May/June 1992

This Issue
Vol. 03, Issue 08

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When George Lucas was honored at this year's Academy Awards ceremony, the producer and director took a moment to thank a group of people whose hard work often goes unrecognized. Said Lucas: "I'd especially like to thank a group of devoted individuals who, apart from my parents, have done the most to shape my life-- my teachers. From kindergarten through college, their struggle--and it was a struggle--to help me learn and grow was not in vain and is greatly appreciated.'' Moviemakers are also teachers, he added, "but we will never match the power of the teacher who is able to whisper in a student's ear.''
It's embarrassing to admit, but I didn't become a reader or writer until after I became an elementary school principal. This is a curious revelation coming from a man who devotes so much energy touting the glory of reading and writing to children.

Of course, I exaggerate a little. I formally learned to read and write in the 1st grade. Like other kids my age, I could translate those little black squiggles into meaningful letters, words, and sentences. But I hated it. This childhood loathing arose more from attitude than aptitude and was shaped by powerful forces in my environment.

Thirty or more times every week, Pam Lott, like the Avon lady, knocks on doors throughout Grandview, Mo., and makes her pitch. Only she's not selling bubble bath or lipstick. She's selling parents on school.

As a home-school counselor for Consolidated School District No. 4, it's Lott's job to get parents more involved in the education of their children. She is perhaps the best known emissary of Parents as Educational Partners, a 5-yearold program that has produced significant increases in school attendance and grades in three elementary schools in this bluecollar suburb of Kansas City. She is also one of a growing number of educators throughout the country who are refusing to sit back and wait for parents to come to them.

Overheard recently:

"Battered women are afraid to speak out. This isn't right. We need to do something about it.''

"We need more positive role models for youths to let them know there's something better out there.''

Almost everyone involved in trying to improve schools agrees that no significant or lasting gains are possible without the commitment of a wellinformed, motivated, and professional teaching force. Reformers are working to change virtually every aspect of the teaching profession, from the recruitment and training of new members-- especially minority candidates who are in alarmingly short supply--to the provision of lifelong continuing education for classroom teachers.

Organizations, foundations, and individuals are concentrating their energies on making teaching a true profession. They are seeking changes in the way teachers are prepared, how they are evaluated and certified, their continuing professional development, and their compensation and working conditions. Reform efforts include payfor-performance plans, career ladders, mentor teaching, alternative certification, peer evaluation, and a variety of professional development networks.

While efforts to restructure America's public schools multiply, most prospective teachers are still being prepared for the traditional, teachercentered, textbook-dominated classroom. The school reform movement, many of its leaders point out, has not made much of an impact on the nation's schools of education.

A special report in Education Week last year began this way: "Battered from the outside and subject to increasing scrutiny from within, teacher training remains one of the most troubled and castigated enterprises on the educational landscape.'' The report called colleges of education the "weak link in the drive to improve the nation's schools.''

In another year or two, teachers may be able to earn national certification, which, in turn, may earn them higher pay, a greater say in decisionmaking, and more autonomy on the job.

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards was established in 1987 with the goal of raising the status of teaching to that of other professions. Toward that end, the board, the majority of whose 63 members are teachers, has defined what professional teachers should know and be able to do. Now it is hard at work developing assessments that teachers will have to pass to become certified--assessments that go well beyond pencil and paper tests.

'It takes a whole village to raise a child.''

This is a proverb that rings true to thousands of teachers struggling to overcome the crushing problems that so many children bring to their classrooms. The proverb is also at the heart of the School Development Program that Yale University child psychiatrist James Comer has spent a quarter of a century building.

According to Phillip Schlechty, the nation's schools traditionally have been organized around the work of teachers and admin- istrators or around the particular interests of local school boards, political factions, or interest groups.

Schlechty, a prominent national educator, has formed the Center for Leadership in School Reform in Louisville, Ky., to create schools that are organized around the work that students do.

In the early 1980s, Stanley Pogrow, an associate professor of education at the University of Arizona, watched Chapter 1 students make modest gains in basic skills through drill-and-practice yet remain unable to retain or apply what they learned.

He saw what elementary teachers have long noticed--that many disadvantaged students seem to do well in the first three grades then begin to fall behind in the 4th grade.

Restructuring is, arguably, the most overused word in the lexicon of school reform. It is an umbrella for so many ideas, concepts, and practices that teachers can be forgiven if they are uncertain and confused about what it means. Indeed, in its most comprehensive sense, restructuring is almost a synonym for school reform, meaning to change substantially the ways schools are organized and operated. Under that definition, most of the specific reform efforts described below, from Theodore Sizer's Coalition of Essential Schools to James Comer's School Development Program, are restructuring projects.

