The Schools Aren't Broken, They're Outdated
New kinds of leaders are being hired to head our nation's largest public school systems. Rather than educators, New York City and Chicago have hired businessmen. Seattle and Washington, D.C., appointed military generals. And a former governor was installed in Los Angeles.
Alternatives to public education are being introduced around the country as well. Milwaukee, Cleveland and Florida have created voucher programs allowing students to attend private, even for-profit schools, rather than public schools. Home schooling, which now enrolls between 500,000 and 2 million children, is permitted in all 50 states.
Public education also is being privatized, primarily in cities and poorer suburban districts. Viewing education as the next health-care industry-a troubled business characterized by high costs, poor results and bad management-the for-profit sector is rushing into the education field in unprecedented numbers. Publishers and television networks are offering teacher education. New companies such as Edison, which took its stock public this year, are managing public schools, starting their own schools and creating charter schools.
Teacher preparation is in flux. Some 39 states have introduced more rigorous requirements for teacher certification, but criticism of education schools for the quality of their graduates is rising. A spate of newspaper op-ed articles have called for the elimination of education schools, proclaiming that teachers need preparation only in their subject area. In need of 2 million new teachers in the next several years, states such as Texas, California and New Jersey have introduced alternative routes to teacher certification that reduce the role of education schools. Teach for America, an organization that recruits top college graduates to teach in understaffed city schools, fills classrooms with teachers who have had only six weeks of teacher education.
In sum, these changes could be taken for the dismantling of public education in the United States, especially in cities. Ironically, I think it is something far more profound. A few years ago, I was talking with a big-city mayor who was complaining loudly about the quality of his city's schools and the people who staffed them. I told him that his profession, politics, was in the same shape as mine, education. In both cases, there was a sense that quality was much better in the past, that staff ability had declined and that concern for the public had diminished. The reaction of the public in each case was to withdraw. In politics, they stopped voting. In education, they sent their children to private schools if affluent, suburban schools if middle class or home-schooled.
The public also sought to dismantle both fields. First, there was an attempt to reduce funding, cut budgets and decrease taxes. Then the public sought to turn out the workers-the people who were failing us. In politics, the aim was to throw the rascals out via term limits and in education by eliminating tenure. The basic organizational units of education and politics were attacked-political parties in politics and unions in education. Finally, we demanded new kinds of leadership. In politics, we turned to business leaders such as Ross Perot, generals such as Colin Powell and entertainers such as Jesse Ventura. In education, we sought business leaders, generals and former governors.
This situation is not unique to education and politics; it is also the condition of health care, manufacturing, the family and every other social institution in our nation. All appear to the public to be broken. What has happened is that our society has changed quickly and profoundly in the past several decades-demographically, economically, technologically and globally.
When change of this magnitude occurs, all of our social institutions get left behind. They were created for a different society and no longer work as well in the changing society as they once did.
Take our schools. Their problem has been misdiagnosed. The nation's school system did not suddenly decline. Imagine a golden age of schooling, perhaps the 1950s. The highest test scores of that period would be inadequate for the present. The current economy and burgeoning new technologies make the prior performance of our students inadequate. High school dropouts, whose numbers were dramatically higher than now, could get jobs working in a factory or assembly line, making a salary sufficient to support a family. Those jobs do not exist anymore. They have been replaced by low-paying, higher-skill jobs in the service sector. For high school graduates, entering-skill levels required for jobs are also higher. The job facing our nation is not to fix broken schools, but to remake our educational system to meet the needs of a new society.
Unfortunately, we are distracted by a divisive debate over whether children are less well-prepared academically than in the past. We are focused on how much we may have lost rather than how very much more we need to gain if our youngsters are going to succeed in the future.
The nation has rightly recognized that education is troubled, particularly in urban and rural areas. Poll after poll shows better schools among the public's highest priorities. Any candidate running for office from dogcatcher to president must have an education platform. Unfortunately, politicians too often seek quick fixes, silver bullets and newsworthy sound bites rather than comprehensive plans.
Truth is, there are no silver bullets or quick fixes. Hiring a general, privatizing education, creating alternatives and recruiting undereducated teachers will not make our schools better. Studies of each of these approaches show that not one is a panacea. We must be willing to experiment with new leadership, new schools, new management and new forms of teacher preparation.
But these are mere mechanics.
We know what it will take to redesign our schools. The research is crystal clear. It requires nothing less than higher goals, new curricula and excellent staff. We need well-defined, up-to-date standards for what all students are expected to learn and methods of assessing whether they have achieved the standards. We need curricula that will enable students to attain the standards and teachers and principals who are capable of educating to the standards we have set. This requires professional development for the current teaching force and a superb education for new teachers and administrators, which will give them mastery both in their subject area and pedagogy-methods of instruction, curriculum design, evaluation, child development, learning styles and classroom management. We won't get this by closing education schools. We can get it by closing our poorest education schools, strengthening weaker schools and expanding excellent ones.
Finally, we need to demand accountability of our public schools and the professionals who staff them. At the moment, the only people being held accountable for the quality of education are our children.
What I am suggesting is neither simple, nor quick. There are no magic wands. Ultimately real educational improvement occurs school by school, then district by district and finally state by state. It is all heavy lifting.
Published Tuesday, Sep. 18, 2001