Moving toward real school reform

February 24, 1999|By Amy L. Bernstein

IT'S NO secret that President Clinton and Gov. Parris N. Glendening are passionate about improving public education. In major policy addresses last month, both men prominently mentioned their efforts to improve education, emphasizing a commitment to increase funding for such things as smaller class sizes and new school buildings.

Such proposals resonate with voters because they seem like common-sense ideas that can be easily measured.

But the school-reform debate can't end there. Creating lasting education reform in Maryland and elsewhere, means tackling a wider range of issues, including:

The state should offer parents more choice in the form of charter schools and other forms of self-governance. In a truly entrepreneurial, pro-active school system, motivated schools would be encouraged to pursue greater autonomy -- and provided the resources to do so. Maryland's commitment to charter schools has been tentative at best.

In fact, Baltimore has suspended a form of charter-school authorization at least temporarily, slamming the door on parents and students seeking an alternative to their neighborhood public school.

We must radically transform the culture of public school bureaucracies. Most successful businesses and even many government agencies strive for efficiency and good customer relations.

Yet many public school systems use outmoded ideas such as a rigid, hierarchical management style that discourages inventive notions. More focus should be placed on how best to help parents and students.

We must immediately upgrade "back office" operations. Many school district employees -- the middle managers of education -- don't have the necessary training and resources to do their jobs well.

District and central offices are crippled by outdated information systems and inefficient ways of communicating. In Baltimore, officials lack the tools needed even to produce timely budget reports for school principals.

Three- and 4-year-olds should be required to attend accredited preschools, or Early Head Start programs, where pre-literacy and social skills are developed and assessed. Children should arrive in kindergarten ready to learn and read. Research indicates that pre-literacy training is the key to reading-readiness.

Parents should be required to volunteer at their children's public schools, or find ways to make an in-kind contribution. Those who fail to heed the commitment should be required to attend parenting classes. It has been repeatedly proven that schools with high levels of parent (and grandparent) involvement tend to be successful.

We must break the link between property taxes and school system budgets so that all children -- regardless of where they live -- have equal access to adequately funded schools. Providing extra funds for schools periodically, as the state has done for Baltimore's schools, is not the same as guaranteeing necessary funding indefinitely.

Each of these recommendations addresses a crying need. And each is bound to trigger opposition from teachers' unions, school system officials, parents or some other interest group.

Ultimately, if we cannot find a way to pull together on the toughest and least glamorous aspects of reform, then little else we do will result in better schools or stronger school systems.

Amy L. Bernstein is a free-lance journalist and chairman of the Mount Washington Elementary School Improvement Team in Baltimore.

Pub Date: 2/24/99

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