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California at the Bottom: Picking up Public Schools

<i> David J. Barram, vice president of corporate affairs for Apple Computer, was the chairman of the Commission on Public School Administration and Leadership, formed by the Assn. of California School Administrators</i>

For much of this century California had a public school system that was the envy of most other states. Today things are different. Though demands on schools have never been greater, California’s financial support for schools is inadequate.

California ranks 47th among all states in per capita income invested in its schools. Are our children worth so little?

This month a statewide commission of business people and educators published a report entitled “Return to Greatness: Strategies for Powerful Improvements in Our Schools.” We ask California to do what we all know needs to be done. We need to pay for it. We don’t blame the governor or any political party--all of us must take part in building the political consensus needed to improve education. But beyond that, we need to be clear about how new money will be used.

-- Education is for everyone. California’s economic and social future depends on better educating the students we usually leave behind in the system. We are trying to educate all of them for a new kind of information society, but our public schools are just not braced to absorb the tremendous changes rushing at us in the next few decades. That is a critical observation, but it also offers many exciting challenges.

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--Local leadership. We always get the best results when control and management are local, unencumbered by regulation. While that’s a “motherhood” statement, it is surprising how often we stray from its power.

-- The new culture of trust. The idea of trust is central to our vision of the new school culture. It’s a simple, compelling idea that we see driving our best companies and our best schools and classrooms. Our experience in the best-run businesses shows us that trust is the centerpiece of the relationships that bring out creativity, innovation, personal freedom and achievement. We cannot imagine a great school that does not insist on shared decision-making between teachers and administrators and where trust between school professionals is not the norm.

In a great many California districts, the adversarial nature of collective bargaining has almost completely taken over and created two distrustful, wary camps. But recently two teachers’ organizations and school administrators have begun developing new models in schools--models that will bring trust into the middle of their relationship rather than freezing it out with rules for every conceivable action. The Japanese have taught us the importance of subtlety in working groups--a notion that gets lost in a heartbeat when rules are imposed.

The commission believes that these three ideas--educating all of us and doing so in new ways, insisting on local control and creating a new school culture based on trust and shared decision-making--will make a difference. Encouraging responses to our report from around the state make us feel even more strongly that these ideas will work. We also know we need to pay for them. In business, when we get a new idea or productivity-enhancing program, we invest in it up front; then we reap the rewards later. We want California to do that in education.

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Yes, it will cost a lot of money. But, even if we really had a different choice, we ought to make the investment. The state now ranks near the bottom in another important indicator of support--class size. But with all the new technology available to us, classrooms can be set up much differently than they are today. Some classes should be small, some large; some should have one adult, some several. Great teachers lecture, facilitate, prod, probe, coach and emote. We should make sure the school environment is flexible enough to accommodate these different approaches.

Our ability has never been greater to apply the emerging technology of the 1980s to our classrooms. Video, laser disks, computer graphics, long-distance learning, telecommunications and other new knowledge tools are all poised to ignite an explosion in learning productivity. All those things are being used today in many small ways; we need the vision to invest in them seriously.

While we believe California schools have too little money to do the job we expect of them--the job they have to do--we also believe the schools need to be more productive. But we can’t say, “Get productive and we’ll spend more on you.” That is backward. California must invest now and reap the benefits later.

The state spending level per pupil should be an average of the top 10 states, the commission urges--not because those states spend more than we do, but as a way to show how far we have to go. People have asked me why we relate California’s spending on K-12 education ($3,794 per pupil) to New York’s ($6,224). It is not because we think New York is a paragon of efficiency, but to illustrate the huge handicap under which our schools have been working.

Do we have the vision and leadership in California to make these things happen? A year ago I was pessimistic. Today I am confident. October, 1988, may be the beginning of an incredible revival of spirit in California.

Administrators and teachers are talking seriously about how to share decision-making and develop mutual trust. Test scores in junior highs show dramatic improvement--improvement that can be honestly related to a stronger emphasis on rigorous academic requirements. Superintendents and boards are making their goals clearer and explaining their performance against those goals. Business is waking up to the alarming fact that many students coming out of the system aren’t ready to work for our companies. We now are getting on the bandwagon to support programs like Head Start to try to stop the cycle of failure.

We need the governor, the state superintendent, the Legislature and the state education organizations to conduct an open, logical and honest debate. If, in their public discourse, they insist that we all reject self-serving, misleading statements, the people will respond and look to Sacramento for help in sorting out these complex issues.

The business executives on the commission know how far industry has come in the past 28 years and see no reason why education cannot not do the same. Trust, excellence, individual freedom and an expectation of innovation are the hallmarks of the best-run companies.

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This is the new work environment we need in the schools--a flexible approach that motivates educators to achieve excellence, allows individual innovation, provides site-level accountability and rewards achievement and performance. School administrators and teachers must form partnerships that focus on serving children, rather than enforcing the Education Code or a union contract.

Our school problems have been long in the making and will be hard to change. But we are certain of success, especially when we work together at the local level. It is time for Californians to take dramatic action to return our schools to greatness.

Copies of the report are available from ACSA, 1517 L St., Sacramento, CA 95814.


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