BOSTON — 'The kids say that in the past, studying math was like eating a rock," says Daniel Tanoos. "Now they say it's like eating a sweet pie."
Mr. Tanoos, principal of Chauncey Rose Middle School in Terre Haute, Ind., is describing a dramatic change in attitude on the part of the eighth-grade students at his inner-city school of 600. Several years ago, they were balking at some required courses, especially math. Now, many of them plunge in with gusto.
What made the difference, says Tanoos, is a program called 'Algebra for All.' "Every eighth-grade student in our school" he says, "is exposed to algebra and takes an algebra course. Usually kids don't take these classes until high school."
Behind "Algebra for All" - and a myriad of other successful programs in classrooms throughout the United States - lies a common factor: Teachers and principals were given the freedom to create such programs. Mounting evidence suggests that schools with fewer dictates from the school superintendent tend to prove more successful. As schools are freed of bureaucratic controls, they often produce students who achieve better test scores, learn more quickly, and have fewer problems.
"Power-sharing in school districts is not a 'strategy for success,' " says William Keane, associate professor of educational leadership at Oakland University in Rochester, N.Y. "In contemporary education, it is an imperative. It will soon be considered a survival skill."
For Tanoos's students, it already is. About five years ago, "we had a very high at-risk population," says Tanoos. "Yet we needed to continue to challenge them for the future, and mathematics seems to be a gatekeeper for education."
Then what Tanoos calls "the switch" started - a shift from a more authoritarian school system to one in which local schools were allowed to come up with their own solutions to problems.
As a result, Chauncey Rose became a so-called professional development school. Tanoos and his teachers turned to Indiana State University, in their own town. Under a partnership arrangement, Indiana University education students help Chauncey Rose teachers keep abreast of changes - "like power-sharing," says Tanoos -- and teachers from Chauncey Rose enroll in Indiana University courses.
To deal with kids at risk, "We asked [Indiana University] to give us some research and some studies," Tanoos recalls. The school took its findings, mulled it over, and one result was Algebra for All.
The reason for higher test scores
A recent study, "The Power of Letting Go," helps explain Tanoos's success. Spurred by what it calls "a groundswell of interest in shared decision-making," the report found overwhelming support for decentralization among superintendents in all 50 states. The study, conducted by Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., and the American School Board Journal, found that the less authoritarian the superintendent's style, the higher student test scores were. Some 61.4 percent of the superintendents said that school-based management improved school performance. More than 69 percent said decentralization has strengthened their education programs.
"Forty years ago when we had one-room schoolhouses, teachers went in and designed curriculum materials to meet the needs and interests of the students," says Joseph Kretovics, chairman of Western Michigan University's Department of Education and Professional Development and a researcher on school empowerment. It's clear from the experience of those schools, he says, that teachers need "to draw from the experiences that students bring to the classroom, dignify those experiences. Those goals cannot be achieved, he says, "if every move is dictated from a central office."
The point hits home for Paula Bainbridge, principal of the Parknoll Elementary School in Berea, Ohio. A few years ago, certain children in Parknoll were having learning problems, Ms. Bainbridge says. Schools were asked to help devise a five-year plan.
Getting help for students in need
Parknoll teachers came up with "ECHO" -- "extension of classroom holistic opportunities." It is staffed by a fulltime coordinator in partnership with the school district and Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea. Children with learning difficulties are given specific help so they can keep up.
"We opened up two classrooms," says Bainbridge, "a math center, a reading center, and other centers in the ECHO room in the school. The result has been heartening progress for the kids getting the extra help."