Center For Public School Renewal
[Thanks to Jeffrey Bohl and Bill Rosenthal for their
critiques of earlier versions of this document.]
January 12, 2006 (Rev. 2)
For many years, public schools and their teachers have been
criticized for failing to provide an adequate basic education to the
children of the United States. This criticism has been especially
harsh and noisy since the publication of the report of the
President's National Commission on Excellence in Education (A
Nation At Risk: The Imperative For Educational Reform) in 1983.
Almost daily, one hears calls for one or another form of school
choice, including privatizing public education, as the primary means
of solving education's problems.
The Center for Public School Renewal recognizes that improvements are
needed in many areas of public education. It supports innovative and
practical ways in which public schools can enhance the education they
provide to children. However, contrary to those who seek to solve
problems by privatizing schools, the Center endorses the belief that
K-12 public education is an essential part of the political,
economic, and social life of the American people.
Public schools, as tax-supported state institutions, should provide
the educational foundation for the preservation and development of
constitutional government and democracy in the United States, and
social cohesion within local communities. In addition, public schools
should provide students with opportunities to gain the knowledge and
skills needed to become self-reliant contributors to society. Since
American society is becoming more heterogeneous, public schools also
should provide a common ground for people from many walks of life to
interact with each other. This can enable them to learn to live and
work peacefully and cooperatively with people outside of their own
family and social circle.
The Center seeks to encourage a renewal of public education--based on
the ideas described below--in several ways, including publishing
thoughtful commentaries, relevant reviews, and producing research
studies of promising public school improvements. This renewal will
set public education on a course that provides Americans with an
education that prepares them to become successful citizens of the
While many organizations share the goals of preserving and improving
public education, this Center's quest for them will be guided by the
ideas expressed in the sections below. These ideas combine to give a
unique character and focus to the work of the Center.
It is our belief that three groups of people are the most fundamental
and necessary to the existence of public education. These principal
However, the public education enterprise also includes other groups
These latter groups often wield considerable power over public
education -- generally, more power than the three more fundamental
groups combined. While individuals and organizations in the latter
groups may have considerable expertise in matters of education, and
may provide useful advice and assistance in improving schools, they
should be considered as having a secondary role to that of the three
CPSR asserts that the three principal groups should be empowered to
develop schools which members of those groups deem satisfactory and
successful. This empowerment will come when each group gains the
freedoms discussed below.
Citizens' Freedom to Know
The curricular goals of public schools should be determined primarily
by the people of each state through their representative government,
and secondarily by other legally constituted public education
governing bodies. Since citizens, through duly elected officials in
state and local districts, provide the funding to support public
schools they have a right to expect their goals--those determined by
democratic means--to be pursued.
However, school curriculum should not be over-determined. While basic
subjects such as reading, writing, and mathematics may be spelled out
in some detail and subject to mandatory state testing, other
curricular areas should receive less stringent attention from the
state. Recommended curricula (and assessment materials) can be
developed, but should not be the subject of mandatory testing. Local
districts, too, should refrain from curricular oversight that is so
heavy-handed as to interfere with teachers' professional judgment. In
general, citizens' elected and appointed representatives should focus
their efforts mainly on keeping the public well-informed about how
schools operate and what they accomplish, rather than on authorizing
and directing school operations.
Students' success with the curriculum should be assessed by a fair
and challenging testing program. This testing may involve paper and
pencil tests, both multiple choice and open-ended, as well as
alternative methods of assessment. Testing with nationally recognized
tests may be encouraged, so long as they are judged to be compatible
with an established state curricula. Information about test results
for each school, as well as other performance indicators such as
attendance, school violence and graduation rates, and various
post-school success measurements, should be made available to the
public in easy-to-understand formats so that parents and citizens can
judge the effectiveness of the school's instructional program.
Schools should be able to present additional facts that affect the
interpretation of public data. Schools that exhibit unsuccessful
performance will have to accept certain mandated organizational
changes in order to continue to operate, or may have to be reorganized.
Parents' Freedom to Choose
Parents have a right to seek goals for the education of their
children other than citizens' goals. Therefore, they should have the
unrestricted right to send their children to private schools or take
advantage of home schooling, at their own expense. Families that
choose public school should have the option to send their children to
any age-appropriate publicly funded school that has an opening,
without regard to where that family lives, or any other family
characteristic. If need is demonstrated, reasonable transportation
assistance should be provided. If schools have more applicants than
openings, those openings should be filled by lottery. The
state-supported financial allotment that the children in that family
qualify for should transfer to any public school they choose.
At the same time, parents and children have a right not to be
excluded from a public school position for inappropriate reasons. For
example, students who meet all school requirements for proper
behavior but are still struggling with academic performance should
not be dropped or excluded so that the school's aggregate test
performance will be improved. Even students who are excluded for
behavioral reasons by one regular school should have the opportunity
to enroll in another on a trial basis (except in especially egregious
cases where courts have become involved and special instruction is recommended).
The naturally inquisitive nature of small children is obvious to
anyone who associates with them. Schools must cultivate this nature
and preserve it into later years of childhood in order to help a much
broader range of children be successful in school. Positive teacher
and parent expectations for students' performance are key elements in
their success. This idea--usually expressed by the slogan "all
children can learn"--is both a practical and necessary (but not
sufficient) goal. The goal is practical because research supports
it--expectations make some difference. The goal is necessary because
anything less will create conditions where some children do not
receive the very best effort that teachers and parents have to give.
However, more is required than just positive expectations. Effective
schools research identifies five or six other factors in addition to expectations.
