Empower teachers, principals
A smarter idea gets left behind in NCLB act
January 3, 2008
BY BARRY McGHAN
A recent state report, that nearly 50% of Michigan high schools failed to meet important goals of the federal No Child Left Behind law, is nothing new. It's the message we've heard for 40 years: Schools are bad and getting worse.
Not surprisingly, the peons of the system -- school principals and teachers -- are offered up as sacrifices by NCLB, in collusion with powerful special interests who control the purse strings and rules of this 19th Century education system we keep trying to whip into shape for a 21st Century world.
Crack! "Teach those kids!"
"If you don't, we'll give them to other schools, leaving you fewer resources to do your job. We expect things to become so hopeless you'll need to have your school reorganized. You'll be out of work!"
Crack! "Have we got your attention, yet?"
This all-stick-no-carrot approach perpetuates a top-down system where power is held by people who have no accountability for the work to be done. The accountability rests on people who have the least control over the situation.
This is crazy.
So, is NCLB a bad law? Yes and no.
The law has a good heart. But that's about all.
At its heart is the idea that all children can succeed in school, no matter their sex, color, family finances, parents' education, home language or any other factor. Beyond that, the law has problems.
For example, it lets states set their own goals for achievement. They understandably set them as low as feasible. Coincidentally, Michigan, desperately deep in recession, decided it could teach its way back to financial health by raising high school standards to unrealistic college entrance levels -- "all students can learn" on steroids.
Producing college-ready students starts in the home for most, and progresses step-by-step through the grades. It takes time. Kids from families unlucky enough to fall below the middle class require special efforts -- preschool, early intervention, and so on. If they missed those benefits, more is needed: special alternative schools and programs. That's a tall order for a state that can barely put a budget together.
The education power brokers -- politicians, state and district bureaucrats, experts in universities and think tanks, teachers unions -- impoverished of ideas, are little help to impoverished students. Commands from on high have not worked. They will not work.
The best the powers-that-be can do is empower the peons to do the job, and get out of the way. Give individual schools the autonomy they need to accomplish their mission as they see fit.
The bureaucracy should give schools decision-making authority, as well as control over most of the resources to implement those decisions. Individual schools need to control at least 95% of the money their students bring into a district.
This idea is hugely threatening to current power brokers. Further, making this transition to a leaner, meaner, more agile system will be very disruptive. At first, schools will flounder, some more than others. It's a price that has to be paid.
Take heart. There are reasons to believe the transition can succeed.
Let me tell you about Lula and Lois.
Grandma Lula taught more than 40 years in country schools in west Michigan. She loved her students, respected their parents, kept a laser-like focus on student achievement. She was a force to be reckoned with, known and loved (or at least respected) throughout the county.
A generation later, Lois, my late mother-in-law, another no-nonsense teacher, had a similar approach to her work with second graders in city schools. Other teachers loved to receive students from her classroom -- they could all read! Students, long gone from her class, kept in touch, as did their parents.
Most of the teachers I've known over 40 years of working in schools are good, honest, responsible people like Lula and Lois, doing their very best to help students. They are beaten down by the bureaucracy, disrespected by the press and much of the public, captives to a system that offers little more than a paycheck as a reason to keep up the good fight.
Many Michigan teachers are ready to take on managing their own schools for the benefit of their students. They need the "daddy-may-I" power brokers to become "sister-can-I-help" coprofessionals. They need a system in which parents have more choices for schooling their children, so that a better match can be found between a school's mission and a family's needs. They need an assessment system that enlightens the task ahead. Something more than ...
Crack! "Do better, or else!"
BARRY McGHAN, 68, of Fenton worked for the Flint Schools for 33 years, 20 as a teacher and 13 in a variety of nonteaching curriculum specialist positions. He retired in 1995 and founded the Center for Public School Renewal (www.publicschoolrenewal.org ). Write to him in care of the Free Press Editorial Page, 615 W. Lafayette, Detroit, MI 48226 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.