This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 7 No. 2, "Just Schools: A Special Report Commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the Brown Decision." Find more from that issue here.
The theme for the education agenda for the 1980s is very simple: "In the 1980s, the educational interests of all children must be primary." Three aspects of the 1970s have set the stage for this theme.
First, the 1970s have been described as the "me decade" because of our pre-occupation with self-improvement, self-analysis and self-actualization. To the extent that this movement has made people more aware of their self-worth and power, it has been helpful. To the extent that it has provided personal support to the women, minorities or handicapped persons who are demanding that the public schools recognize their educational needs, it has been valuable.
But, in many respects the "me decade" has had an impact on our public schools which has not been helpful. Children have been left out. The emphasis on "me" has been an excuse for self-indulgence as competing forces already in control of our schools have battled to protect or expand their interests. I am not suggesting that school boards, teacher unions, school administrators or taxpayers sacrifice their worth or yield to oppression. But few of their struggles in the last decade have been about those things. Rather, the issues of privilege, prerogative, power and economic self-interest have more often been at stake. And those issues have seldom had much to do with the educational interests of children sitting in classrooms. They have instead reflected a set of values oblivious or opposed to the interests of the child.
It hasn't seemed to matter if schools are closed for long periods of time or if less time is spent on classroom instruction. It hasn't seemed to matter if some teachers and administrators are ineffective in their efforts to help children, or if some of them don't even try. It hasn't seemed to matter if less money is available to meet children's needs, or if the latent talent of every child goes unidentified and unchallenged. For too many adults involved in the process of determining the quality of our schools - in spite of the rhetoric to the contrary - the "me decade" has been expressed in actions which have communicated all too clearly that the educational interests of children are not considered to be very important. As a result, children have been harmed.
Another phenomenon of the 1970s supports the need to begin to emphasize the educational interests of children. So much emphasis has been placed on educational programs and systems that what works for individual children seems to have become secondary. The unstated assumption seems to be that if only the right educational program can be found then children will learn regardless of the teacher's commitment, preparation or understanding of the program. Several current examples illustrate this faith in the power of the programs and systems themselves. In this day of minimum competency testing, we are asked to accept assertions that existing remedial programs are adequate to assure that children's basic skill deficiencies can be corrected. The faith in systems has even been carried to its illogical conclusion at the national level where we are told that the reorganization of federal education agencies will itself improve education for children.
Programs and systems, properly used, can be a valuable means for delivering services to children, as well as for helping them understand fundamental learning concepts. But too often they have become the ends. So much energy, money and debate in public education is focused on whether to create or abandon a particular program, or on how to make it work better, that the interests of children seem to be secondary. As a result, children have been harmed.
These observations point to the primary focus of an agenda for the '80s: our emphasis must be on meeting children's educational needs at the micro level of the educational process, at the point of the interaction between teacher and child. More skills, people, and money must be brought to bear directly at the individual classroom level to serve the educational interests of children.
Bringing skills directly to bear means having schools of education which require their faculty to spend at least 20 percent of their time in field work assisting teachers in classrooms; it means having relevant in-service programs for teachers which take place in classrooms and which deal with real problems teachers have identified; and it means providing opportunities for more effective, caring and creative teachers to share their skills with other teachers who need help.
Bringing people directly to bear means more adults in classrooms working directly with children; it means more parents involved in knowing what is happening in classrooms and in helping to shape school policy; and it means more teachers, aides and volunteers.
Bringing more money to bear means more discretionary funds available at the school building level so school site councils composed of parents, teachers and administrators can work together to determine how funds can be used to advance the education of children; it means incentive grants to individual classroom teachers so they can have the resources to improve the quality of their teaching and so they can more reasonably be held accountable; and it means taxpayers and politicians who are more concerned about the educational interests of children than they are about their own pocketbooks. This agenda item will be realized only if we all keep in mind that teaching is extremely hard work, and that it is the relationship between the child and the teacher which deserves fundamental attention and support. No program can replace the teacher; no system can substitute for parents knowing what is going on in the classroom.
The third phenomenon of the 1970s that helps set the agenda for the 1980s is a contradiction. In the midst of the widespread rhetorical commitment to educational justice and equal educational opportunity, practices which perpetuate injustice and inequality of educational opportunity continue. Particularly among politicians and educators, there is a studied use of rhetoric that includes phrases about "meeting the needs of every child," "accepting the child where we find him" and "providing an equal opportunity to every child." But children continue to be excluded from school for disciplinary reasons even though such exclusions are usually unnecessary and do not address the root problems responsible for a child's behavior. Minority children continue to be disproportionately referred for psychological evaluation and classified as handicapped, in spite of safeguards provided by federal law.
