Good schools beat budget crunch with more attention to teaching

At a time when primary educators throughout the nation are wringing their hands over the loss of federal funds, a few innovators are rolling up their sleeves, pulling in their belts, and starting projects to show what can still be done to give poor students a good start at school. Astonishingly, some have even obtained federal contracts - likely among the last out of Washington for some time - to mount their demonstrations.

''We're aiming to raise pupils' learning in grades K to 4, using only the limited funding with which schools are going to have to learn to live,'' says Charles Stalford, project director of the National Institute of Education (NIE). ''If we succeed, as I'm sure we will, we'll have shown that effective education can take place even when budgets are meager.''

The four school systems involved had to make an agonizing choice: one condition of the grants was that they forego compensatory aid that would have helped the experimenting classrooms. ''That was the only way to test what could be done with the kinds of budget limitations which all schools will soon face,'' Mr. Stalford explained .

How do the four resourceful educators in Detroit, Mich.; Oakland, Calif.; Napa, Calif.; and Cotopaxi, Colo., who won the nationwide competition, intend to get more for less? (The districts will spend an annual average of only $158 a child more than their normal local allotment, exclusive of research and evaluation costs. This is considerably less than present Title I allotments.)

''It's based on quite a simple concept: 'Time on Task,' '' says Marilyn Jones , project head of the Oakland Public Schools project. A six-year study supported by NIE showed that the more time students are actually learning and experiencing high success, the more they absorb. When what they learn is the same as what is asked on the achievement tests, their test scores rise.

''The difficulty is that many teachers, even when they know the formula, have trouble finding sufficient time in the day to set the children to concentrated work,'' says Jones. All kinds of things get in the way: taking attendance; collecting milk and lunch money; checking homework; distributing a survey; lining up for recess, or lunch, or bus, or library, or fire-drills; changing seats for reading groups. These distractions whittle away as much as two hours a day if they are not done efficiently. And this does not include time wasted disciplining unruly children.

''Even if three hours are left each day for serious work, the teacher has to use some of it for an assembly or a TV-enrichment program, art, music, poetry, a story, recess, or discussions of the health news of the day,'' continues Jones. ''That might leave about 11/2 hours a day for reading and arithmetic work.''

While not even a crack teacher can keep every child in a class of 30 or more fully engrossed in his work every minute of the remaining time, any teacher can learn to be more efficient.

''We want to see time used for transitions and the like reduced to no more than 5 percent of the day,'' said Detroit's Sheldon Sofer. ''And our teachers know they should be shooting at no less than 50 percent direct instruction during the day - more would be ideal. In addition, we want to see how efficient we can be at training teachers to be efficient. For this reason we begin with the most cost-efficient of our interventions - making research topics on transitions, discipline, and the like easily retrievable by the teachers at the library. We only go on to the next levels of intervention - learning by example, practice in simulated conditions, and coaching - if the less intrusive levels prove to be insufficient.''

The problem is to break down the door of the classroom so someone can help teachers see how they are spending their time. Teachers traditionally want to ''close their door and do their thing.'' They resent ''snooping'' by anyone, particularly the principal. But the key to helping teachers become more efficient is a sympathetic, knowledgeable observer.

''Once they've experienced the benefits, most teachers change their attitudes completely,'' says David Trujillo, superintendent of the Cotopaxi schools. ''We have convinced our teachers we are coming in to help them become better at what they do well. It takes trust, but I think we've got a lot going for us. After each full day's observation, we provide an in-service workshop or a one-to-one conference, or both. Then we go in again to see if the activities are helping the teacher become more effective. We're looking to see if they tighten transitions, learn to present material more clearly, prescribe just the right level of work to assure high success. We want to see if they control children in a firm pleasant manner so they need little disciplining. And most important, we observe the children to see if they are actually busy learning.''

''Our principals are just as involved in the training program as are our teachers,'' says Pam Robbins, director of the project for the Napa County Office of Education. ''They must be dynamic leaders and demonstrate the same high level of energy and commitment to change as do our teachers. Principals who understand how difficult it is for teachers to change their teaching styles can learn how to support their earnest attempts by giving suggestions in such a way that teachers are buoyed by the experience, not diminished.''

Why are these educators so hopeful that this will work? According to the NIE's Charles Stalford, ''it is unlike the usual academic project, because it is a collaboration of people who work in the schools, with people who study schools. The decisions are being made by the people in the best position to know what will help teachers and administrators.''

Oakland's Marilyn Jones agrees: ''I really think we are breaking important new ground. Our findings will not only be immediately useful for us - but for everyone working in compensatory education whose budget is being slashed.''

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