|We’ve just read a series of essays by Dickinsonians
who pose remedies for the ills afflicting public schools. But is the patient—i.e., public
schools—really ailing? Data indicate
that schools are doing better today than ever before. In fact, public-school achievement is
at an all-time high. Data also suggest that we need to improve the quality of education, especially
in urban and poor rural communities.
One call for change comes from the school-choice movement,
which has been a failure. But that doesn’t mean all choice is bad. We need to examine
the data—not to advance a particular
political point of view—but to make policy decisions that are in the best interests of
our children. Magnet schools that are integrated into the school system need to be made more
available, especially in urban areas. School choice needs to be available, but the choices
need to be of excellent quality and those making them held publicly accountable.
reform that needs to be more thoroughly examined is the creation of charter schools. I agree
with essayist Jeanne Abate Allen ’82’s contention that we need
to “restore true control to parents, teachers and principals.” However, it should
not be through charter schools. As Tim Potts ’71 notes, abysmal results have been achieved
by charter schools in Pennsylvania. And the federal government recently released a report indicating
that charter-school students are not achieving as well as their public-school counterparts.
Despite data to the contrary, charter schools have been hailed as a success by the politicians
who created them.
Other suggestions made by our essayists require further research. David Kranz
wants to change the size of school boards and preparation of school-board members. The current
system of “lay” boards
provides a rather democratic approach to school governance. Working properly, boards select
administrative staff members who are knowledgeable about education and hold them accountable
for results. Unfortunately, some boards try to micromanage or impose policies that are not
advisable or seek employment for relatives.
Another essayist, Rebecca Rylander Kline ’73,
advocates for preschool education. As with other good ideas it is important to proceed with
caution—implement universal preschool
education slowly and carefully. We must be careful that we have qualified staff and sufficient
resources (money, classrooms, etc.).
A good first step toward real school improvement—and
an area of general agreement among the essayists—is the central role of the teacher.
Rachel Placek ’01 describes her
frustration with the No Child Left Behind Act’s emphasis on testing and wants to make
decisions about her students’ needs. Potts states that “learning happens in the
relationship between teachers and students.” He believes that school reform is best approached
by designing methods that would improve that relationship. Allen notes that we need to focus
on improving the conditions in which teachers work. It is essential that we listen to our teachers
as we seek to make changes that will be focused on enhancing the instructional environment
A second step would be to prioritize the use of our resources and equitably distribute
funds to all students. We should focus on student learning and limit the use of school resources
for programs and services that are not related to that objective. Education is a function of
the state and not of local communities. We need to change our method of funding education so
that children from poor communities are granted the same quality of public education as children
from wealthy communities.
Third, we spend enormous amounts of time and money on programs and
services that have little to do with learning. Our massive paper-and-pencil-accountability
system is an example of the waste of valuable time and financial resources. Schools should
be held accountable for making data-driven decisions. Objective data is very important, but
the data should be collected at the local level and should measure learning. One-size-fits-all
testing, as imposed by the No Child Left Behind law, that is used to measure a school’s
effectiveness, is pure folly and only can be justified in the political arena. As Placek points
out, it causes schools—and
teachers—to value the trivial at the expense of the important to achieve higher scores
on high-stakes tests.
Fourth, reduce district, school and class size—a difficult goal
but one that can be attained. The structure of schools has led us to a large and impersonal
brand of education that is most unfortunate. Tony Wagner in his book, Making
the Grade: Reinventing America’s
Schools, contends that we should create smaller school organizations and promote greater involvement
of local communities in the education of our young people. It is almost impossible to create
an atmosphere of warmth with the large school organizations of today. If we really want to
involve parents, teachers and others in decision making we need to reduce size.
are not failing, but they need to be better, and it is essential that we continue to try to
make them better. The moment we become complacent we will become less effective. The ideas
posed by our essayists are worthy of consideration. We must stay open to new ideas, but when
the ideas we support are demonstrated to be failures, we must recognize them as failures and
move on. •
William Lance Landauer, chair of Dickinson’s education department, is a former public
secondary- and elementary-school teacher, guidance counselor, assistant principal, principal,
assistant superintendent, superintendent and consultant to public and charter schools. He has
taught and supervised student teachers and administrative interns at the graduate and undergraduate