More school 'reform'

April 19, 1991

More than halfway through his term, President Bush this week has finally gotten around to presenting an agenda for the nation's 110,000 public schools -- an agenda that, he hopes, will justify his promises to be the "education president."

Alas, anyone familiar with the history of education reform -- or even anyone who bothers to read "The Classroom Crucible," a newly published book on the subject -- knows that the program Bush announced yesterday probably won't make much difference where it really matters -- in the classroom.

The problem is simple. Top-down reform, whether in the form of national testing, more federal research or the invention of "new" public schools, always crumbles into irrelevance before it reaches the only target that counts -- the students in the classroom. As Edward Pauly, author of "The Classroom Crucible," puts it in his "law of education policy": Policies applied to classroom activities are thoroughly reformulated by the actions of teachers and students in each classroom.

In other words, educating America's young people depends on what happens where they are, not on what happens in the offices of principals, superintendents or bureaucrats. If classrooms are too crowded, if teachers are incompetent or overwhelmed, national tests or new kinds of schools won't make much difference.

Pauly does have some encouraging words for parents -- who, unlike many policy makers, see firsthand the difference between effective classrooms and dysfunctional ones. Getting involved does make a difference; it's possible to insist that a child be in the most effective classroom for his or her needs.

In Baltimore that advice coincides with at least one encouraging development, a promise from the school board that parents will be able to interview candidates for the new schools superintendent. If only informally, the board has acknowledged that parents are indispensable partners in the education process, and that it needs better communication with this vital interest group.

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