School Reform

Welcome to Heights High

Education reform is like tax reform. We all wish to cut taxes, of course, at least in theory. As soon as our own entitlement disappears, however, our indignant protests begin.

This ubiquitous but latent disingenuousness bared its hideous head a few years ago at Heights High School, just outside Cleveland, Ohio.

Although apparently integrated (unlike most of its neighbors), Heights High was actually two distinct, segregated schools: one for college-bound European American kids clustered in upper-level courses, and another for African Americans who languished in "standard track" classes. You see, the quality of education a student received depended largely on his or her race.

A unique opportunity for reform occurred in 1988, with the inception of The Model School Project at Heights High. A generous grant empowered teachers to identify the school's deficiencies, research alternatives, redesign their school from the ground up, and then govern it afterwards.

Eventually, a specific plan emerged, with the concept of small schools within a school at its core. In order to ameliorate Heights High's immense size (over 4000 students), family-like groups of students and teachers would be created. The ``families'' would remain together during the freshman and sophomore years, and thus come to know each other well. Each family would be composed of five teachers and approximately one hundred and twenty-five students. Classes would be smaller, and each team of five teachers would enjoy a common prep, permitting it to deliver an interdisciplinary, core curriculum to all students, regardless of race.

What an innovative, exciting idea! Nonetheless, once the details of The Model School Project were announced, everyone--and I mean everyone--assailed it.

The teachers' union, for example, asserted that site-based management was a threat to both union leadership and the time-honored adversarial relationship between teachers and administration. Besides, it violated the contract.

The union opposed the school-within-a-school concept as well. It wouldn't be fair for some teachers in freshman/sophomore core classes to have fewer students than their colleagues. Meanwhile, honors course teachers were loath to leave their cush classes, full of motivated students. Also, achieving smaller class sizes would be expensive, diverting scarce funds away from teachers' salaries....

Next, a small but vocal group of affluent European American parents balked at the idea of mixing everyone together. They descended on the Board of Education, threatening to vote down an up-coming school bond, and to send their kids to private schools. The Board, displaying consummate, but all-too-typical cowardice, immediately acquiesced.

Ironically, even many African-American teachers and parents objected to the reforms. They feared that the new, more rigorous curriculum might be too difficult for their kids, who often came from troubled homes. They also labeled some new get-tough discipline policies as ``racist.''

This sad story of Heights High makes the obstacle to improving public schools uncomfortably clear: We all support the idea of reform, but only as long none of us has to compromise or risk anything for the sake of the common good.

We have met the enemy, and he is us--all of us.

Welcome to Heights High, The Crippling Politics of Restructuring America's Public Schools by Diana Tittle, The Ohio State University Press,1995, chronicles in gruesome detail the rise and fall of the Model School Project.

Those Who Can…

Mr. Jones embarrasses me. His classes are at best uninspiring. In fact, he’s almost as bored as his students. Yet, he’s either unwilling or incapable of trying anything new. And I must call him my colleague.

Mr. Jones teaches at virtually every school. He’s easy to spot: He’s the one whose car tires squeal as he races out of the parking lot every afternoon at three o'clock. Heaven forbid he should hang around to coach or tutor! Or maybe he sends numerous kids to the office each day—evidence more of his inability to manage a classroom than of the kids' poor behavior.

Or, perhaps he’s the one hogging the VCR, preferring to teach with a remote instead of a piece of chalk.

Why doesn’t Mr. Jones move on to another profession? He’s no fool. He could never find another job where performance (or lack there of) has so little to do with salary and job security. As long as he doesn’t noticeably harm kids, he’ll enjoy tenure and a periodic raise. And it’s oh so easy to be mediocre!

Even if administrators could manage to fire Mr. Jones, they wouldn't dare. Whom would they find to replace him? It's not like there are crowds of bright young college grads clamoring for his position. And those they do mange to hire tend to score near the bottom on tests such as the SAT and GRE.

Indeed, a 1985 report by the National Institute of Education revealed, "…there has been a decline in the numbers of intellectually talented people entering the teaching profession. College students who choose education as a major have lower average scores on a number of indices of ability than students who select other majors. Among students who begin an education program, those who complete the program have less ability than those who switch to other programs. Among college graduates who get teaching certificates, those who seek teaching jobs are less talented than those who do not. Most alarming of all, among people who take Jobs as teachers, those who remain in teaching after five years are less able than those who leave to enter other fields.

You see, there is some truth to that old, insidious adage: "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach." Why would anyone really talented choose to become a teacher when he could make so much more money, and enjoy so much more prestige doing something else?

Many people, thank God, do. Call them idealistic. Call them naive. They work tirelessly, thanklessly, heroically. They, too, can be found in every school, working right along side of the likes of Mr. Jones. Their motto is, "Those who can, teach; those who can't, go into some other, less significant line of work." They love and excel at what they do. They inspire me.

The trouble is, there aren't enough of them; and there are more than a few like Mr. Jones. And as long as that remains the case, any proposal for education reform is doomed to failure. No matter how we structure our schools, they can never be any better than the Mr. Joneses who staff them.