Children who come to school without having had some of the advantages of other children are defined as problems simply because they cannot meet the school's expectations, which are based on class and cultural assumptions. Increasingly, children are judged "not ready" for the first grade and are assigned to a separate class that is a kind of educational purgatory - neither kindergarten nor first grade. Other children who have difficulty learning or behaving in a way that is acceptable to the schools are tracked, expected to achieve little, casually taught, ignored and, in many subtle ways, encouraged to drop out.
Some of the parents of these children, or other citizens representing the interests of such children, serve on the Parent Advisory Councils mandated by Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Though school officials complain about how difficult it is to involve these parents as the law requires, the fact is that many of those school officials are not providing the training, information and opportunities for involvement which the law requires; they are, in fact, making every effort to frustrate the constructive involvement of Parent Advisory Council members as effective advocates for those children who need their help the most. Because of these practices, children have been harmed.
As part of our agenda for the 1980s, we must insist that the laws passed to protect and expand the educational rights of children must finally be enforced and made to work for children. The federal government, and some state governments, have said they care about the educational opportunities of many children - those who are racial and language minorities, young women, those from low-wealth school districts, those with handicapping conditions, and those who have not had certain educational advantages. Even though some progress has been made, all levels of government seem to be confused. The existence of laws is not a substitute for the enforcement of laws. We must communicate to state legislators and members of Congress that their responsibilities did not end when they passed laws; they must see to it that those laws work for the educational interests of our children and, above all, they must not retreat from their commitments to those children.
Making those laws work is not merely the responsibility of federal government officials. It is the job of all citizens and the duty of community organizations which have historically been concerned with these issues. Because of the successes that were achieved at the nation~ level during the 1960sand early 1970s, some people feel they can rely on the President, the Congress, the Supreme Court or certain federal agencies to guarantee their rights. That is no longer the case! The only way the educational interests and rights of our children will be protected is for people in local communities to work on behalf of all children.
The following checklist provides some areas where local people need to take action — according to their responsibilities as parents, teachers, school board members or legislators — for the educational interests of all children.
Parents and citizens should:
• Insist that educators spend just as much time and resources identifying and strengthening children's abilities as they do emphasizing children's academic and developmental deficiencies.
• Visit at least once a year each classroom in which they have a child enrolled to conduct a classroom audit. The visit should not only include observing the class in session, but also a discussion with the teacher about what resources he or she needs to do a better job.
• Organize themselves into groups actively seeking to pay more taxes to provide the revenue necessary to improve the quality of classroom instruction.
• Work with classroom teachers to identify the types of administrative and instructional support needed to improve teacher effectiveness in the classroom. Work to see that such support systems are provided, and that they are used.
• Monitor the policy development processes at both the local and state levels, and insist that policies be developed only after receiving substantive input from parents and lay citizens.
• Insist that teacher training institutions revise their curriculum to prepare teachers more realistically for the needs of all children. Deans of schools of education should insist that faculty members spend at least 20 percent of their time in local schools working with classroom teachers. They should also establish an advisory committee composed of parents, local school administrators and local school board members to provide feedback concerning the performance of the teachers trained by the schools of education.
• Be knowledgeable about state and federal education/civil rights laws which are intended to advance and/or protect the educational interests of their children. They should also know how these laws are supposed to be applied at the local level, and know what steps to take when they believe the laws have been violated.
• Recognize that outreach to, and effective communication with, parents and community groups are essential means to build an alliance which will ultimately advance teachers' interests.
• Acknowledge they don't possess essential skills to meet all children's instructional needs, and make it clear they want, need and are willing to accept assistance to strengthen their skills. Resolve not to avoid responsibility for developing such skills by blaming difficulties encountered in the classroom on children, parents, communities, or legislative mandate.
• Insist they have access to in-service and instructional development opportunities which will assist them in better meeting the needs of children. Also be receptive to mandated training which is related to systemwide/ school-wide problems, or which is for the purpose of correcting teachers' deficiencies.
• Join with school officials and parents in designing and supporting an efficient evaluation system for classroom teachers and administrators, which will ensure that educators are effectively serving children or are terminated.
