"Taking a Stand; Some Options." By M. Donald Thomas and William L. Bainbridge.
Education Week. March 1996.
Taking a Stand; Some Options
by Donald R. Thompson, Ph.D.
and William L. Bainbridge, Ph.D.
Just as the national political picture has changed, so to have public expectations for school administrators. Most parents and taxpayers don't expect their local school chief to practice the sharp "sound bites" of some of our emerging national leaders. On the other hand, school administrators are expected to be more forthright and candid. Many board members, citizens and even students have joined the news media in pressing their local superintendent to take a stand on issues facing public education.
Many critics ignore the current social chaos. They equate poor student performance with poor public schooling. Yet, schools have been beleagered with student problems ranging from teen-age pregnancy, drug abuse, juvenile crime and even suicide. The number of children living in poverty (a problem now advancing into suburbia) has grown steadily over the past two decades, and now approaches 20 percent. Those who know education best, educators, must be given the chance and the resources to fix education. It cannot come from the top on down, from business leaders or legislators.
Last fall, the Committee for Economic Development issued a report on education entitled PUTTING LEARNING FIRST ... GOVERNING AND MANAGING SCHOOLS. The monograph clearly concludes that learning needs to be our top priority. In response, AASA Executive Director Paul Houston said, "The report makes clear that our nation has turned its schools into social, ideological, and financial battlegrounds. If we hope to make needed changes and truly improve the bottom line, then we as a nation need to make our schools a common ground not a battleground."
In our work in the school and corporate sectors respectively, we see renewed respect for school executives who, while not imposing their beliefs on the community, are willing to clearly articulate their viewpoints on controversial issues. Those who don't risk being labeled "wishy-washy."
We recently compared observations regarding several major educational issues and developed our positions on these vital topics.
Declining Test Scores
While the news media and school critics continually point to drops in academic achievement, college entrance examination scores have consistently been misinterpreted. A study by Sandia National Laboratories, a government research arm, reported a few years ago that "on nearly every measure we found steady or slightly improving trends... . Performance has been steady or improving in nearly all subject areas tested, and the greatest gains have been made in basic skills." While raw numbers may show declines, a careful review of the socioeconomic backgrounds of students being tested explains this reported inconsistency. The best predictor of student achievement remains parent education level. It's unfair to compare our "have-nots" with the "have's" of other developed countries. Let's openly compare apples to apples on test scores.
Are school-business partnerships effective? Over the past 10 years we've seen a plethora of adopt-a-school programs, a concept that often violates the basic premise of equal educational opportunity. In most cases, young people are at the mercy of their assigned school's "adopted" business partner for program enhancements. If students are fortunate enough to attend a school with a business partner in their area of interest, the partnership can work well. Opportunities are frequently denied to students by an emerging network of inequality, which relates school assignments to one business focus. When businesses want to bring their know-how and resources to bear on improving the schools, many changes are in order. Business leaders should be encouraged to share the talent which operates their organizations, not just their public affairs staff. School administrators need to promote linkages between student interests and business partners not governed by geographic convenience, but by student needs and career goals. Business resources need to be maximized.
Vouchers and Charter Schools
Are vouchers or charter schools good or bad? How should school leaders respond to this movement?
The real issue here is whether public education for "all" in a democracy will going to survive, and should it? We all know that good and bad public schools exist. The challenge is not to do away with public schools, but to fix poor-performing public schools.
The only question is how to best do that. Why don't we take the position of, let's try it - if? If what, you say? Well, if the legislatures will agree to level the playing fields. Let's make the battle "getting the playing field level" instead of saying "no" to vouchers or charter schools.
When private colleges began accepting federal and state funds, universities agreed to provide equal opportunity in terms of student admission and staff employment.
We're simply advocating similar rules for private schools accepting vouchers. Most new proposals do not really advocate choice. Let us change that so it really is choice for the lowest and middle socioeconomic groups. All voucher and charter schools would be open to all students or not open. Voucher and charter schools would be required to take all comers regardless of disability or disadvantage. The new schools could not be havens for socioeconomic, racial or ability segregation. Voucher and charter schools would be accountable in all ways just like the public schools, including test results. Let's advocate true choice.
Accountability and Research
Are we still innovating for the sake of innovating without research to back up new initiatives?
If we haven't stopped that practice, then let's make the effort to stop it. Decisions can and should be based on research and data. Many new educational programs lack an effective evaluation component. Regrettably, when all is said and done, more is said than done. Schools should be compared against those with similar characteristics. There's ample evidence to indicate that the work of M. Donald Thomas, highly respected former Superintendent of Salt Lake City Schools, in "mean-matching" schools has great merit. "You don't want to compare apples and oranges," says Thomas. He explains that schools should be compared in terms of socioeconomic status, parent educational level, readiness scores for students in kindergarten, dollars expended per pupil on instructional material, salaries and experience of the teachers, and so forth. Pressures on administrators to provide school boards, politicians, corporate leaders and community members with quantitative measures of comparison between districts continue to grow. Outcomes-oriented research needs to become part of the standard operating procedure for every school system.
What about privatization? School administrators need to consider the real worth of contracted services. We must look at privatization of support services separately and distinctly from privatization of instructional services. When it comes to privatization of instructional services, here again, we need a level playing field. If the private schools are required to accept all comers we believe the public schools can compete and win. If business can perform support services less expensively than the school district at the quality level desired, then privatize the service!
Single-Step Salary Schedule
What about the single-step salary schedule? School professionals are employed on the same salary schedule regardless of their job performance or the market for their specialty. We believe compensation based on seniority and education alone is fundamentally wrong. Restoring the concept of the master teacher would be a great breakthrough in elevating the prestige and rewards of the teaching profession. Although many are critical of higher education compensation models, they present a comparative advantage to those of the American public school system - arguably the largest socialized enterprise. We need to design opportunities for advancement and diversity. School personnel need to be evaluated based upon productivity that will differeniate job performance.
Superintendents must step up to the plate and be willing to devise and implement evaluation systems that will differentiate and attach job performance and market value to compensation.
Urban School Governance
What should be done to improve the schools in our largest cities? Their plight is channeling a disproportionate share of financial resources from suburban and rural schools. At the same time, their poor performance has damaged the reputation of public education. Two changes should be made immediately. First, cities with over 30,000 students should be divided into smaller districts. Second, legislation must be enacted to limit the number of unions a district must recognize for purposes of negotiations. Administrators need to advocate these major changes in urban school governance.
What about character education? The struggle between the individual's right versus the individual's proper responsibility within society has been at the core of American culture from the beginning. Survey after survey points out that children today are subjected to violence and crime. Many children routinely use alcohol as early as eight or nine years of age. America must move in a new direction. We must develop and teach character education - values if you will. We do not need the values clarification of the sixties, but should
emphasize self-discipline and responsibility. The big question is whose values? One model is to use the Aspen Declaration. The statement lists six non-controversial values that the school community can use while heading off political controversies. The American Credo and Bill of Responsibilities developed by the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge goes back to our roots and has all the values an individual and society need. School administrators need to advocate basic character education.
What about the fate of bilingual education? Is it the right thing to do? Research shows bilingual education in the long run may not be serving the individual or this country well. Bilingually taught students must learn subject matter twice. Students should be given a big dose of English in order to encourage the great melting pot effect. English First should be advocated by all school leaders.