Some schools have tinkered a bit with their curriculum or their schedule and declared themselves to be restructured. But the essentials of genuine school restructuring are:

In July 1966, University of Chicago sociologist James Coleman finished Equality of Educational Opportunity, which asserted that schools were generally ineffective in breaking the poverty cycle. The "Coleman Report,'' as it came to be known, gave rise to the widespread notion--a misinterpretation, according to Coleman--that schools cannot make much difference in the lives of poor children. In some measure, the Coleman Report spawned the effective schools movement, by provoking a number of research studies to determine whether this notion was true or false.

The late Ron Edmonds, Harvard professor and the father of the effective schools movement in the United States, defined the characteristics of the effective school and put them into practice in a number of poor schools in New York City. Today, thousands of schools--in 42 percent of the nation's districts, according to one recent estimate--are basing their programs and procedures on effective schools research.

The belief that schools should help children learn to look out for others in addition to themselves is not new. But in a society pervaded by the spirit of competition, relatively few classrooms are organized and run cooperatively.

Nonetheless, some of the ideas of the cooperative learning movement have found their way into a number of specific reform programs, like Henry Levin's Accelerated Schools and Theodore Sizer's Essential Schools. And a decade-long landmark study in California's San Ramon Valley, known as the Child Development Project, is stirring interest among teachers across the nation.

It has been called a "grassroots revolution''--individual teachers in schools across the country quietly reorganizing their classrooms and changing their teaching methods to reflect an emerging philosophy of how children learn.

Whole language--not to be confused with "whole word''--is often thought of as a way to teach reading. It is frequently discussed as a controversial alternative to the well-entrenched phonetic method of reading instruction. But whole language is about much more than instruction in reading and literacy. It's about empowerment and the role of teachers, students, and texts in education. It's about who controls what goes on in the classroom: whether educational decisions will be made by teachers and students or by administrators, curriculum developers, and the publishers of tests and textbooks.

Technology may have more potential to change the way teachers teach and the way students learn than any single reform effort. But virtually everyone agrees that the promise of technology is a long way from being fulfilled.

The hardware certainly has found its way into schools: Videocassette recorders, televisions, tape recorders, and calculators are commonplace. Nine out of 10 schools have at least some computers, and a handful have CDROM players, multimedia equipment, local-area networks, and the most up-to-date software.

In 1988, a group of Indianapolis elementary teachers were so impressed with the ideas in Howard Gardner's 1983 book, Frames of Mind, that they drove across the country to visit the Harvard psychologist in his Cambridge, Mass., office. When they returned home, they began to create a new public school--the Key School--based on Gardner's theories of "multiple intelligences.''

Gardner has not formed a network of schools to spread his ideas, but his theories--expressed in books, research papers, lectures, and demonstration projects--have influenced teachers and schools from coast to coast.

Formed in 1984, the Coalition of Essential Schools is an umbrella organization that provides support and guidance for a network of schools that are "reinventing'' themselves on the basis of a set of principles formulated by reformer and author Theodore Sizer.

Sizer believes that there is no one model of the successful school and that effective reform must be a school by school--even classroom by classroom--effort. He rejects top-down mandates and standardized solutions, arguing that schools are fragile places that gain their stability from subtle accommodation to the needs, character, strengths, and weaknesses of the communities in which they exist.

For as long as anyone can remember, the conventional wisdom has been that the way to deal with failing students is to slow them down or pull them out of the classroom for remediation. To Stanford education professor Henry Levin, this seems more like conventional stupidity. He proposes, instead, that schools speed up the instruction of disadvantaged children so that they can catch up to their more advantaged peers.

Levin's ideas took shape in the early 1980s as he conducted research with "at-risk'' children. Says Levin: "I don't like the term 'at risk.' As soon as you think of kids in need of repair, what you do is repair.''

One of the newest and most sweeping proposals of the reform movement, the controversial effort to establish national standards and assessments has risen to the top of the education agenda with astonishing speed.

The term "standards'' is shorthand for what American students should know and be able to do; and the term assessments refers to methods of monitoring and measuring students' progress.

No reform issue is more hotly debated than the concept of introducing marketplace competition into education by allowing parents to choose the schools their children attend. And the air turns blue when the calls for open enrollment include offering vouchers or tax credits to allow students to choose private schools.

Some elements of choice have long existed within public education--magnet schools, alternative schools, schools within schools. But the thrust of parental choice as a reform tool is to break up the monopoly of public education, to shake up the bureaucracy and force schools to compete for students by raising quality, and to give parents as consumers more say in the governance and operation of schools.

As teachers know, the stresses on children become stresses on the school. If kids come to classrooms hungry or if they are homeless, abused, in trouble with the law, or in poor health, they are not likely to get much from school. And they are even less likely to make a positive contribution.

