What Schools Don't Need Is Another Revolution


If I grasp "The Lessons of Change: Baltimore Schools in theModern Era," by Mike Bowler, a brief history of our times commissioned by the Fund for Educational Excellence, it doesn't matter who will be appointed superintendent of Baltimore schools. The lesson I glean is that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

He recounts the comings and goings of superintendents, the struggles of school boards, the new programs that came and went, the revolutions proclaimed and abandoned. This is must reading for any candidate for superintendent, any school commissioner or any mayor.

From a parents-eye view of the city schools and some years of journalistic watching, both now ended, I came to a few conclusions of simple principles that would come into play in any improvement.

The first is that revolutions are phony and fail. The goal should be for a concrete and undeniable gain, however small. And then another. Victory by increment, each building confidence.

The second is that education takes place, or does not, in the classroom. The amount of teacher attention per pupil is everything. That means class size, decorum, distractions. And while I listened to experts pronounce that this has never been proved, I observed that every teacher and pupil from first grade on believed it.

The third is that throwing money at the problem is the solution. Otherwise, why do the wealthiest subdivisions keep doing it with success? But the money should be thrown where students meet teachers, not where they don't.

And the fourth is that any policy struggle alienating people who are needed in the cause is harmful. Defeat the bureaucracy, or the blacks, or the whites, or the teachers, or business, or the politicians, or parents, or taxpayers, and you have destroyed the alliance you need. Whether Roland Patterson (superintendent 1971-5) was good or bad, the struggle over him was tough on the children, whose interests were sacrificed to fighting over Roland Patterson.

It is against these four points that I judge every proposal for change.

Most accept the premise that no more money can be thrown at the problem and some simple flip of a lever must do it all. And I judge them on whether they will have an immediate beneficial effect; whether they direct more resources to the classroom or withdraw resources from it; whether they exclude or include interested parties.

Look at them:

Someone in the Greater Baltimore Committee after long frustration with the bureaucracy says a revolution is needed. That means chaos, struggle, anger, focused on the politics of education, not on education.

Someone says that the state Department of Education should take over city schools. That means a bitter political struggle in which education would be forgotten.

Someone says an African-centered curriculum should be imposed on a system that thought it had one. Anything that requires teaching materials to be junked and new ones written is taking resources away from the schools for a political agenda.

Mastery learning, more testing: Anything that says teachers have to be taken out of the classroom for retraining, raises class size and reduces education.

Accountability -- the current buzzword that unites liberals and conservatives (no mean feat). What does it mean? Probably that principals would be diverted from doing their job to proving that they had, with a whole new set of forms.

Any new superintendent's blueprint for rearranging the cubby-holes at North Avenue: Everything stops, all hope of attention to what goes on in the classroom, till we get that right. By the time it is seen to be irrelevant, superintendent and blueprints have moved on.

Whatever it is that President Bush proposed for his education presidency ("the business of inventing new schools for a new world"). What he did was to turn for ideas to the federal Department of Education, which does not deal with schools but with other departments of education. It would increase resources to the interfacing of bureaucracies and create one school for every congressman to make other schools look inadequate.

Any proposal for privatizing schools leading to the break-up of the public school system. Only a healthy public school system will avoid abandoning half the children.

More standardized testing, as if there wasn't enough now. Both state and federal departments are imposing new tests. Less must be taught so that more time and funds can be devoted to testing whether any of it stuck.

School-based management. Successful schools with strong principals and determined parents exercise it now. But if it becomes a mandatory exercise in accounting for non-accountants, it is going to distract principals from supervising their classrooms.

So quit declaring revolutions and get on with the job. Make one school better. Then another. Reduce class size across the board. Even by one.

If everyone whose job is to redesign curriculum didn't, teachers would teach what they already know, books would be good until they wear out, more professional staff would teach, class size would be smaller and the children would learn more.

But the trick is to keep the enthusiasm of everyone who disagrees. Without them, nothing will get done.

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