It's the classroom, stupid


THE BIG QUESTION for the new city-state education partnership is: Now what? If approved by the General Assembly, the city receives $50 million a year in additional state aid, and the state gets a major role in school policy-making.

But that's the easy part. What's elusive, as other urban school systems undergoing radical restructuring have found out, are reform policies that improve the academic performance of low-achieving students.

Here is a top-10 list of policies for the new board's consideration. Unlike the other guy who compiles top-10 lists, I begin with the most important one first.

1. It's the classroom, stupid. Poor Johnny can't read or compute because school reform has failed to focus on the only place it can succeed: classroom instruction and teacher-student interactions.

The national school-reform debate is dominated by ideology and over-simplification -- for example, privatization and public-school vouchers on the right and cultural diversity and money-is-all-that-matters on the left.

Every school-board policy should carry with it a classroom-impact statement: How will it improve the everyday learning process between students and teachers?

2. Develop a coherent core curriculum with detailed lesson plans, and stick to it. Teachers are falsely portrayed as obstructionists to reform. But education historians say that resistance and rejection occur when innovations are fads that ignore classroom realities. One innovation is piled upon another, with little regard for consistency and overload. Teachers will support clear standards and instructional tools.

3. Develop a list of best instructional practices, and link additional money to them. Not enough is known about what works and doesn't work among the myriad school reforms being tested across the country.

The most unheralded provision of the city-state settlement is the creation of a strong research-and-development capacity in the city department. Every new budget proposal should carry a justification that is research-based. In time, the budget should be rebuilt from ground zero.

4. Rein in special education. Too much effort nationally and locally has gone into procedural compliance at the expense of instructional improvement. Beware of pushing "inclusion" -- that putting special-education students in regular classrooms -- too far, too fast. Moreover, special-education dollars must follow the children. Unfortunately, that's unlikely to happen in these tight budget times despite the additional state money.

5. Beef up the bureaucracy. No kidding. Sure, there's some deadwood. But more typically, middle-management capacity -- not just in R&D; but in budget, planning, accounting, auditing, personnel, facilities and information systems -- is excessively sacrificed on the altar of unspecified bureaucratic waste. An independent management audit should be conducted to determine the adequacy of staff positions and skills.

6. Don't create unrealistic expectations about school-based management. School-improvement teams, with extensive teacher and parent involvement, must play a vital role. But there are limits to any individual school community's ability to develop or specify the best instructional practices. Schools with persistently poor test scores should be required to choose from among a menu of programs known to work or hold promise.

7. Don't expect solutions from the state. State performance standards are a commendable step in the right direction; however they only tell you what you're doing wrong, not how to get it right.

Most state educators, like their city counterparts, are dedicated and hard-working. But they don't know any more about school reform (there's a revolving door among state and local officials), and they need more capacity of their own to fulfill expanded R&D; and technical-assistance responsibilities.

8. Quit bashing the teachers union. Collaborative management models work best, and the Baltimore Teachers Union has been reasonably open to working cooperatively on several pilot reforms. Nationally, its parent body, the American Federation of Teachers, has boldly supported higher academic standards, more rigorous teacher certification, tougher discipline and instructional innovations.

Teacher unions also lend political muscle to poor school districts that are increasingly powerless.

9. Don't expect schools to solve all social problems. The temptation and tendency is to ask schools to take on family and community tasks that are beyond their expertise and create unrealistic workloads.

Most -- for example, student service learning and the delivery of social services to families -- are worthwhile but, in the real world of daily schooling and painful priorities, dilute the focus on classroom instruction.

10. Be accessible and open to criticism, yet resolute. Don't hype your plans or pander to the pressure for quick fixes. Balance responsiveness with steadfastness.

Many school innovations get freshly planted, but as the saying goes, politicians and education policy makers keep pulling up the roots to see if they're growing fast enough. Employ an outsider to do insider audits that spot breakdowns in implementation of management and instructional policies.

And, oh yes, stock up on antacid and headache pills, and thanks for giving it your all.

Kalman R. Hettleman, a former member of the city school board, has been an education aide to two mayors and served earlier this year as a consultant to School Superintendant Walter G. Amprey.

Pub Date: 12/26/96

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