That fact has prompted an everwidening discussion about how schooling should be coordinated with the activities of a variety of public and private agencies that provide social services for children.

When Steve Iachini speaks about W. Edwards Deming, his voice takes on the slight tremor of the initiate. But it hasn't always been that way. When Iachini, assistant superintendent for accountability in the Pinellas County (Fla.) School District, first heard about Deming through a seminar, his reaction was anything but positive.

Voucher-Style Choice Upheld

In a ruling hailed by parental choice advocates, the Wisconsin Supreme Court in March upheld the experimental Milwaukee program that allows a limited number of children from low-income families to attend nonsectarian private schools at state expense.

Public educational reform can be defined as that process by which administrators develop and implement new ideas this year for the purpose of helping the public forget those that failed to take hold last year. So rest in peace, ``site-based management.''

I very much wish we could hang in there. The central idea is sound. But there are reasons to be pessimistic. Like the politically late Mikhail Gorbachev, too many are trying hard to imagine a process with which they have had little or no experience. And by the way, hello "strategic planning'' or whatever comes next.

There are lots of schools in this country that are really school based. But they are not public. They are called independent, parochial, or private schools.

There is some evidence to suggest that these prospective teachers have only a vague idea of the professional terrain they are about to travel-- that they don't really know how money moves in education, where the power lies, how policy is made or what impact it may or may not have on them and their classrooms. Those topics aren't part of the traditional education school curriculum.

The majority of these new teachers will likely find that being on the other side of the desk in the classroom is much different than they expected. They will encounter situations that they did not anticipate and were not prepared for. And, if past statistics are a reliable guide, 30 to 50 percent of them will leave teaching within the first five years--many out of frustration and disappointment.

While rummaging around in some old books, I found a speech purported to have been delivered at the opening of Heidelberg University in or around 1500. The address stands on its own merits and I shall not comment further on it. Unfortunately, the speaker's name has been lost in antiquity. Here is the speech.

Honored Chancellor, Esteemed Doctors, Fellow Pedagogues, and Worthy Guests:

School Boards

I want to take this opportunity to applaud the recent article by Dennis Evans titled "Eliminate School Boards'' [Viewpoint, April]. It took a bold professional to address this sensitive issue. I am an educator with 15 years of experience, the past five in public school administration as a principal, who has found great truth in Evans' statement: "The leadership and governance of schools should not be subject to the same political pressures, compromises, and deal-making that characterize local, state, and national levels of government.'' My personal experience is that many school boards and board members pay lip service to the concept of "putting children's interests first'' and make most of their decisions based on political influence and self-serving personal needs.

Classroom-based research-- testing a pedagogical theory by observing real students in real classrooms-- is nothing new. To some extent, every good teacher informally observes whether a certain method of teaching is actually working with his or her students. But in the past decade, as the effort to professionalize teachers has gained momentum, the concept of teacher as researcher has taken new shape.

Across the country, teachers are asking questions about teaching and learning, and they are looking to their own students for answers. Their questions range from broad ("Under what conditions do recent immigrants from Vietnam learn to read?'') to specific ("What happens when I divide my students into ability groups for math?'').

Bread and butter used to be the only items on the table of the nation's largest teachers' union, the National Education Association. Labor-flavored stuff, such as wages and job security, has been the union's primary fare. But a new NEA endeavor called the National Center for Innovation illustrates an added dimension to the union's philosophy: a concern about the character of the teaching profession-- not just the conditions.

Established in 1989 to foster creative and effective change in teaching and teacher preparation, NCI has four main components. The first two--the Excellence in Action Program and the Teacher Education Initiative-- were created to identify successful educational programs and to work with several universities to redesign teacher preparation and induction programs. The other projects--the Mastery in Learning Consortium and the Learning Laboratories Initiative--support real reform efforts in individual schools and districts.

Like the NEA, the American Federation of Teachers has become involved in a number of reform activities. Two of its projects involve work with specific school districts across the country. The Leadership for Reform project links seven school districts with more than 20 local educational experts. This network supports the schools as they restructure. And the Urban District Assessment Consortium is a three-year cooperative effort with Boston College's Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy to help urban school districts develop and implement alternative assessments.

The AFT is also getting involved in reforming the teacher education process. Its Professional Practice Schools program is a network of public schools working closely with universities to provide a different kind of training for preservice teachers and the employed teachers at the school.

Coming Soon:

Ushering in a new approach to test taking, the Educational Testing Service plans to inaugurate a system that will enable students to take examinations on a nationwide computer system. The system, which will begin this fall for students taking the Graduate Record Examination, is expected to expand next year to include other ETS tests, including the National Teacher Examinations and perhaps eventually the Scholastic Aptitude Test. The new system will enable students to take tests at their convenience, receive scores the same day, and immediately send them to colleges and employers.