselves. "This does not mean no one is in charge," the task force wrote, "but it does mean that people practicing their profession decide what is to be done and how it is to be done within the constraints imposed by the larger goals of the organization."

At the time, this description did not fit most public schools. Authority prevailed over collegiality; teachers had little say in important decisions. Moreover, surveys made clear that most teachers did not see themselves as change agents. In fact, they weren't convinced that major reform was necessary at all. Idealistically--perhaps even naively--we hoped that Teacher Magazine would help bring a sea change in the way teachers think about themselves and about schools. By documenting the problems, presenting examples of best practice, and provoking thought about issues, we hoped to fan the spark of idealism that surely smolders in every teacher.

The country has seen significant social movements in the second half of this century: the civil rights, women's rights, environmental, and anti-Vietnam War movements, to name the most prominent. Each of these began as grassroots efforts, spreading from the committed few to the public as a whole. As the pressure mounted, it drove politics, shaped policy, and ultimately changed behavior.

The school reform movement differs from these other social movements in that it has been largely top-down. The president and Congress, governors and legislatures, business and education leaders, responding to dismal test scores, high dropout rates, and "a rising tide of mediocrity," have produced mountains of dictates and legislation, trying to pressure local districts and schools to change. In contrast to the unprecedented activity in the policy arena, there has been little action at the grassroots level. This is hard to understand. After all, the gains of the civil rights movement will amount to little if future generations of African Americans are too poorly educated to compete in our high-tech economy. Yet black community leaders and voters seem passive about the sorry state of the schools many black children attend. Hispanic students, a rapidly growing segment of the school-age population, are increasingly segregated in failing schools. Yet Hispanic leaders and voters rarely raise their voices in protest. Even in predominantly white suburban communities, parents seem complacent about the large numbers of students who just get by.

Policies alone, however well-crafted and well-intentioned, will not create the schools we need for the next century. Leadership from the top is vital but insufficient. The indispensable missing ingredient is concerted and cooperative action at the school level. Teachers should be in the vanguard, advocating change and urging parents and others to work for better schools. Unfortunately, teachers are too often hunkered down and defensive, unprepared and ill-equipped to meet the new demands placed on them.

Americans basked this summer in the World Cup victory of their women's soccer team. There is an important lesson here for school reformers: Real change takes persistent action by many individuals over a long period of time. The grassroots movement for women's rights in the 1960s led to the passage in 1972 of Title IX, which mandated equality for women in school sports. It was a radical idea, and there was great resistance. But perseverance produced steady progress that culminated in the profound social change that the World Cup title symbolizes.

There is a solution for every problem plaguing American education. Successful schools dot the landscape from Maine to New Mexico, Florida to Oregon. We have programs and policies in place to improve all our schools. What we lack, what we're still waiting for, are committed, persistent individuals in each school to lead the way. Who will step forward?

Vol. 11, Issue 01, Pages 7-8

Published in Print: August 11, 1999, as Who Will Lead?
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