Raising Schools from an 'F'

Accountability and vouchers have been the catchwords of the Bush education plan. But they don't tell the whole story.

Accountability, typically in the form of statewide testing, makes it possible to identify schools as failing. Vouchers or other sanctions can eventually be used to shift resources and students away from such schools. In between, however, is a period - three years under the Bush plan - when schools can try to turn themselves around. The plan, in a bid for Democratic support, includes federal funding to help with such turnarounds.

This part of the plan, while a lot less incendiary than vouchers, could spark some controversy of its own. Some will say it's foolish to put any more money into failing schools. Others will say there's no alternative, since all students in failing schools can't simply be relocated. Teacher unions, of course, will be alert to save jobs.

But all should agree that the more schools that can be turned around the better. It's not an impossible task. Some Florida schools, faced with losing students through that state's voucher program, have raised test scores.

Other states, too, are acquiring experience in getting schools back into shape. Increasingly, strategies are being shared among states and school districts.

What does a turnaround involve? There's no formula, but people who've worked with failing schools say nothing is more important than reviving staff motivation. Mentors and consultants can be brought in to work with teachers; training options, including refresher courses on the subjects they teach, can be opened. People who may have felt stuck in a backwater for years but who still want to be effective teachers have to be given opportunity and direction.

As that's done, teachers are also likely to get fresher views of their students, whom they might have been inclined to see as hopeless or limited.

And teachers who resist such change? Administrators committed to reform can move them out, though union contracts still make firing difficult. In San Jose, Calif., a decade ago, new principals assigned to failing high schools were given a directive to identify recalcitrant teachers, whom the district office then transferred out. Curricula may need an overhaul, too, so that more time can be spent on strengthening English and math. Old rules have to give way.

The president's plan would in effect build on efforts already under way. At least 27 states rate their schools and require regular testing for accountability. Many are experimenting with ways of attracting better teachers to problem schools.

Sanctions may still be needed, and some schools may not come around in the time allotted. But those that retain a core of teachers still committed to their profession should be given the opportunity to earn a better grade.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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