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PERSPECTIVE ON EDUCATION : Satisfying High Expectations : Much has been made of school “choice” plans. But the Richmond district has moved beyond mere rhetoric.

<i> James W. Guthrie is a professor of education at UC Berkeley and co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE)</i>

Much has been written about America’s failing schools and how free-market “choice plans” can save them. One school district in California, however, has moved beyond rhetoric and is implementing a reasoned and restructured choice plan that warrants careful scrutiny.

The governing board and superintendent of the Richmond Unified School District, a large and racially mixed area encompassing a diverse group of communities across the bay from San Francisco, asked these questions: “What if we gave parents a choice, but all the schools were still miserable? What difference does it make in the learning lives of students if all you can choose among are intellectually bland schools with a long history of failure?”

The Richmond school community has come up with a fivefold response. The first priority was making schools good, the second, making good on choice. The program contains these essentials:

A core academic curriculum. Ironically, a core of common features is necessary for choice to be effective. In Richmond, a child is enrolled in a required curriculum core appropriate for each grade level.

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In addition, teachers of core subjects frequently stay with a group of students throughout their elementary or middle-school experience. Thus, there is also an important element of instructional and adult stability to go along with the choice of electives.

First choice. Beyond the required curriculum, students and parents can select from an extraordinary spectrum of electives. The variety is made possible by using time frames as short as a week and as long as a semester. Not every subject must be shoved into a Procrustean bed of 18 school weeks. Having a wide range of choices, from auto shop to zoology, students are encouraged to stay in school and achieve by learning about their particular interest.

The teachers’ choices. The wide range of electives is generated by permitting teachers to instruct not only about what they learned in college but also what they have learned in life. This might be a hobby or avocation like photography, archery or pottery. They also can choose to teach advanced-placement courses consistent with their personal interests. The result is a panoply of personal choices for students and a greater chance for professional fulfillment for teachers.

A third choice. If, after learning about their regular school’s program, purposes and possible electives, a family is still unsatisfied, they can choose any other appropriate school in the district where space is available. Most households choose the local school; about 8% select an alternative.

Administrators’ choice. School executives can choose how best to operate their school to meet district expectations for high achievement, student expectations for an interesting curriculum, teacher expectations for a productive work environment and parent expectations for an effective school. There is a great deal of accountability in these expectations. There is also increasing executive discretion in meeting them.

A future choice. Richmond is also working with a number of computer companies to invent and test sophisticated means for using computers for instruction. The long-run objective is to empower teachers and students with a wider range of choice regarding the mode of instruction.

Not everything is proceeding smoothly. Restructuring has involved great change for teachers, and labor relations were initially strained. The district’s budget has also been under intense stress. Student achievement test scores initially rose but have been uneven (state test scores actually declined for 1989). The social and racial consequences of parental-choice patterns are not yet known. A full-scale evaluation of the program will not be feasible for another year or two.

Thus it is too early to proclaim a victory, and neither Richmond’s elected officials nor its professional educators believe their job is complete. However, change has begun in a thoughtful manner that is rare in American schools, and reformers should surely stay tuned.

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