JUST WHEN educators and the public seem to be striking a reasonable balance between autonomy of schools and state and federal intervention, over-eager politicians threaten to tip the scales away from local control.
Most teachers and administrators accept the idea of state academic standards that can be massaged slightly to fit local needs and interests. A number of school districts are even ahead of the state in adopting standards with the idea that they can be toughened later if they do not meet future state guidelines.
Implied in the acknowledgment that a uniform, statewide rigorous curriculum is academically beneficial is the understanding that local educators will continue to be trusted to decide best how to teach the children and how to run the schools.
But the current political rush to take advantage of public interest in school reform and the desire of every wannabe officeholder to be the “education candidate” has potential to turn over too much authority and decision-making power to the state.
There are disturbing signs that many politicians and voters are forgetting that need for local flexibility.
Proposition 227, the anti-bilingual education initiative on the June ballot, illustrates the danger of state mandates. While there are some teachers who welcome the idea of limiting children to one year of English immersion instruction before putting them in all-English classes — as the initiative requires — there are many, many others who have had success with non- or limited-English-speaking students through various forms of bilingual instruction.
What works at one school may not work at another. As Frank Gorman, principal at the predominantly low-income and immigrant Bahia Vista Elementary School in San Rafael says, “You need to have some flexibility. One size does not fit all.”
Witnessing the political mileage Governor Wilson got from his class-size reduction plan, this year’s gubernatorial candidates are bumping into each other trying to live up to state polls that show education is No. 1 in voters’ minds.
Many of the proposals are thoughtful and provide desperately needed resources to schools. Others verge on harmful meddling.
Republican Attorney General Dan Lungren would like an end to what he calls the “educational fads” of new math and whole language reading instruction even though plenty of local teachers favor such teaching methods.
Democrat Al Checchi, a former Northwest Airlines executive, wants to put a two-year limit on bilingual instruction for any elementary or secondary school student.
Lieutenant Governor Gray Davis, another Democratic gubernatorial candidate, wants to micromanage even further. He wants to set statewide homework requirements, starting with 15 minutes for kindergartners working up to 150 minutes for high school seniors — a proposal that sends shudders through educators because it is so shallow.
“Allocating time isn’t as important as what kind of homework is assigned,” says Nancy Mayeda, principal of Rooftop Elementary School in San Francisco. “You have to be careful about the quality of homework.”
Like Checchi and Lungren, Democratic Representative Jane Harman has bought into the idea that scores of students are being promoted to the upper grades without knowing anything. They all support an end to what is being called “social promotion” even though teachers and administrators say the politicians are being simplistic about a very complicated problem.
“Most of the children do master the skills,” said Catherine Syversen, principal of Neil Cummins Elementary School in Larkspur, who wishes the politicians would visit more schools. “But what do we do about the children that for one reason or another — because English is a second language, for example — do not pass a promotion test? Do they stay in the fourth grade until they’re 14?”
Syversen says what is needed for those children is remedial help, which may or not be available, depending on the financial resources of a particular school or school district.
“We don’t automatically promote kids,” says San Rafael’s Gorman. “We look at kids on an individual basis.” State schools chief Delaine Eastin has the right idea about local control vs. state dictates. She says the state should set academic standards, administer tests to make sure students meet those standards and require schools to be accountable through such means as posting test scores, dropout and attendance rates and demonstrating regular academic achievement. If they don’t meet acceptable levels, they could face state intervention or even a state takeover.
But after the broad outlines and goals are defined, schools and school districts should be given the freedom to be creative and innovative in finding the best path to achieve the general academic goals.
The interest in education from Sacramento is long overdue and welcome up to a point. But schools need flexibility too if they are to best serve their students.
Here is what the gubernatorial candidates say they want for California schools:
— Dan Lungren, Attorney General, Republican: More charter schools, vouchers for public and private schools, an end to such “fads” as new math and “whole language” reading instruction, prayer in schools, an end to “social promotion,” merit pay for teachers.
— Al Checchi, Former Northwest Airlines executive, Democrat: Increased salaries for teachers in exchange for making it easier to fire incompetent teachers, competency testing for teachers every five years in every subject they teach.
— Gray Davis, Lieutenant Governor, Democrat: Required homework starting with 15 minutes for kindergartners working up to 150 minutes for high school seniors, random drug testing in high schools with parental and student consent, more money for textbooks.
— Jane Harman, Congresswoman, Democrat: An end to social promotion, emergency scholarship and loan forgiveness for young people going into teaching; state standards, professional development for teachers, after-school and Saturday programs at public schools.