• Link their bargaining of salary, benefits, and working conditions with a like number of demands which will directly improve the quality or quantity of needed educational services available to children. Prior to negotiations, work to promote community understanding of, and support for, both the welfare related and education related demands.
• Pledge to devote maximum feasible time to classroom instruction. Resist all initiatives which have the effect of disrupting or detracting from time spent on classroom instruction, or on students' "time on task."
State and local boards of education should:
• Take affirmative steps to attract more persons from various minority groups into the teaching profession, and create leadership development programs to facilitate the entry of minorities and women into administrative positions.
• De-emphasize the importance and value of quantitative standards of educational quality (as manifest in teacher and school certification requirements, and attention to school facilities}. Develop new criteria which emphasize qualitative standards.
• No longer assume children are being helped just because they are in remedial education programs. A critical assessment should be made of the effectiveness .of such programs, particularly as they affect minority children and those from low-income families. Remedial education that fails to advance the achievement levels of students significantly, or that results in other harms, should be terminated.
• Promulgate and implement policies mandating that children who commit attendance or disciplinary offenses which do not clearly threaten the security of the school community, must be kept in school. The root problems responsible for the commission of the offenses must be identified and remedied as part of the school's disciplinary processes.
• Mandate that all future schools have enrollments of no more than 800 students or be organized into administrative units serving no more than 500 students each.
• Require all students to participate periodically in a variety of vocationally oriented mini-courses in grades 6 to 9. Create programs to encourage low-income, minority and women students to enter non-traditional and non-stereotypical vocations of their choice.
• Require and enable school counselors and guidance personnel to be trained to spend at least half their time in direct personal counseling with students and, when appropriate, to help them use resources which can address students' social, emotional, family, educational and physical concerns.
• Closely monitor the impact of minimum competency programs and testing programs on the educational interests of minority and low-income students. The actual practices of local schools' uses of such programs should receive frequent scrutiny.
• Employ at least one full time person who works directly for and is accountable solely to the board on the basis of a renewable one-year contract. This person would serve as an independent source of information, research, analysis and training requested by the board.
• Join with classroom teachers in personally lobbying state and local funding authorities for the revenue necessary to provide better salaries and benefits for teachers.
• Examine the effectiveness of current in-service training programs for teachers. Place more emphasis on in-service training at the local school level as a response to problems encountered or caused by teachers.
• Make it clear to local school districts and schools that the concept of "local control" will not provide a sanctuary for the poor quality of education resulting from administrative/ instructional abuse, incompetence or lethargy. It should be made clear that state and local boards of education consider it an affirmative duty to intervene in those districts or schools where the poor quality of education is attributable to such causes.
• Demand that state departments of education determine and address the special needs of children in rural school districts where the majority of the children are black and come from low-income families. The state departments of education should initiate an intervention strategy to help solve the critical problems of such districts.
State legislators should:
• Prepare legislation which will establish fair procedures for public school employees to bargain collectively on matters related to salary, benefits, and working conditions. The authority to decide what will be taught, and how it will be taught, should be reserved to representative units of government.
• Develop state-financed compensatory education programs which will provide children who have special academic needs with opportunities to receive intensive supplementary instruction in extended school-day programs, on weekends or during the summer.
• Re-examine the process by which public school teachers are certified and change the process to emphasize and reward teaching skills, knowledge of subject matter and ability to relate to students, rather than academic credentials and performance on tests.
• Develop and fund a program to provide small incentive grants directly to classroom teachers for the purpose of improving classroom instruction.
• Establish school-site councils, with meaningful authority, as a new unit of local school governance. The councils would be composed of parent, teacher and administrator representatives. Within the context of laws and policies established by the federal, state and school district levels, the councils would carry out defined responsibilities for school goverance.
• Establish state human rights agencies, or extend the authorities of those which exist, with the power to enforce students', parents' and teachers' constitutional rights in public schools. These agencies should have the power to withhold state education funds from school districts which abridge the constitutional rights of students, parents and teachers, and which fail to take corrective action.
• Ensure that state systems of school financing are equitable and do not penalize school districts in low-wealth areas of the state.
• Remove all financial barriers (school fees, textbook rentals, fees for workbooks) which deny children access to educational opportunities.
/*-->*/ /*-->*/ Hayes Mizell has worked on public education issues with the American Friends Service Committee since 1966. He is currently associate director of AFSC's Southeastern Public Education Program in Columbia, South Carolina, and is a member of the board of numerous organizations concerned with education, equal rights and child development.