"Strategic Issues in Public School Reform." By William L. Bainbridge. Delivered before the Ohio General Assembly Policy Seminar, Vital Speeches of the Day, February 1, 1995.

Strategic Issues in Public School Reform


By William L. Bainbridge, President and CEO of SchoolMatch

Delivered before the Ohio General Assembly, Policy Seminar, Ohio University: Athens, Ohio, December 3, 1994

It is a privilege to share thoughts on the current state of public school reform with you who are in a position to make a difference. We at SchoolMatch have worked with hundreds of corporations and many thousands of families in the process of evaluating elementary and secondary schools to match the specific needs of those families with appropriate schools. Notwithstanding our admiration for the hard work and sincere efforts of many leaders, the need for more major structural changes in our schools, has become clear. Our work has revealed at least three themes on school reform that spotlight what we believe are core issues. They are all systemic in nature.

First, if schools are to be reformed, the basic human resource management infrastructure needs to be changed. Second, if states and corporations are to assist, they must insist that results be measured against standards. Third, we see on the horizon a major collision between educational technology and equality, which must be avoided.

The human resource infrastructure we’re talking about as a first point is the fundamental way in which those who teach our children are trained, selected, paid, retained and protected! We have major, structural personnel management problems in the public schools that can best be corrected by state legislative action.

There’s an argument to be made that the American public school is the world’s largest socialized enterprise. Even the post office has a more market driven system. Weak public school teachers are transferred from building to building, passing problems from one school to another. Tenure is commonly offered without thorough review. Good teachers often are not rewarded for a job well done. Accountability is almost nonexistent.

While the majority of this country’s citizens work an eleven month year or more, the school year for teachers is tied to an agrarian calendar which is unrealistic in the eyes of today’s corporate leaders and those citizens. Furthermore, the calendar is inappropriate for the learning needs of today’s student because evidence indicates more time on task is needed and long breaks are harmful to retention.

"Calamity days" are offered to school personnel in a system that often treats the weakest teacher as its most important client. What other employees get an entire day off due to a little bad weather in the early morning hours? Bankers, state workers, factory laborers, taxi drivers—the entire workforce—shows up at the worksite when roads have cleared, except for public school employees. In one recently audited school, teacher absences averaged 23.4 days per 185 day teacher year (13 percent).

Administrators are frequently sent into bargaining sessions with teacher groups encouraged to "hold the line" on salary increases. In many cases, the personal income levels of those administrators conducting negotiations with staff are directly tied tot he percentage of increase awarded to the faculty. Even the most ethical individuals must feel compromised when placed in this position.

Largely due to collective bargaining agreements, schools fail to take into account marketplace values when employing teachers. No special monetary rewards are made for those who prepare themselves in areas requiring higher academic rigor and who fill roles in great demand such as the teaching of mathematics, science, special education and foreign languages. Interestingly enough, some schools have found a way to give special supplements to coaches whose teams fare well.

We believe appropriate public policy would mandate more effective teacher preparation and orientation, term contracts for all school employees and differentiated salaries based upon market value and performance. Legislative action is also needed to modify long-standing, outdated work rules.

In many cases, the tail wags the dog. All too often school boards view students and staff as their principal constituents rather than parents, employers and taxpayers. Some school districts are trying to change this under the banner of Continuous Quality Improvement; but the teachers need to "buy in." We need to take advantage of opportunities to assist in solving major community problems. For example, before and after school, more schools can provide unused facilities for "daycare" or "latchkey" programs.

We have a system that fails to be market driven or results oriented. State agencies and legislatures are attempting to address this through proficiency examinations. Many say we need a business-like model for operating our schools. Others are concerned with the extreme impact of self-serving teacher unions in decision-making. Yet others fear a business model won’t take into account disadvantaged youngsters and those with handicaps. Although the overall management of higher education is subject to many of the same criticisms as our public schools, the human resource management processes that universities use in differentiated staffing, peer review, student review, tenure analysis and providing faculty with public recognition and monetary rewards deserve consideration. Why don’t we at least apply some of these features to the public schools? Legal requirements for school districts granting teacher tenure, for example, should be more rigorous. The authority to make sense of the system of managing school human resources is in your hands.