Teachers' Freedom to Teach
Of all the adults involved in formal education (i.e.,
schooling), teachers have the most fundamental role. Schools can't
function without teachers staffing the classrooms (not counting
experimental "virtual" schools). Other adults, especially
parents, have important roles, but the overall success of a school
generally rests with its teachers because what happens with children
in a classroom is so completely dependent on what teachers believe,
know, and are able to do. Thus, education cannot be made
"teacher-proof." The centrality of teachers' roles requires
that they be substantively involved in the operation of schools. This
idea is very well expressed in the introduction to Given The
Circumstances: Teachers Talk About Public Education Today (1996),
a report from the Public Agenda Foundation .
" ... discourse on how to improve public education that does not
include the concerns and ideas of classroom teachers is incomplete
and probably dangerously inadequate. ... Perhaps most important, many
substantive elements of education reform ... will be toothless and
ineffectual unless teachers understand them, believe in them, and
make them work. Teachers may be allies, untapped resources,
demoralized and beleaguered foot soldiers, or subversives undermining
reform at every turn; but whatever their perspectives, they need to
be understood and taken seriously."
Successful school-based education is founded on a personal
relationship based on mutual respect that develops between student
and teacher. Because of the personal nature of the educational
process, the traditional top-down command-driven organizational
structure of schools is simply not an effective means of improving
school performance, for several reasons.
Top-down approaches to school improvement, such as mandating
innovative reform plans, close supervision of teacher performance,
etc., are often unsuccessful because so much of what a teacher does
takes place out of sight of other professionals. Also, school reform
is often approached in a paternalistic manner that teachers--often as
well-educated and experienced as their presumed mentors--rightly
reject. Finally, while good principals have the skill to draw the
best performance out of their teachers, they are relatively rare.
Further, when a school has a superior principal, there is no
guarantee that that person will be able to continue in the position
for as long as is needed, and no guarantee they will be replaced by
someone of equal caliber.
The bottom line is that school-based education is organized in such a
way that classroom improvement occurs only when teachers seek it, and
school improvement occurs only when teachers work with each other to
bring it about. In sociological terms, an effective teaching culture
develops in schools and becomes self-perpetuating when teachers are
empowered to fix their own teaching.
Consequently, the group of teachers who work in a given school should
have authority over, responsibility for, and adequate means to
deliver approved curricula to the children who attend that school. Teachers
should -- directly or through their designates (without
compromising the health or safety of students) -- control all
aspects of the school day and year. This includes scheduling,
calendar year, texts and materials, hiring and dismissal of
personnel, and all other budget matters. Teachers need adequate time
outside of their classroom responsibilities to accomplish these
Teaching is a profession that requires practical expertise.
Traditionally, that expertise has been presumed to come with
state-approved certification. However, the connection between
certification and expertise is not well-defined. Some who are
certified lack expertise. Some who have expertise are not certified.
Consequently, it should be the responsibility of groups of teachers
in a given school to develop and refine the expertise needed to
provide competent instruction.
One method of producing practical expertise in teaching is to develop
an apprentice system where new employees are gradually brought along
by experienced mentors. This would bring new staff members into a
school in a controlled manner under the guidance and supervision of
experienced teachers who had time set aside for that purpose. Such a
system is likely to nearly eliminate the problems that result when
administrators attempt to supervise and evaluate teachers.
Clearly, other education professionals also have expertise from which
schools and classroom teachers can benefit. However, that expertise
can only be delivered to teachers in the same way that teachers
deliver education to students -- through the establishment of
personal relationships characterized by mutual respect. All other
education professionals -- special teachers, counselors,
administrators, union officials, university personnel, consultants,
etc. -- should provide service to schools at the invitation of
teachers. If other non-teaching professionals have a good idea, they
should try to sell its merits to teachers rather than being able to
impose it on them.
Schools should have the option to refuse to serve a child once an
intractable case of clearly inappropriate and uncooperative behavior
has been established. Due process should be observed, and schools
should establish a review process for challenged cases. When a
student is dropped, the balance of the financial aid received for the
child should be returned to the funding agency for possible transfer
to another school. Exclusion from one school should not automatically
prevent enrollment at another school. A return to the dropping school
should be an option after an appropriate "cooling off"
period has passed.
Cases of incompetent staff performance should be handled at the
school level. A performance review process that identifies areas that
need improvement and provides assistance and time for improvement to
take place should be developed. This performance review process must
be the responsibility of both teachers and administrators in a
building. As an alternative to tenure, teachers could be given three
or five year contracts that are automatically renewed if performance
is judged to be satisfactory.
In recent years schools have experienced a great increase in the
classroom use of computers, video equipment, and other technological
innovations. These technologies, though attractive and appealing,
have not often been put to the best possible use in educating
students. That is because they have not been curriculum-driven. Too
often, technology has been introduced in a haphazard and unthoughtful
manner with no real connection to the work teachers are trying to do.
As these technologies continue to be developed and refined they will
become more useful and appropriate for instruction. Schools need a
rational means of implementing technological innovations that
produces a practical synthesis of the capabilities of the new
technologies and the needs of the instructional process. Technology
should be appropriate to the circumstances found in each individual
school. An appropriate educational mix of new technology and old
technologies (e.g., libraries, museums, print media, etc.) will serve
most schools well.
The idea of changing the traditional top-down authority structure of
public school systems, captured in such terms as
"decentralization," "school based management,"
and "participative decision-making" gained increased
attention in policy discussions and research projects in the early
1980's. With the advent of charter schools in the early 1990's, the
devolution of power and authority to the individual school became
greatly enhanced. The CPSR supports all worthwhile efforts to put
classroom teachers at the center of education reform. See Teacher-Led