Breaking the Hermetic Seal

The key in many communities is connecting public schools to the resources in their communities by Paul Hill

Public education is buffeted from many directions like a boat in "The Perfect Storm." Will these turbulent forces sink it? Not likely.

While today's many crises and challenges might seem like a random sea of troubles, they are not. They share a common origin and will move public education to a better place.

The main forces rocking public education are these:

  • Higher demands on schools and students to meet the knowledge and skill demands of the new economy;
  • A widespread perception that big-city public schools are not preparing poor and minority students to survive in the new economy and that cities cannot build or sustain effective reform strategies
  • A consequent instability in the superintendency, such that average tenures in big cities now have fallen below three years and community leaders are increasingly skeptical about being able to find anyone who can lead an effective improvement strategy.
  • High schools' extraordinary resistance to change, even in localities where elementary schools are improving.
  • Shortages of qualified teachers and principals—statewide in some cases, but worst in the big cities
  • Demands for school-level performance accountability that put great pressure on school boards to close and replace failing schools or to release students from those schools to find better alternatives.


Resistant to Change

Urban minority students who enter 1st grade at the national average of readiness to learn fall further behind the longer they are in school. By age 17, average test scores for African-American students, most of whom are educated in city schools, are no higher than national average scores for white 13-year-olds. Only half the African-American children who enter big-city high schools stay through graduation four years later.

Minority students educated in city public schools are less than half as likely as similar students educated elsewhere to enter four-year colleges. Moreover, reform initiatives are often feeble and short-lived. I recently led a team that set out to document the reform strategies of six cities considered on the leading edge at the time our study started in 1997—New York City District 2, Boston, Memphis, San Antonio, San Francisco and Seattle. By the time our book, It Takes a City, was published last year, five of those cities had lost or fired superintendents or abandoned the reform strategy we went to study.

Low-performing high schools are resisting change even in localities where elementary schools are getting better. Cities like Houston and Chicago, which seem to be doing a little better on elementary reading and mathematics, admit that their high schools are stuck. Recently, when researchers at the Center on Reinventing Public Education decided to study rapidly improving low-income schools in Washington state, they were able to find many elementary schools but few high schools. The traditional departmental structure of high schools makes it virtually impossible for them to change.

Principal and teacher shortages are severe, especially in urban areas. Daily newspapers are full of stories about big-city districts struggling to find qualified teachers and, in some cases, having to settle for people who are not well-educated or prepared to teach students effectively.

Most cities also have difficulty finding enough good principals. Seattle openly maintains a policy of rotating 25 outstanding principals among its nearly 100 schools. Other cities have difficulty recruiting enough principals to fill job vacancies. In Portland, Ore., nearly half the principals were new at the beginning of the 1998-1999 school year, and more than half the newcomers were recruited from other districts in the state, sometimes setting off shortages in those localities.

Standards-based reform also is exposing schools and school systems to new performance pressures. Virtually every state's official education reform policy follows the same logic: Make it clear what children must know if they are to become full participants in our society; measure schools' effectiveness in helping students meet standards; give schools the freedom and support they need to help all students meet the standards; hold schools accountable for performance, rewarding those that succeed and intervening in those that fail; and finally, act on behalf of children if schools do not work.

Community Connections

These issues are real, not manufactured.

Public education can handle these challenges and come out stronger than before. The key, I believe, is in breaking down the institutional barriers that separate today's public schools from the communities that surround them and recommitting to a constant search for the best possible educational options for students.

Our cities are treasure houses filled with human talent and great institutions—museums and universities, orchestras, religious institutions and foundations, all of them dedicated to learning and to uplifting the human sprit. Unfortunately, the way we now run public education has kept these institutions on the sidelines. They can give money and moral support, but they cannot create or operate public schools, nor can their musicians, scientists, writers and artists teach students, except before and after school hours or as volunteers.

The key to solving the problems of public education is to find ways of making all their resources relevant to the education of city children. This will require removal of barriers to private investment in schools, greater openness to allow experts in their fields to lead and teach in schools without abandoning their other careers, and willingness to abandon schools in which children are not learning.

Is It Feasible?

The key is breaking the existing hermetic seal between the public school system and the community. For starters, this means openness and transparency about the schools' performance and their needs. But more than mere public engagement is required. The people with whom the community has entrusted the task of educating its children must take a "by any means necessary" approach to their jobs.

