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The GM school of reform.

Like American car manufacturers, educators have been slow to accept the realities that signal needed change. Can the education bureaucracy make the long-term, radical changes we need?

Nearly 10 years have passed since "A National At Risk" rocked the American public school system with its accusation of "unilateral educational disarmament." In the intervening decade, the report's warning has been taken to heart as two distinct but overlapping philosophies have emerged to attack the shortcomings in education performance cited in the report. Traditionalists wanted gradual reforms, while advocates of restructing, impatient with incremental efforts, have made significant and substantial changes in the public schools of Oregon, Ohio, South Carolina and Kentucky.

Both groups confront obstacles in the quest for change, the greatest being the natural disinclination of large, established bureaucracies to alter themselves in any meaningful way. Fifteen years ago, Ohio Senator Charles Horn witnessed evidence of this inertia in the example of another giant American institution. As then-major of Kettering, Ohio, Horn spoke with a General Motors vice-chairman, in town to attend the opening of a museum. Horn said the preferred Americans autos and he wished GM would develop a high-performance small car that was also energy efficient, a growing concern in the post-oil-embargo atmosphere of 1976.

"Buy a foreign car", the executive told Horn. "We sell more cars to foreign countries than they will ever sell here. The demand for those cars is just a fad."

We now know that GM faces a crisis that can be attributed to that corporate worldview expressed in 1976. Despite attempts by the Ohio legislature to restructure the public schools, Senator Horn is concerned that, like GM, they will continue to face problems common to all entrenched bureaucracies having trouble adjusting to changing circumstances. Something more than internally motivated reforms may be necessary.

Like GM, the education establishment met the first calls for reform in the 1980s with denial and resitance. When it reluctantly acknowledged the existence of a problem, its solution was to ask for more money, and it accepted legislative suggestions--more testing, more graduation requirements, more certification--only if they were tied to more money. In the wake of "A Nation At Risk," 45 states attempted to finetune the existing system. One result was that public school funding increased by 114 percent over the decade of the 1980s. (In the same period GM pumped $90 billion into retooling its existing plants and equipment.)

Of course, the public schools and GM face different circumstances. A business can objectively measure its health with profit and loss statements every quarter, whereas judging the effectiveness of reforms and school restructing is far more subjective and requires years off patience.

Meanwhile, some members of the educational bureaucracy contend that many schools are performing as they always have. According to Gerald Bracey, a former senior policy analyst at the National Education Association, "The evidence overwhelmingly shows that American schools have never achieved more than they currently achieve."

Unfortunately, the economic situation in the United States has changed considerably. Due primarily to automation and increased productivity, well-paid manufacturing jobs have declined by 50 percent in the 50 years since the beginning of World War II, even though manufacturing has remained relatively constant at 20 percent to 25 percent of the nation's GNP. The days when dropouts and the marginally educated could find an employment safety value in the local factory have long passed. Asking schools to continue "business as usual" in today's interdependent world economy is just not acceptable.

"The educational status quo is not good enough for any state," warns Kansas Senate Majority Leader Fred Kerr.

According to Kerr, prerequisite for improvement is "continued public involvement by parents, business and |patrons' (interested parties without children in school) in both urging and participating in changes in the system."

State legislators, the primary patrons in the educational system, are perpectually caught in the middle, struggling to balance the competing interests of their constituents.

Kerr has backed active reform in Kansas that included the "Parents as Teachers" program and grants that provide matching funds for innovative programs. He prefers "steady improvement rather than tumultuous overhaul" and would like to see alternative ways to certify teachers, more aggressive programs for at-risk 4-yea-olds and dual college credits for advanced high school students.

Other legislators, despite opposition, have doggedly pursued efforts to change the system from within. In 1990 Wisconsin Representative Polly Williams, a Democrat, proposed and managed to pass, over the opposition of her own party, a bill permitting the limited use of vouchers for school choice.

Those who can afford to move to the suburds or send their children to private schools have always had a choice of schools. Poor families, especially those in inner cities where school problems are the worst, do not have this option. Williams proposed a voucher program to provide up to 1,000 poor families $2,500 each (Wisconsin's portion of the public education payment) to attend private, non-sectarian schools. Citing the functional illiteracy of the few inner-city Milwaukee school graduates, Williams defends her bill, which has become law and withstood a court challenge. "Poor children should have the same options as other children," she says.

By challenging "the monopoly that public schools have over our children," Williams' law questions the sanctity of the public education system, stoking the fears of those who envision school closures and loss of jobs. Proponents of choice and vouchers such as John Chubb and Terry Moe, who wrote Politics, Markets and America's Schools, argue that these measures have "the capacity to bring about the kind of transformation that reformers have been seeking to engineer in myriad other ways." Most experts, however, view choice as simply one more ingredient in a coherent restructuring plan.

Williams maintains that she is not trying to break the public schools. "I've been trying for 12 years to change the public schools from within," she says. "After a while you get tired or working within the system."

The "system" that confronts legislators like Kerr, Danielson and Williams is extensive, complex and diffuse. When legislators deal with school issues, they deal with school boards (as many as 1,000 in some states), a state board of education, an NEA and AFT affiliate, an administrators' association and a statewide affiliation of school districts. This is in addition to parents, businesses and other elected officials who all have their own agendas. These interlocking bureaucracies and interests have contributed to a structure highly resistant to change.

