Change -- So Long as Nothing Changes

ANDREW RATNER

January 02, 1993|By ANDREW RATNER

Hostile countrymen shout down their leader for his proposal to bring radical change to a system with which they've become comfortable in spite of its shortcomings. Boris Yeltsin in Red Square? No, school board meetings in and around Baltimore in 1992.

Witness these recent events:

* The city school superintendent proposes a major revision of Maryland's most troubled school system, including the elimination of K-8 schools. Parents, who like that structure, react so angrily the plan doesn't survive the week.

* The new superintendent in Baltimore County muses aloud that he wants to ''take a look at'' changing the county's ''gifted and talented'' program. About 1,200 people turn out at a high school auditorium to voice their displeasure. The superintendent, Stuart Berger, had never even specified what changes he would consider.

* Intentions to redraw school boundaries -- which are more often acts of expediency than of educational improvement -- anger parents who live in growing Odenton in western Anne Arundel County and Abingdon in Harford County. The plans get shelved -- for now.

* Officials in Howard County, one of the state's wealthier jurisdictions, are having trouble funding their school budget, so they are considering sending kids to school in shifts each day, or implementing a year-round school calendar called the ''9-1 plan'' -- nine weeks on, one week off. If these proposals aren't mere budget-season bluster, parents will likely fight them, too.

Education leaders not just in Maryland but across the nation say the public school system must be turned upside down -- for its own good. Their dialogue is peppered with such arguments as these: ''U.S. schools are still designed for an agrarian society.'' ''Japanese children go to school a month more each year than American students.'' ''The schools need free-market competitiveness; families should be able to shop for the school they want.''

But if the pilots of American education are so convinced that the fuselage is ruptured and the plane is in free fall, why aren't more passengers complaining? Parents don't seem to want a new seating chart, much less a major aerodynamic re-design. ''The public welcomes change,'' one educator assured. ''It just doesn't want to be affected by it.''

School officials say they want to bring a ''business'' approach to a field gone flabby. They're no longer simply schooling Jane and Johnny. They're ''delivering a product to consumers.'' But what if buying public is basically content with the product it's getting? They don't want the ''new Coke.'' The consumers might welcome new ideas and vigor, but not an unrecognizable system.

Admittedly, some change is needed in a lot of schools; a lot of change is needed in some schools. To that end, the new state functional tests are one of the best things to come down the pike for Maryland parents because they provide a public measuring stick for individual schools; an unambiguous score card on which schools need the most help. Even suburban families pleased with their own schools should insist on major state support for the city system, because the city's deterioration precedes the suburbs' decline.

The plea herein to educators isn't ''if it ain't broke, don't fix it,'' but more that the works shouldn't be dismantled before the problem and solution are clearer. And neither the community nor the professionals seem settled on that point.

Ultimately, education comes down to two inescapable fundamentals: a willing student and an able, determined teacher. Educators can monkey with the school calendar, class configurations and ''self-esteem'' grading systems all they want, and in the end the process still comes down to those two individuals. How much change the public is willing to accept in its schools will be a major issue in this decade; many futurists speak of communications or transportation as areas that will change markedly by the end of the '90s, but education may also become unrecognizable as we have known it for generations.

Stuart Berger, who was hired by the Baltimore County school board as an ''agent for change,'' readily acknowledges that educators don't have the answers. But he emphasizes that the business community and school administrators, blood brothers

in conservative thinking, have been uniquely out front on this matter. If these people are craving change, he concludes, it's the best dilemma America's ever faced.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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