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The Center For Public School Renewal

Philosophy (Expanded)
[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 21st Century.

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.

Prologue

It is our belief that three groups of people are the most fundamental and necessary to the existence of public education. These principal groups are:

  • Citizens - who pay school taxes and elect the officials charged with spending them responsibly.

  • Parents - who have the children needing to become productive and knowledgeable citizens.
  • Teachers - who provide the schooling that citizens and parents want provided.

However, the public education enterprise also includes other groups and individuals:

  • Elected federal, state, and local officials and other politicians and staff

  • Appointed federal, state and local officials and their staffs
  • Education experts from universities, professional organizations, unions, think tanks, etc., or who are self-employed
  • Various other interested and knowledgeable individuals (writers, pundits, etc.)

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 principal groups.

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 management functions.

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 schools.

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