Legislators must bear this rigidity in mind if they seek to modify the system. The best approach to reform, according to some of its advocates, is "don't think small." Chester Finn, former assistant secretary of educations, says "The lesson here is that surgery needs to be much more radical than the patient would willingly undertake." Significant change will occur only in the face of sufficient external pressure, he says.

In recent years, reformers have turned to the courts to shake up the education system. According to Finn, when advocates of change take a school district to court it is a "reaction to largely unsuccessful incremental efforts reform education."

Kentucky's Education Reform Act of 1990 mandated new statewide standards in curricula, testing, administration and financing. This legislation stemmed from the Kentucky Supreme Court's 1989 decision that the Kentucky Constitution's requirement of an "efficient system of common schools" was not being met because of the great disparities in funding between districts.

Forty-eight other state constitutions contain a specific education clause, though these clauses are not worded the same in any two states. These imprecise yet powerful constitutional guarantees and the lack of any corresponding education guarantee in the federal Constitution ensure that these cases, 30 of which are on file, or are about to be filed, will continue to be a force in restructing the public education system.

In Kansas, a threat of court action hovers over the Legislature's efforts to revise the school financing system. A 1991 preliminary opinion by a Kansas district court found inequalities in the Kansas state funding formula; it has effectively forced the Legislature to devise a more equitable formula during its 1992 session or risk court action that would likely void the state's system for distributing educational funds.

At first glance, this situation would seem to open the door for change in Kansas, since, as Kerr says, "the really sweeping reforms have occurred in states where there is a crisis." It is unlikely that this particular crisis, though, will lead to a similar outcome in Kansas. The urgency of the court's deadline on top of normal election year pressures has led to a situation where, according to Kerr, "the school finance issue is so pressing that other school reform issues are on the back burner."

Despite increased court activism, state legislatures are still central to school reform. In Kentucky, Finn says, "The court created a vacuum, and the legislature and governor filled it. The court did not create a new system."

For its part, business has begun to realize that keeping property tax rates as low as possible is less important than having an available pool of flexible, well-prepared workers coming out of the public school system.

For example, by the early 1980s, South Carolina lost many of its low-skill manufacturing jobs to lower wage countries south of the border and overseas. The businesses that ermeged were hightech ventures that found the state's high school graduates lacking in fundamental skills and in need of expensive retratining. The business community responded by spearheading a comprehensive education reform plan and a one-cent increase in the state sales tax for education that was adopted by the General Assembly in 1984. Business representatives now its on an influential statewide review board that makes curriculum recommendations and monitors the performance of public schools.

Business leaders also collaborated with educators and government representatives to produce the National Commission on Education and the Economy's 1990 report "High Skills or Low Wages!", which prescibed a new system of academic performance standards and accreditation (see State Legislature, November 1991).

Representative Vera Katz, a commission member, helped incorporates several NCEE recommendations into Oregon's 1991 "Education Act of the 21st Century." In order to meet its goal of having "the best educated citizens in the nation by the year 2000," the Legislative Assembly adopted a number of diverse reform proposals as elements of a larger plan, including reduced class size, early intervention for at-risk children, site-based management, longer school years and limited school choice.

Despite the increasing attention devoted to the subject in the past decade, the public education system zigs and zags toward an uncertain future. Each day seems to bring new revelations of the educational shortcomings of today's youth, and few educators, legislators or private citizens now doubt the need for some kind of change. The impulse to do something, though, may outweigh the obligation to do the right thing.

One element of the Bush administration's "America 2000" plan, for example, seeks to establish one model school in each congressional district. Observers must ask themselves what these 500-plus schools represent: a path to a better future or an outbreak of "demonstration disease." According to Arkansas Representative Jodie Mahony, "The biggest problem is not identifying the good schools but getting others to systematically adopt their policies."

For this to happen, a vision of the future is essential. Sometimes such a vision is precipitated by an academic, financial or judicial crisis. In rare cases the effort to an individual or group has been strong enough to move a restructuring plan forward. The important point, however, is that crisis management itself does not guarantee academic improvement. Managing the latest emergency only camouflages an inevitable slide into mediocrity similar to what befell General Motors.

The furious pace of reactive and piecemeal changes implemented by GM in the 1980s created the illusion of an orderly and planned overhaul. The true state of the company's health was hammered home when Wall Street analysts recently threatened to downgrade GM's credit rating, a chilling prospect for a company with an enormous burden of debt. Management reacted to this emergency by announcing deep cuts including plans to close 21 North American plants and to eliminate more than 70,000 jobs.

Ironically, the vision of creating an efficient, effective 21st century automotive manufacturer was nearly lost in the tumult of GM's decline. Of the $90 billion spent by GM in the 1980s, less than 5 percent went into creating the Saturn division. GM decided to build a world-class automobile and designed a company around it. Established corporate assumptions, traditions and processes were subordinated to the goal of efficiently producing a quality car. Unions and management operated as allies, not adversaties, and employees recruited from existing GM plants volunteered to work under a new salary structure based upon the company's performance in the marketplace. The result has been a re-invention of the way American autos are built, incorporating the best of both international and domestic practices.

Though it is too early to determine Saturn's success, there are lessons to be learned from its startup. Vast as it is, GM examined its most deeply held corporate assumptions and struck out in a new direction. Can our leaders, public and private, afford to do any less with the education system that will shape future generations?

David L. Shreve and Scott A. Liddell specialize in employment and training issues for NCSL.
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Title Annotation:General Motors Corp.; solving the crisis in the educational system
Author:Lidell, Scott A.
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:May 1, 1992
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