Memo to state: Give school reform a chance

January 26, 2000|By Kalman R. Hettleman

EDUCATION reform would stand a better chance if policy-makers were required to read David Maraniss' new and engrossing biography of Vince Lombardi, "When Pride Still Mattered." The secrets of the legendary football coach's success were simplicity, repetition and discipline. Most city and state education leaders take a different tack. But they claim to recognize that instructional reform takes time to take hold and show results.

Case in point: The city school board just nudged out Robert Booker, the chief executive officer, who has been on the job for 18 months. Also, Mayor Martin O'Malley recently failed to reappoint a key school board member. And shortly -- less than two years since the city and state agreed on a master plan for school reform -- state educators are about to undermine the plan by taking over several low-performing city schools.

In each case, continuity of reform has been sacrificed on the altars of impatience or political expediency. Even assuming, as critics charge, that Mr. Booker has been uninspiring and weak in some areas, what is the evidence that a better chief will be found?

The board conducted an extended nationwide search two years ago. Now, many large school systems nationally and two local ones -- Howard and Baltimore counties -- are also searching for leaders. School superintendents get recycled more than NFL coaches. Changing the person at the top is the education reform that nationally has been tried the most, and failed the most. The new chief executive officer might stick to the current master plan. But that is unlikely if a strong leader is selected. And even so, the uncertainty will be destabilizing. Getting school staff at all levels to buy into change is a difficult, delicate process. The distraction will impede implementation of reform.

While improvement in student performance under Mr. Booker has been slight, it's far too soon to tell whether the master plan will work. One of the few things that education researchers and practitioners agree on is that it takes about five years for systemwide reform programs to take root. Yet, policy-makers and politicians can't resist seeking high-visibility quick fixes.

Meanwhile, Mr. O'Malley's rash judgment to, in effect, fire school board member Edward Brody does more than interject petty politics where it doesn't belong. Mr. Brody, a businessman, understood the need to bring to school reform the sustained commitment to organizational change found in successful corporations.

Another flagrant example of state education leaders' rash thinking is the ballyhooed intention of the Maryland State Board of Education to turn over to third-party contractors as many as 10 chronically poor-achieving city schools. Under the state's "reconstitution" process, schools with persistently low scores on state tests are given four or five years to show steady improvement or face state takeover. What's wrong with that?

Nothing in theory. Schools should be held strictly accountable. But the process is being misapplied to the city school system. As state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick acknowledges, the reconstitution process was intended to apply to individual schools, not to systemwide reform.

In fact, since the city-state partnership created by the General Assembly in 1997, much of the school system has been under state control. The State Board of Education nominates members for the city board. It must approve the master plan for school reform that is the heart of the partnership.

In the 83 schools that have been placed in reconstitution-eligible status, the state is intimately involved in approving and monitoring individual school plans and has the power to approve principals. In all matters, city officials rarely make a move without state concurrence.

State and city educators, to their credit, have worked collaboratively in developing the master plan for systemwide reform. But it has been in effect less than two years. While some city schools have remained low-performing for four or five years, the takeover clock should have been reset when the master plan -- which applies to all schools -- was approved.

Moreover, there is a thin line between the schools that the state is likely to take over and many other city schools, which are also far below state standards. Takeovers elsewhere in the country have, as the state admits, produced little success.

Is the state ready to throw in the towel on the master plan -- which it approved -- this soon in the game? Have the players had sufficient time to learn to execute the plays, keeping in mind that research shows that education reform (like putting together championship teams) takes about five years?

The state claims to be pressing ahead to show that it's serious about school reform. But threats are moot at this point. City schools already live in fear of failure on state tests and, as noted, are already subject to pervasive state control.

The state's real motive is to use a few high-profile takeovers to appease the political impulse for a quick fix. But city schoolchildren will not succeed unless the instructional reforms in the master plan are given time to be effectively implemented. That takes a stable climate in which there are no distractions from a sustained focus on the classroom. City and state politicians and policy-makers alike need to learn the lessons that Coach Lombardi taught: practice repeatedly, improve the basic plays and give the game plan a chance to work.

Kalman R. Hettleman is an education consultant.

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