School board says it wants 'involvement,' but does it?

Glenn McNatt

September 18, 1990|By Glenn McNatt

THE BOARD of education and the teachers' union have discovered a novel way to encourage more parent involvement in the schools.

The trick, according to the experts, is simply not to encourage parents to get involved. Even better, actively discourage them from getting involved whenever possible.

To paraphrase Yossarian, of Catch-22 fame, that's some trick!

The school department is justly renowned for this kind of innovative approach.

Remember the Barclay School curriculum flap? That was when parents asked the school superintendent for permission to drop the standard curriculum and adopt one that had been developed at a nearby private school.

Permission granted, replied the superintendent, you have my blessings, but there's just one catch: You can't change the school curriculum in any way!

Like Yossarian said: "That's some catch, that Catch-22!"

The controlling metaphor of Joseph Heller's famous novel of World War II was of an amoral, out of control bureaucracy whose formal, stated purpose served only as a convenient pretext for the pursuit of various private agendas. When organizational and personal agendas collided, as they inevitably did, those in charge always managed to find a "catch" in the rules to protect their interests.

Something similar, one suspects, is occurring in the school bureaucracy on North Avenue. How else to explain the apparent contradiction between the department's stated goal of encouaging more parent involvement and its actions, which produce just the opposite?

Last week a number of community groups complained bitterly that they had been left out of plans to promote more community participation in the schools. At a school board hearing on a proposed pilot program for decentralizing control of the city's 177 schools, parents criticized educators for failing to consult with them on details of the plan and for not even bothering to notify them that hearings had been scheduled.

"I know this sounds like a broken record," said one, "but how are we going to get meaningful input from parents if they are not actively included in the workings of this school system?" Another complained of "lousy communication, a yawning gap between school system rhetoric and practices, and the token nature of the involvement opportunities which are presented to us."

For its part, the school system says it has gone to great lengths to include others in the planning, citing the involvement of the teachers' union, the principals' union and the church-based group Baltimoreans United for Leadership Development (BUILD). And the board agreed to postpone further action until the proposal could get a wider hearing.

Yet the impression remains that the bureaucracy hasn't put all its cards on the table. School officials concede, for example, that the decentralization plan grew out of the most recent contract with the Baltimore Teachers Union. Since decentralization presumably would give principals greater authority in staffing decisions, it's not hard to figure out why the teachers' union would insist on being in on the planning. But that doesn't mean the union's agenda is the same as the parents'.

Similarly, over the years BUILD has achieved a measure of legitimacy and respect as a grass-roots advocacy group, and it has done much to keep school reform in the spotlight.

Yet BUILD does not represent all or even most parents in thicity. Its main strength, in fact, comes from its association with other organizations, not from any specific constituent base of its own.

That is why the school department's claim that it has tried to reach out to parents by including the teachers' union and BUILD seems a bit ingenuous. Such groups may be well meaning, but their interest in decentralization is not necessarily the same as parents' interest, and though their participation may be desirable it certainly is no substitute for bringing parents into the process.

There are any number of issues that need airing regarding the goals and methods of school reform. The school board has a duty to allow discussion that is as wide-ranging and inclusive as possible. It had to put matters on hold until the people most affected have a chance to weigh in with their views. Otherwise the initiative risked failing before it fairly got started -- by turning into another bureaucratic "Catch-22" that serves only to perpetuate the status quo.

Decentralization is turning out to be another Catch-22

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