Schools must be seen as changeable instruments, rather than as institutions that have a right to exist whether or not their students learn. This means searching for and sponsoring promising alternative learning opportunities for children, whether these are provided by community groups, colleges, businesses or employees of the existing school system. It means searching for the best possible people to lead and teach in schools, rather than making do with the established teaching force whatever its quality. It means assigning public funding to children, rather than to particular schools or to teachers, so that children can readily move from schools where they are not learning to more promising alternatives.

Making sure children get the very best their community has to offer has important implications for educational leadership and administration. The school board's job would be to find and develop opportunities, searching for individuals and organizations that could provide valuable educational opportunities and investing public funds to create options.

Today, the work of school boards focuses on the question, "How can we make the best use of the people and institutions that we now employ or own?" Tomorrow, the question will be, "How can we make the fullest use of the whole community's resources in the education of its children?"

Superintendents' roles also will change. They will inform the school boards about groups of students who are not learning and suggest how alternatives can be developed. Their job will not be to defend what is but to identify needs, develop options and recommend abandonment of schools that do not work. The idea of the superintendent as a portfolio manager for a system of schools implies that the superintendent controls funds and her freedom of action is not constrained by irrevocable commitments to tenured central-office staff or programs.

Leaders of individual schools then will become entrepreneurs who commit to well-defined approaches to instruction and then assemble the necessary teachers, administrators, materials and links to Internet sites that provide learning materials and interactive experiences. Principals (or groups of teachers who form cooperatives to run schools) will attract students on the basis of quality instruction and demonstrated results. They will be funded, in effect, by families that choose to enroll students and therefore bring public dollars.

School leaders and teachers will have strong incentives to cooperate with one another and to search constantly for better ways to promote student learning. Everyone's ability to keep a good and satisfying job will depend on the school's ability to maintain parents' confidence and to satisfy the school board that it is the best possible option for the children served.

Employment Incentives

These new conceptions of superintendent, principal and teacher leadership take the counter-intuitive approach of making jobs more attractive by making them simultaneously more powerful and more risky. In other fields, such measures have made the jobs more, not less, appealing to highly capable people.

They also change the way we think about teaching. In an economy where the most talented young people have many remunerative options, teaching cannot be set apart as a lifetime, low-paid occupation. Able college graduates expect to have several careers. Some even anticipate making high incomes during some periods of their lives and trading income for satisfaction during others. Many of these people express interest in episodes of teaching throughout their careers. The current teaching occupation, viewed as a lifetime commitment to civil service, is unattractive to some of the ablest.

Cities need to find ways to attract the ablest to teaching, especially those who have mastered scientific, technical and managerial skills that are so rare among current teachers. A possible approach is to hire teachers through contracts with professional cooperatives. These cooperatives could employ teachers and provide their salaries and benefits. The school district would pay on a contractual basis for teachers, and the amounts paid could combine current salaries, benefits and expenditures for in-service training and substitutes.

The cooperatives then would be responsible for recruitment, training and compensation. Individuals could be assigned to work in one school or many. For example, advanced physics teachers might be able to work at two or three high schools rather than just one and to work full or part time. Some individuals might keep jobs in industry while working part-time as teachers. Individual teachers' pay and benefits, including contributions to vested retirement accounts, could be based on scarcity of skills and individual performance rather than on seniority.

The Public's Role

This approach to public education is not a pure market scheme. Ultimately, public representatives hold the key: They set standards and decide whether to intervene. But they do not have any vested interest in a particular school. Their job is to provide effective instruction any way they can.

Some people think proposals like these are threats to public education. I think to the contrary that they can sustain and strengthen it. Public education is a goal of ensuring that every American knows enough and has all the required skills to take a full part in our country's social, economic and political life. By this definition, public education is not a fixed institution but a standard against which institutions are measured. Thus, a school does not accomplish the goal of public education just because it is owned by a public bureaucracy and staffed by career civil servants.

Existing schools and school districts are neither good nor bad in themselves. Any value they have comes from the purpose they serve. Good intentions are not enough. Schooling institutions that educate children effectively and prepare them for full participation in a democratic society, have great value. Institutions that do not fulfill that purpose have little or no value and must be changed.

When there is great uncertainty about what is needed and what will work, constant creation and testing of options is not merely permissible but necessary. Public education can stay afloat and even get to a better place in the face of the storms that buffet it. But to do so it must cut the lines to anchors that hold it in a perilous place and do whatever is necessary to get to its destination.

Paul Hill is director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, Box 353060, Seattle, Wash. 98195-3060. E-mail: bicycle@u.washington.edu