In the midst of reform: the perspective of a leading urban educator

Four years before the recent spate of national studies on education was released, the Minneapolis public schools embarked on a course of major reform. And the reforms are being felt.

One dramatic example of this: last June, 11 percent of the kindergarten class did not graduate. Almost 350 five-year-olds took extra classes this summer before they could enter the first grade. Minneapolis bans promotions without achievement.

Richard R. Green, superintendent of schools in Minneapolis, took charge of the 37,000-student school district just as the numerous changes were being drawn up. Now he must oversee carrying them out.

The Monitor asked superintendent Green about the health of his city's schools as current education reforms take shape.

Q. Have federal cutbacks to education over the last three years been significant? Could you give some examples of how they are occurring here?

Well, we were starting to implement a program of nonpromotion. But (cutbacks) will have (their) greatest impact on the students who come out of minority groups and low-income groups. And that's the target group that the federal government had determined that they would give assistance to.

Cutbacks will have greatest impact (on) our newly arriving citizens from Southeast Asia, and that is a group that is already receiving less federal support than they have in the past (tied to bilingual programs).

Q. I met two couples - between them they have five children - who live in the city but they're sending their kids to a private school. It's not a religious school.

They're wasting their money.

Q. They said they want a more transcendent sense of values - religious values - offered to their children. How do public schools address that need in a nondenominational way?

They don't. That is one of the areas (where parents) should go out and purchase education. And not through public policy but through private desire.

And we aren't able to guarantee a tailor-made program for every high-potential student that's a genius. There are people who are having to make the decision about buying educational programs for the young person that's a genius.

But let's assume that they're just, well, highly motivated, thoughtful students who are well rounded - that's where (the parents) are making a mistake. Because it's here. In any program that you can find, you can succeed. We'll assure you that you go to college and you'll be competitive with any other student ... no suburb can compete with our magnet program.

So I think they're wasting their dollars. But if it's the transcendent values that the school should give, if that's the broad perspective this person wants, we aren't organized to give that on the individual basis and, in all probability , families ought to give that anyway.

Q. Let's come at the question of values from another perspective. Suppose my kids are in third grade and they're discussing nuclear issues, war issues. And I think it's inappropriate at that age level. Is there enough flexibility - can I find a school where I know that won't happen?

No. You can't find a private one where that won't happen, either.

What I'm saying is that this whole notion of academic freedom is of value. And current events are part of one's extended self. And to not acknowledge today that it's being discussed, that there's a discussion going on about the mining of harbors in Central America and whether or not the United States should or not ... to suggest that that might not be discussed - that's out of the question.

Now, I think that we went through the whole issue of whether or not sex education was going to be discussed as a viable part of one's education in the schools 20 years ago, maybe 15 years ago; maybe some communities are still discussing it.

The realities are, it's a part of life. The realities are that information is needed to make decisions. If you value a school that will not touch such a delicate subject, you probably should try to locate that school. Maybe a strong church-related school won't touch it.

But we find that many private schools are as advanced in the area of sex education as public schools - and see it (as a) requirement.

Q. Do you welcome changes in certification requirements for new teachers? New Jersey is well along in that, where the local school district, the superintendent, could be an alternative route to certification rather than going through a university teacher-training program.

Yes, I think you've touched on a very serious area.

Do you keep the K-12 arts person or do you get the specific person who may not be certified under traditional norms? I think I would be opting in the direction of the noncertified person. So a strategy, I suspect, like New Jersey's would be more (workable)....

There's a greater demand for high-potential programs (and teachers) than ever before.... (An important issue is) what kind of persons or strategies ought to be available in a public school system that underlines the word public and attempts to deal with the diversity of needs.

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