US school principals optimistic they're getting grip on problems

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Facing about as daunting an array of problems as any professional group in the United States, members of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) are nonetheless optimistic about the future of America's public school system.

The litany of problems is familiar: thousands of functionally illiterate high-school graduates, a decade of declining scholastic achievement test scores, violence in the schools, declining enrollments, staff layoffs, major budget problems, and more.

John Yates, the NASSP's new president, reflected the upbeat tone of the organization's 65th annual convention here in Atlanta. He asserted in an address: "The tide is turning or has already turned. Our students see more clearly now than in the recent past what school will offer them. The door is open, and the period of extreme defensiveness is behind us."

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Four major matters were of special concern to each of the 7,800 principals from all over the US who gathered here last week:

* Learning and curriculum: How and what are my kids learning; how does this compare with what is going on elsewhere and with what has gone on in the past in my school?

* The negative image of many public schools: Why do parents and individuals hold schools, my school, in such low regard and what are some practical, effective ways to turn this negative image around?

* The funding crisis: How will level or diminished finances affect the way I run my school, my necessary programs, my faculty's morale?

* Government regulations: How do i accomplish their intended objectives in a way suited to my individual school setting? Also, will regulations be reduced? (A number of principals here pointed out that the first applause for President Reagan's recent address to Congress came when he said, "We have to get the federal government out of the education business.")

Cutbacks in federal funding for education would not necessarily be all bad, according to Scott Thomson, executive director of the 35,000-member NASSP. "If a 10 to 20 percent cutback in the federal budget for education would also bring less regulation and fewer watchdog agencies, that would be a step forward for secondary schools and students," he said.

But a funding cut without a concurrent regulation cut would "leave things worse off than they are," he added.

Community support may be more important at this point than government support , according to Mr. Yates, who is principal of Lumpkin County, Ga., High School. "We must get our public back," he says. "We have to do a better job of opening the schools to parents and the broader community.

"Support for our schools is probably the biggest challenge educators face in the coming year. We have lost a lot of credibility, and much of our public no longer wants to become involved in schools."

This rewinning of public confidence must be accomplished in the face of the sobering statistic that three out of four adults today do not have a child in either elementary or secondary school. Gone are the pupils produced by the post-World War II baby boom. When those children were in school, in the 1950s, '60s, and early '70s, 55 percent of the adult population had a direct stake in the schools because their children were attending them.

The enrollment drop has created a situation that drastically alters the way schools must relate to the public.

What Americans must realize, Thompson says, is that "everyone, whether he has a child in school or not, has a stake in education. Well-educated individuals -- not new oil or mineral discoveries -- are going to be our society's primary natural resource if we are to compete in the world. New wealth will be the ideas of our people."

Thompson points out that "Japan, Germany, and the Soviet Union are educating their students better than we are in the important areas of science, math, and foreign languages."

One problem in school-community relations, Thompson and others note, is that many parents and others do not realize the changed environment within which today's junior and senior high-school administrators must work.

"The . . . principal may be caught in the middle of the public's misunderstanding of the major structural changes that have occurred in US schools," Thompson says.

The school, and the principal, are under pressure from policies imposed by the state and federal governments -- and from a school board that may be more "politicized" than in times past.

There are legal restraints from below as the result of widespread collective bargaining agreements and a willingness on the part of many parents and citizens groups to take school officials to court to contest their actions.

Administrators at the meeting here admitted that the schools may have overlooked the effects of these new layers of control on both parents and school officials.

Broader societal developments, they explain, significantly alter the traditional latitude principals once had for controlling their schools. Parents think back to when they were in school and the principal was "in charge." That individual's authority no longer is so clear cut.

"Different skills and decision processes must be brought to bear for a principal to effect control today," said Ann Barkelew, public information officer of the Los Angeles County schools.

For many parents, officials say, the school is still a human institution and the face of authority is the principal's. And, voicing a kind of "back to basics" attitude toward their responsibilities as school principals, many of the administrators at the NASSP convention said that if given greater control over how they run their schools they would welcome the challenge of convincing parents they are accountable.

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