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The World We Created at Hamilton High.

The World We Created at Hamilton High.

The education reform movement is settling into flabby middle age. Five years ago, enlightened education leaders like Albert Shanker were talking about career ladders and teacher competency tests; today Shanker talks vaguely about giving teachers more freedom to experiment with computers and audio tapes. Legislative victories in state capitals have given way to murky theorizing about how to improve education at the school level.

This shift seems premature: legislative solutions have not been exhausted. For example, although most states have mandated competency tests for prospective teachers, only a handful have taken the additional step of testing teachers already inside the classroom. Still, reformers are right that the fate of our schools will ultimately be determined at ground level. And if education reform depends on the performance of individual schools, citizens and policymakers would be wise to start learning what makes them tick. Gerald Grant's book is a good place to start.

Grant, a sociologist at Syracuse University, conducted research on one Syracuse high school over an eight-year period, eventually settling in fulltime to teach urban anthropology (and recruit students to conduct research for his book). But Grant wasn't satisfied to know the school as well as its teachers and students did. He also dug into the school's history.

When Nottingham High, the real name of Grant's "Hamilton High," opened in 1953, it served mostly upper-middle class whites. Academically, Nottingham was a success. Students performed at least two hours of homework a night, and nearly everyone went on to college. But the price was racial segregation. Nottingham desegregated in 1965 in order to qualify for newly available federal funds. The result was racial tension that boiled over into violence. During one cafeteria riot, even the principal suffered a fractured skull. As Nottingham became a war zone, wealthy students fled to the suburbs and academic performance went into a tailspin. Between 1967 and 1974, the mean SAT score fell 60 points.

Grant clearly believes that, no matter how painful, integration was necessary and worthwhile. But he bemoans two power shifts. One was the increased leverage of outsiders over Nottingham. For example, two Supreme Court cases and a subsequent ACLU statement led the school board to subject discipline procedures to "grievance and courtroom-like review." Grant argues that fear of legal retribution left the school staff too timid to punish misbehaving students. The second power shift was the new freedom afforded Nottingham students. Nearly half the credits required to graduate could be earned by taking electives that ranged from TV Production to How to Fix Your Bachelor Pad. It wasn't until the reformminded 1980s that the school board toughened graduation requirements. Finally, SAT scores started climbing again. By 1985, scores were two-thirds of the way out of the post-desegregation trough.

Nottingham's story carries the reader only halfway through Grant's book. Suddenly, what has been a crisp narrative turns vague, abstract, and filled with jargon like "value hierarchies," as Grant wrestles with the question of how to establish a positive "ethos" in schools like Nottingham. Eventually, Grant gets around to his point: schools and teachers need greater autonomy.

Autonomy is the new vogue in education reform; even Mad Dog William Bennett is advocating it. (In a recent Education Department report, he complained that "the principal enjoys little real management latitude.") In theory, autonomy is a good idea. Certainly the 1970s student-rights movement got out of control and stripped administrators of needed authority. But Grant understates the need for the state and even the federal government to keep an eye on things. In the 1960s, outside, "impersonal" forces were required to end segregation in Syracuse schools; in the 1980s, these forces pushed schools to bolster curricula and make teachers accountable.

I suspect Grant would have been less critical of outside interference had he written his book about a school in a reform state like South Carolina. In 1984, South Carolina legislated an overall increase in teachers' salaries, merit pay, no-pass, no-play rules, alternative teacher certification, and a new exit exam that students must pass before graduation starting in 1990. The impact of these "impersonal" forces on Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School, where I recently spent some time, has been almost entirely favorable. Fearful that O-W students will fail the exit exam, school administrators now automatically enroll students who score poorly on basic skills tests into a rigorous, daily remediation course. Were the schools' test scores to decline, the school district would risk being declared "impaired" by the state, giving the governor authority to fire the superintendent. "I live in fear of getting impaired," says the superintendent who oversees O-W. He doesn't seem a bit resentful.

Obviously principals and teachers are primarily responsible for school reform. But the reform movement's eagerness to shift power back to the schools makes me uneasy. More than anything else, the trend probably reflects the need to reassure the education establishment. At a recent conference of the South Carolina branch of the National Education Association, I saw a speaker draw cheers from a roomful of disgruntled teachers by declaring, "Accountability is the darling word of the far right." Teachers unions are so weary of public scrutiny that education reformers now find it prudent to stroke them. And there is enough truth in the new theories that they can do so in good conscience. But education reformers mustn't forget that the gains their movement made in this decade were not the product of local schools but of faraway state capitals. Democracy requires that governments, both distant and local, never forfeit the right to "interfere" in our public schools.
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Author:Noah, Timothy
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1988
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