Factions Impede School Reform

`AMERICANS angered by gridlock in Washington may find an equally intractable gridlock much closer to home," according to a recent study by the Public Agenda Foundation.

Infighting among interest groups is slowing the pace of education reform, the report says.

"Divided Within, Besieged Without: The Politics of Education in Four American School Districts" is based on more than 200 interviews with school administrators, teachers, parents, and business leaders.

In order to get people to talk openly, the researchers granted confidentiality.

One of the unidentified school districts is near New York City, and the others are in the West, the Midwest, and the South. All are considered "average to good" school systems that have been working toward education reform.

The in-depth interviews with various players in the school-reform effort uncovered simmering hostilities that threaten to destroy prospects for improvement.

"We are discouraged by what we found," the researchers write. "In each district, what started as a good-faith effort to work together on school reform became a tug-of-war over turf. We observed poor communication, widespread suspicion and outright anger among the factions. Parochialism prevailed."

AS one superintendent says: "Each special interest is more concerned about the outcome for its particular group than for the common good."

Within school systems, administrators and teachers say they are estranged from one another. Isolation and a lack of communication are common complaints. Teachers say they rarely have time to discuss ideas among themselves.

"When we have lunch together," says one teacher, "we're just sort of stress-stunned and suctioning food for 25 minutes and then back to the front line."

Meanwhile, parents say they feel unwelcome in the schools. Despite calls for more parental involvement, definitions of that involvement vary. "We don't need the parents in school," says one teacher, "we need the parents at home."

Divisions between educators and business executives are even wider. Both groups charge the other with being "out of touch with the real world."

These "fissures, resentments and misunderstandings" make education reform a "precarious undertaking," the report says. "Good ideas about curricula, textbooks, tests, financing and governance will founder if the parties who must implement them cannot get along."

The politics of education reform cannot be avoided and allowed to fester if Americans expect to change their schools, this report warns.

"The quality of ordinary communication in public education seems so limited and so constrained that it raises serious doubts about whether it is possible to build consensus for reform," the report concludes.

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