Outlook Graded C for Caution as Officials Weigh School Reform

Times Staff Writer

Tucked away in a second-floor room overlooking a North County golf course, a group of San Diegans held discussions last weekend about San Diego's future that were as important as those of any area city council or chamber of commerce.

The people were top San Diego Unified School District administrators and their board of directors. Their topic was whether the first steps toward better schools taken during the last five years can and will be followed by more substantive changes that everyone agrees are needed. The prognosis was guarded: hopeful signs of new programs and ideas tempered by admissions of poor labor relations with teachers and a slow-moving bureaucracy.

The catalyst was the call to educational arms issued earlier this year by the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, which linked the strength of America's economic future to the quality of its public school systems. The forum's executive director, Marc Tucker, was invited by the district to attend the public retreat as part of a series of area meetings to explain the forum's recommendations and to respond to questions from the local administrators.

"I don't think there's much time (before we must begin) to act," Tucker told district Supt. Tom Payzant and his top advisers during almost three hours of intense conversation. But he offered some optimism as well: "While reforms may take 3, or 5, or 10 years to put into effect, as soon as they get going, a message gets into the air and things begin to (snowball) quickly."

Carnegie Foundation Branch

The Carnegie Forum, a branch of the Carnegie Foundation that has promoted public education reforms for more than 50 years, wants to see school districts across the nation offer teachers more pay and more responsibility in exchange for better preparation and better accountability on the part of the teachers.

The effort involves a plan already under way to begin certifying teachers who pass an evaluation designed by a Carnegie panel to show that they meet more than minimum standards of professional competence. Payzant sits on the committee drawing up the certification testing procedure that will begin in some states next year.

The plan also includes more sweeping proposals for offering those teachers better pay and significant autonomy in restructured school systems where the individual schools would have more say in how students learn what is mandated by local and state boards. At the same time, the individual schools would be subject to periodic reviews based on how well their students performed and would be rewarded only if they could show that their techniques were working.

"Accountability is key to much of this," Tucker said, acknowledging the difficulty in achieving the Carnegie ideal, which assumes that public schools should be run as much as possible along management models of America's successful businesses, where rewards come only with performance.

Cited New York Contract

Tucker cited a new contract in Rochester, N.Y., where the district was considered to be in shambles. Teachers will be able to make as much as $70,000 a year and have a major say in designing teaching methods but in return have given up seniority rights and other traditional union protections, he said.

"But one of the greatest barriers to implementation are the people we're trying to help," board member Dorothy Smith said during the spirited discussions, "namely, the teachers and the teachers unions. Because of the history (of labor-management relations), they are in a circle-the-wagon routine, and they don't have a feeling of cooperation."

The district and its teachers union are in the midst of contract negotiations that have turned acrimonious during the last month. The union has asked its members to "work-to-rule"--following contract regulations to the letter and making no volunteer efforts--and not participate in various committees with district officials on ways to experiment with new curriculums and teaching methods.

Among those committees are several dealing with the "core curriculum proposal" of Smith and colleague Jim Roache, which would require more stringent academic courses for all district students but give teachers more leeway in deciding how to carry out the standards.

'Afraid to Try'

"And (the labor history) doesn't help to get autonomy," Smith said. "When we asked teachers to go ahead and be creative with our Achievement Goals Program and not just use worksheets, a lot were so tied to the (step-by-step district) guidelines, that they were afraid to try."

Board President Kay Davis faulted the board and administrators as well. "In many ways I think we are in deep (trouble) in terms of (the future) but I don't think we've shown the union anything different (in our attitude) this year," Davis said.

Davis would like to experiment with giving an individual school the total dollar amount in its annual budget and letting the school use the money any way the staff wished, instead of according to precise district rules. The autonomy would depend on the school showing a year's growth in student achievement for a year's effort, along with successful integration and parent involvement.

"But our attitude here is that we are not in crisis," she said.

"But it would be awful if (a crisis) is what it takes to get us to act," said district legal counsel Tina Dyer.

"It may just take the trauma of a voucher system," warned Assistant Supt. Catherine Hopper, referring to proposals by some reform advocates to let parents use their tax dollars to pick any school, public or private, that they believe is best for their children.

Assistant Supt. Frank Till cited two examples of bureaucratic impediments. A joint teacher-administration committee to improve staff morale has taken two years to come up with its first suggestions, he said. And the district has taken an innovative program from two schools to encourage low-income and minority students to go to college and mandated it districtwide with strict rules instead of allowing other schools to come up with equally promising strategies.

"The problem is that the improvements we are talking about involve risk, and in the public sector, we are set up to avoid risk," board member Roache said. "We might have to say to a teacher, 'if you are not good, then you should no longer be here.' "

Way to Avoid Extremes

Tucker said that accountability schemes could avoid such extremes. "Perhaps you reward staffs in schools where there are better results for students, all other things being equal," he said. "You just can't throw autonomy at teachers and expect it to work; teachers have to know it is worth their while to improve performance."

For restructuring to work fully, he said, teachers must want to learn from one another about what does work. "For example, they have to see that it brings more rewards (for students and the school) to invest in a tutoring system rather than buying blackboards," he said.

Assistant Supt. George Frey recalled his experiences as a vice-principal and principal in area schools where autonomy led only to cosmetic changes. Frey said that some structure mandated from local boards will always be necessary, and Payzant added that a certain amount of standardization, such as in textbooks, is required so that students who move from school to school will have some continuity.

Payzant said that the nation will be watching the Rochester experiment closely. "In three years, if the kids haven't made at least three years' progress, then there will be deep consequences; that is the accountability," he said.

In the meantime, Payzant hopes the board can get through its current negotiations without destroying the possibility for teacher-management cooperation on reforms that he believes can be carried out in San Diego.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World