Priority 1: supporting students

Diana Lam came up through the ranks of the public school system. As superintendent of the San Antonio School District in Texas from 1994 to 1998, she championed smaller schools and higher standards in reading and math. Last November, a new hostile school board bought out her contract - a move that fueled national comment on whether high-profile school reformers could survive public school systems. She spoke with the Monitor on the future of public schools. Excerpts follow.

On the prospects of public education:

The future of public education depends on how quickly and willingly it is able to change into a high-performing learning organization that meets children's needs. The movement toward state or district standards is a good start, for it at least creates high expectations for every student. Then, we have to come up with the infrastructure pieces that will support student achievement. If they don't meet the standard, do we just give up on them?

On downsizing schools:

We're where we were in the 1970s, when all the Detroit auto executives drove their oversized cars from their suburban homes, went to work in the inner city, and never noticed what was right next to them on the highway - smaller cars. In education, we're in a similar place. As school boards, unions, superintendents, or administrators, we are not responsive to what our clients - the children and their families - really need: smaller schools.

On the needs of Hispanic kids:

When I was in Boston in the early 1970s, only two Hispanic kids graduated one year. It wasn't that they were dumb, but there was nothing in the school for them. We have to create environments that are friendly toward families who have not had good relations with school systems. When parents comes to school, we don't always treat them with the utmost respect. We need to change that.

On rebuilding the teaching profession:

We need to pay more attention to teaching as a profession. Nobody gets up in the morning saying, "I want to do a really bad job." But many of our teachers - and that includes licensed teachers - have a very poor preparation, especially in content areas. What will happen in the 21st century is a major change in how we license teachers, so that schools of education don't have a monopoly on this. There are signs that this is already happening: The Edison Project [in New York] is creating its own teacher-training piece, and Expeditionary Learning is becoming a licensing institution in the state of Colorado. You seldom find in schools of education the kind of preparation needed to do experience-based learning.

On changes in school governance:

[It's] desirable, but it will take a lot longer. There needs to be a major clarification of what is the role of the superintendent and what is the role of a school board. In urban districts, the temptation is too great for boards to micromanage.

On reform:

I think it's getting harder. What's easier is to talk about reform. Before, we got scared just talking about it; now we can talk quite articulately. But we're still in the conversation stage.

On politics in education:

Although we all speak about the children and their families and our great hopes ... there are still too much politics and special-interest groups involved in education. We need to create environments where children really do come first.

*Diana Lam was superintendent of the San Antonio School District in Texas from 1994 to 1998.

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