My second point has to do with measuring the results of special contributions and grants against reasonable standards.

Government bodies such as yours, corporations and foundations have contributed huge sums of money through grants for specialized school improvement efforts since the Federal administration’s release of A Nation at Risk eleven years ago. A great deal of money has been spent on school reform programs, but measurable results are limited. Many educators are suspicious of corporate philanthropic motives and doubt their sincerity. The most prominent contribution, to date, is 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" sponsor for program enhancements. If students are fortunate enough to attend a school with a corporate or organizational partner that fosters a program in their area of interest, the partnership can work very well. Opportunities are frequently denied to some students by an emerging network of inequality in which school partnerships are frequently tied to single schools and the students assigned to that building. Efforts to link student interests to business partnerships should not be overridden by geographic convenience. For example, every effort should be made to get the student with an interest and aptitude in allied medicine to the school where such programs are being offered.

When corporations or other organizations offer assistance, these valuable resources should, in our view, be matched with student interests and abilities. More importantly, we have seen little interest in evaluating programs on the part of those responsible for initiating and operating them. Major grants are frequently made without focus on the bottom line. Did the students learn anything? Did it help them with higher education admission or success? Did it help high school juniors or seniors find employment? There seems to be prevailing "ostrich mentality" that chooses to ignore the relationship between resources invested and student learning results.

The good news is there are some excellent partnerships which meet student needs and which establish and measure results. One example is the partnership which Union Carbide has formed with the St. Charles Parish, Louisiana schools. Last year, SchoolMatch originated an awards program for the Employment Management Association. Employment managers from America’s largest companies selected five partnerships as outstanding examples of what corporations and schools should be doing together. Each had a strong evaluation component.

My third, and final, point has to do with the potential negative consequences of technologically enhanced curricula being available in the schools and homes of many students, but not in the homes of the socioeconomically disadvantaged.

The collision between curricular focused, interactive educational technology and equality has to do with a marvelous new concept called "edutainment." Edutainment has the potential to seriously compromise the central purpose of Horace Mann’s "common school" – universal availability of the tools of teaching and learning. While technological innovation can bring unparalleled, individualized instruction to marry, the "edutainment" movement threatens students in those homes not well equipped for the information age.

Former Secretary of Education Ted Bell has clearly stated, "Technology can improve education for all or it can further widen the learning gap between rich and poor."

The problem centers on a few simple facts. Software publishers are focusing their attention on home computer education. Their association, SPA, reports that home education sales are expected to double by 1996. Youngsters have limited access to computers in school and are expected to supplement their school-based learning with "homework." Many assignments can or could be completed using new technology. While we estimate 395,000 Ohio homes (9.7 percent) now have computers, such technology, however, is not readily available for most youngsters. This is particularly true of the economically disadvantaged who often need the most help. Our research indicates the price barrier will not be quickly overcome, as it was with television in the 1950s. In the homes of the "have-nots," interactive computer technology is not just unaffordable but little understood, not highly valued and even threatening to many parents. If interactive educational technology is part of a student’s education, we must find a way to provide this curricular focus in the home of every student.

Some communities have provided a comparative advantage by making computers accessible in public libraries, recreation centers and local government offices. We believe we have some better answers to how this can be accomplished for far less capital outlay than previously thought.

Interactive computers are outstanding for teaching concepts such as dealing with abstractions. The computer at home may or may not be the teacher of the future, but it will have a major impact. Leveling the playing field between the "have’s" and the "have-nots" will have long-range consequences for the society that our grandchildren inherit.

Public policy in this area should require state equalization of capital expenditures, parent participation in school affairs and technologically literate school personnel. Home/school learning systems – electronically linked – can enhance educational opportunity for both students and their parents.

We urge you as our state’s policy leaders to examine these and other strategic questions which get to the core of an on-going dilemma.

How do our government and corporate officials provide both leadership and support which will make a difference for our students, our communities and our economy? We can start by changing the human resource management infrastructure, measuring the results of special projects and grants against standards and by making interactive learning technology available at the home of every student.

Thank you.