A school shake-up that's working

Bill Honig thinks merit pay for teachers is a good idea. So much so that he wants to carry it one step further. He favors merit pay for an entire school. ''The idea is very straightforward,'' says the California superintendent of public instruction. Identify schools in two categories: the top 10 percent by straight academic achievement; the 10 percent at the bottom which have made the greatest improvement over their last year's record in all areas including attendance.

Each set of schools would get a check from the state for $75 per student. These schools could then spend the money in any educational way the students, faculty, and administration thought best. (The cash would be in addition to regular state funds, which, in California, make up 80 percent of school budgets.)

''For a small investment the dividends would be enormous,'' says Mr. Honig. ''Right away you'd target excellent schools as well as the standards you were judging them by. Everyone would look to see what these criteria were and then try and emulate them. I know some schools in low socioeconomic areas that will win the academic award,'' he says. ''I also know some upper-class suburbs resting on their laurels which won't, and they will get shaken up.''

''Shaken up!'' - the phrase aptly describes what this tall, intellectual, and politically pragmatic father of four has done to improve California schools in the less than two years since he won the highest elected slot for an educator anywhere in the United States. As superintendent for the State of California, he heads a public school system that consists of more than 1,000 districts, 160,000 teachers, and 4 million students. (Only US Secretary of Education Terrel Bell, who is a presidential appointee, has responsibility for more students.)

Normally, the position exerts the greatest influence in budget matters. True to this image, Mr. Honig played a major role in getting the Legislature and governor to pass annual back-to-back funding increases totaling almost $2 billion. He also sought and won incentive pay for master teachers who perform extra work.

But his efforts haven't stopped with just more dollars. Honig promoted tougher graduation requirements, stricter enforcement of student discipline, more rigorous teacher-competence standards. The Legislature passed each measure.

''It's just the beginning. The real work lies ahead,'' he said in an interview at his San Francisco home. The next area of school reform, says Honig, is academic curriculum.

''I want schools to challenge students, from the fourth grade on - to ask what is the 'good life,' what is it that makes us truly free here?'' says the former lawyer, social studies teacher, and school district superintendent. ''Schools have to help students work out their own definition of what good means. This should include more than narrow self-interest. It's a Hamiltonian idea. The ideal of virtue must be presented because freedom without it is anarchy.''

Democratic society can exist only among ''individuals who have self-discipline and who live by higher ideals, citizens who pay attention to good government, who vote intelligently and believe in the process of democratic government.''

The public schools ''reflect the genius of America because they can implement such high-sounding philosophic ideals across all levels,'' he says. ''They must be strengthened, supported, and held accountable.''

He plans to accomplish this by stressing three areas - each pragmatic, each political:

* Community improvement strategies. ''You have to have parental involvement. We see this improving all over the state. Parents want accountability standards. So schools must set them - set them high and then meet them,'' he says.

And the best areas to address this concern are homework and testing, he continues. By assigning homework, by giving tests regularly in math, science, English, and social studies, schools will ''be sending a clear message to parents.'' Schools can then expect parents to support academic values in the home, before a child ever gets to school.

But before a test can be given, a teacher has to define what it is he or she wants to teach, and then test to see if students did learn it.

This brings Mr. Honig to the next hurdle for education reform:

* Establishing a core curriculum. This would cover the basic, fundamental facts, skills, and truths students must know to succeed both economically and ethically after they graduate.

The key challenge here, says Honig, is that this core curriculum must begin in the university, where the teachers are trained. California universities produce 10 percent of the nation's teachers. ''How do you get good curriculum, a common curriculum? It must include what teachers already know,'' he says.

''We should be able to point to 100 books that we know teachers have read and thoroughly understand about our common cultural heritage. If the public schools aren't fostering these values, these skills, we are watering down our nation's cultural capital, and (in the long term) we run the risk of drifting into anarchy.''

Which leads him to a third area of reform.

* Strengthening the performance of teachers and principals. Make sure they are ''burning to teach. School is a critical time in the learning-life of a child,'' he says. There must be a series of strategies to attract and keep qualified teachers in the classroom. Merit pay for teachers is just one of these strategies. Extensive in-service training is another. Raising beginning pay from

One idea he is ''kicking around'' to help ensure a school is run well is to have an individual school ''open for capture. It would be an educational version of Chapter 11 bankruptcy,'' he says. It would occur when a school ranks in the bottom 20 percent in its district for five consecutive years. Other teachers, principals, or parents in the district could make a bid, working with the district administration, to take over the school and run it.

''Once a consensus builds for how a good school runs, the state can put heat on districts that are lax in their standards,'' he says.

He sees a positive sign in the fact that Los Angeles has 50 principals on probation right now. ''We are looking for proven performance in principal selection,'' he says, and he is deeply involved in developing criteria for management selection.

The fact that almost 40 percent of California's principals are going to retire in the next five years is a tremendous opportunity, Honig says. ''We have to have the right managers, the right intellectual leaders ready to take over these principalships. If we don't we'll kill reform for another generation.''

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