Dickinson College Homepage Dickinson Magazine This issue of the Dickinson Magazine was mailed on Monday, April 4, 2005
From This Issue
Volume 82 • Number 4
Spring 2005

In a Fix
Are Public Schools Really Broken?
By William Lance Landauer
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.

Another school 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 of schools.

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.

American schools 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 levels.


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