Making Schools Succeed Our Schools After 10 Years of Reform

May 05, 1993|By JANE STERN

Teachers want what students need, because student learning conditions are a faculty's working conditions. But school-reform policy makers have not yet addressed what teachers see as fundamental, despite a decade of piecemeal reform since the publication of ''A Nation at Risk.''

Teachers want to transform our public schools from assembly-line factories, offering crowd-control pedagogy, into academic communities capable of giving students the personal attention and follow-up to be successful.

Schools should become centers of active learning, where no student falls through the cracks. Parents must be enlisted as allies in their children's education by teachers who have the time (and telephones) to maintain meaningful communications with them.

But that's not possible without an expensive overhaul of the system. Meeting each student's needs requires a dramatic expansion of teacher staffing levels to personalize instruction and permit faculty collaboration throughout the school day.

With teachers and students off the assembly line and free of the bureaucratic treadmill, faculties can design student-centered teaching strategies, so that each child can learn in the way which best suits him or her, and have a chance of reaching the higher academic standards required in today's economy.

Putting teachers in charge is basic to reform. Supplied with time to teach, time to plan, and time to spend on each student, faculties can shape the school program by mentoring new teachers, incorporating proven teaching strategies, training staff and developing curriculum.

Provided with appropriate authority, faculties can implement the disciplinary policies necessary to make schools secure and safe places to learn. Alternative programs must be provided for disruptive youth who are, for whatever reason, unable to benefit from the regular school program.

Many factors beyond the school affect student performance: family life and expectations, community environment, television-viewing habits, cultural attitudes, economic background and parental child care or neglect. Schools are too often expected to make up for whatever may be lacking in the larger society, without adequate resources to do so successfully.

True reform, therefore, lies in providing the resources to give personal attention to students, and not in bureaucratic testing and threats of punishment for poor test per- formance. Testing programs are popular because they are relatively cheap, and so we have seen a long succession of such programs, with new tests trotted out each time the old ones have been ''discredited.''

Insanity has been defined as doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result. Yet the ''test-pushers'' seem undeterred, convinced that if we can just get the ''right'' testing program, we can solve educational problems. Meanwhile, attention and support are directed away from things which could really make a difference.

According to Dr. W. Edwards Deming, an American who taught the Japanese to compete successfully with the U.S., systems of numerical goals and penalties undermine quality and productivity. He calls instead for a total commitment to quality in resources and personnel.

Unfortunately, the history of American education reform has not been one of designing a system to make every student succeed -- whatever it might take -- but one of setting partial goals, testing and threats to raise scores, and throwing in a new, soon-to-be-discredited fad from time to time.

Added to the threat posed by test-score quotas is the lack of political will to insulate schools from periodic downturns in the economy, and resultant layoffs and cutbacks in student programs and teacher compensation. We have tailored the program to fit the budget, instead of providing a budget that will support the needed program. Such short-sighted plans, typical in American industry, destroy the constancy of purpose and staff morale needed for progress, according to Mr. Deming and his Japanese pioneers in long-term quality gain.

Accountability testing since 1972 and piecemeal ''reforms'' since ''A Nation at Risk'' in 1983 have not delivered what their advocates promised. Where schools have succeeded, they have done so in spite of, and not because of, the time taken away from instruction to meet ever-increasing bureaucratic demands.

In fact, research shows that schools and students have never performed better. But we have just about reached the limits of what the old factory system, with its crowd control and quick-fix ''solutions,'' can deliver. Teachers are ready for real reform. The question is, are political leaders willing to pay for it?

Jane Stern is president of the Maryland State Teachers Association.

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