Will education reform be a flash-in-the-pan - the Sputnik of the '80s?
Speakers at the National PTA Convention under way at the Salt Palace, feel there is more substance to the national effort, that it is making a difference and that it likely will continue evolving over the next few years."No one realized what it (he 1983 report, "A Nation at Risk") would trigger, said Chris Pipho, director of the Information Clearinghouse, Education Commission of the States.
The 1983 report, prepared under the direction of then-Secretary of Education T.H. Bell, spawned hundreds of responses among the states, with commissions, committees and state agencies developing their responses to the identified weaknesses in American education.
Students and teachers have been targeted for most of the reform efforts, Pipho said, with increased graduation requirements for the former and competency testing for the latter initiated in many states.
The reform movement was not the first in the history of American education and change actually was under way before the 1983 Nation at Risk study, he said. However, the national focus has given impetus across the country to address problems in education and design alternatives.
The movement is now essentially in a monitoring mode, Pipho said. Most reports are positive. The exception, such as Louisiana's "Long Journey to Nowhere" response are few. Where reform hasn't worked, it is more an artifact of economics, he said.
Reform is likely to take new directions over the next few years, but the Nation at Risk report "jarred us loose," he said. "It awakened an interest in education that I expect to last unless economics or world conditions change it."
Gov. Norm Bangerter told the PTA delegates Utah has succeeded in some educational reform and is still working on other areas.
The governor said his prime objective in reform is to move control of education to the lowest possible level. He supported initiation of a block grant program with that in mind. The program, which will give five or six school districts an opportunity to have some of their state support money with no categorical ties, will begin soon. Applications have been received and the State Office of Education has suggested all six applicant districts be allowed to pilot the program, although the Legislature called for only five.
One of the districts (alt Lake) has proposed giving money to schools without any strings attached to see if innovation at the lowest local level would produce effective results, Bangerter said.
"What America needs is an infusion of parental interest and activism - a return to local control," Bangerter said. "We must have state support, but it's time each school had its own board of advisors to decide what is to be done."
"Changes must occur. The old methods are not serving in ways to which we were accustomed," he said, citing several steps Utah has taken to promote reform. They include tougher graduation requirements, plans for better assessment, teacher career ladder incentives, development of a core curriculum, increased concurrent enrollment and others.
An aggressive push for better school utilization through year-round schools, extended days and enforced efficient use of buildings has saved the state an estimated $100 million in capital outlays, he said. Utah's challenge is to push reform while dealing with the largest percentage of school-age children in the country, the governor told the PTA delegates.
A third speaker in the workshop on education reform, Anne Campbell, a member of the national commission that developed the at-risk report, said the reform effort will be successful only if there is "no unproductive tendency to look for scapegoats among the victims."
She expressed concern for too much emphasis on testing and then in comparing results, unless a sense of balance is maintained.
"Competition can be good or bad," Campbell said, "depending on how far you will go and who you will or will not hurt."
Sunday, a keynote speaker called for "Inclusion, control and affection" as the keys to success in PTA.
Using these variables effectively in a school environment will help children learn, teachers teach and administrators administrate, said JoAhn Brown-Nash, senior vice president of Prescription Learning.
"When these three variables are working together in a balanced way . . . the yield is increased productivity, increased attainment and people working together and feeling good about it," she said.
Inclusion means that when a group, whether it be a PTA organization or a school class, gathers and its members ask "am I in or am I out," everybody should answer that they feel involved.
But if students don't feel involved, "they feel out, they act out and they drop out," she said.
And if teachers don't feel included, they come late to school, leave early, and lose their enthusiasm for work, Brown-Nash said.
But by sharing information and by creating a climate of trust and tolerance and by communicating "interpersonally and professionally," everyone can be included in group activities, she said.
Control means creating "a sense of mission, a sense of vision" in the classroom or elsewhere, enabling parents, teachers and students to understand and believe in their potential as human beings, Brown-Nash said.
"We do not know the limits of a human being's potential," she said, and therefore we must create an environment that will not prohibit teachers and students from growing.
"If we all get better, you can get better and kids can get better," she said.
Finally, affection means offering recognition, a pat on the back, or another signal "that says we value you." Affection will bring about harmony in a school environment, Brown-Nash told PTA members.
"The bottom line is we're all human beings trying to improve the quality of our lives," she said, commending the PTA for being a leader in the effort to improve education in the country.