The gathering school revolution

December 16, 1996|By Neal R. Peirce

BARELY VISIBLE behind the headlines of state and mayors' takeover of troubled big-city school systems, revolutionary new ideas about school governance in America are taking root.

The strongest new idea -- reflected in the debate over charter schools, vouchers and parental choice -- is that public schools, like virtually every other business and institution in our society, must start to face competition.

Right now, school boards and the bureaucracies under them function like classic monopolies. They're guaranteed a flow of customers (the students). They're assured constant income (public tax money). And they face zero prospects of being driven out of business by incompetence (failure to educate children).

School boards claim there's democratic accountability -- that a bad teacher will be fired by a principal, a bad principal by the superintendent, a bad superintendent by the board, and a bad board by the voters. That's interesting theory but it's not working, says Minnesota-based education expert Ted Kolderie: otherwise our major school systems wouldn't be in chaos, triggering takeovers that abrogate democratic control.

We should stop blaming teachers, superintendents, even school boards, says Mr. Kolderie. He counsels using state power to create a new framework for public education -- one that fosters competition, provides incentives for high performance and imposes clear penalties for failure.

A potential first step

A first potential step: Leave school boards in place, but create independent chartering boards to start new, competitive public schools. Marketplace dynamics would likely force school boards lift numbing regulations, give principals authority to assemble their own teacher corps, and make school site-based decision-making a reality.

Eventually all schools could be run through arm's-length performance-based contracts negotiated between school boards or charter commissions and individual schools.

Public charter schools, already permitted in 27 states, are accountable: If performance doesn't improve, their charters may not be renewed. They're the visible cutting edge of this trend.

But can there be variants -- ways to emulate charters within the regular public system? A sprinkling of courageous principals, willing to bend or break the weight of rules imposed by ''central,'' are achieving excellence.

Gordon Hoodak, the spirited principal of the Lauer's Park Elementary School in a poverty-plagued area of Reading, Pa., challenges a visitor touring his school: ''Just watch to see if you can find any kids not on task. Or teachers without a twinkle in their eye. Or kids acting ugly.'' Tour the school and you find he's right. Mr. Hoodak's students, heavily minority, sociologically marked for failure, score as well as students from privileged areas.

Or consider the Family Academy in a desperately poor Harlem neighborhood. Its founders, three public-school teachers, believe the key to success is a small, intimate school, giving children a taste for lifelong learning by warm surroundings, small classes and involved parents. The teachers work long days. There's a Family Services Center in the school, to hold families together. Students score 20 percent higher than Harlem norms.

Family Academy is one of 60 experimental schools allowed within the massive New York City system. But as Metropolis magazine notes, it would take hundreds more -- a fundamental culture shift -- to make a full impact.

In Chicago, it's been seven years since grass-roots reformers persuaded the Illinois legislature to order a sweeping transfer of power over funds and programs, from the central bureaucracy to committees of parents, teachers, neighbors and school principals.

Everyone agrees the deeply troubled Chicago schools (now controlled by the mayor) have miles to go. But a University of Chicago study found 190 schools (40 percent of the system) were making comprehensive improvements. Test scores haven't improved a lot, but parental involvement has risen sharply, overall school violence is down 46 percent and the dropout rate has been cut from 51 percent to 42 percent.

Boston's school system, under Tom Payzant, a progressive superintendent, is setting up seven in-district charter schools. Agreed to by the Boston teachers union, they're called ''pilots.'' Principals get broad freedom from regulations plus power to pick teachers they want -- whether inside or outside the system.

To Boston's school establishment and unions, the pilot schools are controlled experiments. To the principals and teachers involved, they're the vanguard of a movement that will ultimately free all schools from district and union rules.

This is the struggle -- and promise -- across the country. School boards, unions, state education departments see decentralization as a way to quell criticism while keeping the existing systems intact.

More and more reformers are saying schools must be freed, legally, of school bureaucracies' rules and constraints, and of veto power by unions, too. Only then, they argue, can schools become the independent, cohesive teams of motivated, skilled and caring professionals they need to be -- for the children's sake.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Pub Date: 12/16/96

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