For Steven Platte, the subject of improving education is inevitably tied up in precedent.
A 14-year veteran at Kirkwood High School in St. Louis, he's seen reforms come and go. All the current talk about more testing and vouchers, spurred by President George W. Bush's ambitious outline for education, simply adds to a list of new ideas that mushrooms annually.
But people may be missing the point, says the history teacher, who sports a James Garfield button in honor of a lesson on 1880s America. What matters is leadership.
"The most significant component in a good school is not the kids, it's not the neighborhood," Mr. Platte says. "It's the administration, and in particular, the principal. If principals know what they're doing, they can take an inner-city school and turn it around."
Across the United States, teachers' lounges are buzzing about the latest proposals to ensure that all children - rich, poor, white, minority - get adequate schooling. Educators may find it hard to disagree with Mr. Bush's dream of a country where large numbers of fourth-grade students no longer struggle through a simple text or stare blankly at a column of figures - or where teachers know the expectations and work in schools honed by competition. They can support calls for greater discipline in the classroom, improving science and math education, and boosting teacher quality.
But among the principals, teachers, parents, and aides responsible for the day-to-day decisions that will determine success, concerns are already bubbling up as to whether, in the end, schools will simply be handed more rules and face new levels of bureaucracy.
"What we have to be wary of is that [political solutions] are often speedy solutions that don't work long term," says Paul Abraham, chairman of the department of education and human services at Simmons College in Boston. "Politicians think they know what's best for schools, and sometimes that's dangerous."
Not long ago, Bush's Republican Party called for the abolition of the US Department of Education. Today, Bush's initiatives - which have much in common with a Democratic plan put forward by Sen. Joseph Lieberman - represent potentially the most far-reaching attempt by Washington to put its stamp on education since Lyndon Johnson pushed school integration in the 1960s and threatened to withhold funds from noncompliant schools.
That roils some on the front lines. "I'm surprised that a party that was in favor of trashing the Department of Education is now ready to use it as a national sounding board to impose standards across the country," Mr. Platte says. "The strength of our schools is local control."
But his principal, who has run Kirkwood for 22 years, is not averse to better funding, especially if it targets class size. "We have teachers teaching five classes with around 25 kids each," Franklin McCallie says. Effectiveness declines with those numbers, he charges - and money can be a solution.
Too often he hears, " 'You're just going to throw money at education and solve it that way.' " But, "you never hear about throwing money at a battleship!"
Finding good teachers
Better-targeted funds might also attract more and stronger teachers to the system, a key component of the Bush proposal. Godfrey Saunders, the peripatetic principal of highly ranked Bozeman Senior High School in Montana, remembers that 225 people applied for the job he got in 1977 as a science teacher. "Today, when we advertise, we will end up with 20 or 30, if we're lucky," he says.
The need to moonlight, as several of his staff do, is the problem. "I'd like someone to tell me how we can afford to send billions of dollars to other countries in the form of aid, and yet we have people like teachers who work very hard ... and they still can't make a living."
Not all, of course, finger salaries as the key issue. Attracting good people is important, agrees John Johnson, a math and science teacher at IS 53 in New York's low-income Far Rockaway neighborhood - but so is being able to remove low performers. "Eliminate tenure," he says, in support of the Bush proposal to reform tenure laws. "You'd be surprised how fast the profession would improve."
Mr. Johnson also likes Bush's call for stricter measures to counter violence and drug use, and greater leeway to deal with disruptive students.
Bozeman's Mr. Saunders says federal support for this is fine - if it backs up what schools do already. "If we do everything by how a federal policy says to do it, we are no better than machines," says Saunders, who is enormously popular despite his zero-tolerance policies. "With discipline, you have to have consequences, but you also have to get inside students and ... work for solutions."
Testing, testing, testing
One of the most controversial elements of the Bush initiative is its proposal to test students annually, albeit through state-developed tests. The concept is not new: Evaluating test scores to focus on the needs of poor children was an idea passed into law by Congress in 1965, although it never was effectively implemented. The idea also builds on state efforts over the past decade to raise standards and require graduation exams.
In Henderson, N.C., once-struggling Pinkston Street Elementary School has been hailed for its substantially improved test scores. But teachers are wary of more exams.
"It seems like we're testing every day," says Principal Beverly Johnson. "If Bush plans to add more tests to what we've already got, I wouldn't like that."
Others point out that the Bush plan fails to deal with student mobility, which can dramatically impact test scores.
"Testing children and just looking at those test scores is not enough," says Judy Bigby, the recently retired principal of the John Jacob Astor Elementary School in Astoria, Ore. She recalls when 10 new students arrived after spring break - and took standardized tests the next week.
Students share teachers' concerns, not surprisingly. Deeanna Ross, a senior at Dorchester High School in Boston, says kids may perform best if they've grown up with testing. "If they throw the tests at [older students] now, I don't think we'll be well equipped," she says.
Lindsay Schmidt, a junior at New Country School in Henderson, Minn., worries about good teachers who may be penalized by unmotivated students. "You can't force a kid to learn," she says. "Teachers are doing their best."
The voucher decision
But who decides? The flashpoint of Bush's plan is vouchers, which allow students in schools designated as failing to transfer to other public and private schools.
For those who confront the entrenched problems in poor schools, there is some support for the idea, which Bush is soft-pedaling. "As I go into these schools and work with students who want to grow," says Emily Forester of Summer Search, a nonprofit that offers Boston students free summer learning experiences, "the idea of making them all stay at a school even if it isn't working ... strikes me as being really wrong."
But elsewhere, the view is far from charitable. Mrs. Bigby says problems should be addressed where the problems are. "I know there have been times when it would have been so much easier to say, 'Why don't you go to another class, another school.' That's not resolving anything."
In the end, many say, what matters is how the rhetoric of reform is translated into practice.
Simply reigniting the national conversation is promising. "Already this is a positive," says Dee Thomas, adviser/director of the New Country School in Henderson, Minn., an alternative charter high school. "Until everybody starts looking at education, I don't know if things will change."
Let's be realistic
But reform needs to be considered in a realistic light, cautions Theresa Jensen, principal of Engelhard Elementary School in Louisville, Ky. Engelhard changed in eight years from being ranked at the bottom of the barrel to having test scores that closed racial and economic divides. Ms. Jensen, who oversaw the dramatic transformation, is not optimistic about the accountability systems Bush is proposing - especially if they make those who work most closely with children jump through yet more hoops. She also is skeptical of designated models for reform.
"In every state, you see examples of success. You need to provide support to allow a school to succeed," she says. "The hammer over the head won't help."
To Jensen, like Platte in St. Louis, what undergirds success is vision and leadership.
"If you truly believe you can change, and you focus step by step, you're going to improve a school," she says. "So often we defeat ourselves by saying we believe change is possible, when deep down we think these kids can't really improve. It doesn't matter what model you use. What matters is that you think you can do it."
Craig Savoye in St. Louis, Todd Wilkinson in Bozeman, Mont., and Mark Clayton, Stacy Teicher, Lane Hartill, and Amelia Newcomb in Boston contributed to this story.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society