Though I often wonder why, I am still enthusiastic about public education. Yet I am constantly disturbed by what I read from Washington. The national leadership continues to retrench in areas that are vital to the survival of public education and public institutions. What today's urban school principal needs-- and I speak as one who spent nine years as a principal in Baltimore--is a combination of money and more options for educators and their charges.
Start with money. Not money routinely buried in school bureaucracies, but earmarked and monitored for classroom instruction. We're talking salaries, too, with rewards for effort, for faculties large enough to make teachers available for extra student help during their regular working days. It takes money, too, to enhance the options in public education for the very talented and high- achieving students right on up through college.
A principal also needs the freedom to develop and provide educational programs tailored to a multi-ethnic population. To put it bluntly, principals cannot compensate for all the shortcomings in the lives of those children who are sent to them. It is not a question of begging off of responsibilities; the principal and the teachers need more freedom from social service responsibilities, and from restrictions caused by inadequate financing. For example, cuts in National Science Foundation programs have hurt opportunities for students who can see and hope to answer the increasing demand for people in science and technology.
Principals in inner-city schools need some ability to provide the kinds of cultural enrichment/humanities programs that children in better-off school neighborhoods automatically enjoy. This means everything from that extra microscope in a hurry to computers--our children downtown generally don't touch computers--to trips abroad. Why, even in my city of Baltimore, the home of lacrosse, an inner-city kid may not see a lacrosse stick until high school; the same kid may have no nearby swimming pool in which to learn a lifetime leisure sport. And what of programs to stimulate reading--not just the classics, but newspapers, magazines and other materials you see in suburban homes. That's all part of learning, too.
Teachers also need help--training to improve their ability to work with inner-city multi-ethnic children, to inspire what can be totally unmotivated children. That takes some doing.
Federal support of the total exceptional education program may sound like a frill, but it's essential to system-wide improvements in any city neighborhood. Similarly, support services are critical to any hopes for success with children with multiple handicaps.
There are other items not always included under the heading of "education," such as psychological help, transportation, and reward-for- effort incentives for students and staff.
All of this support can do wonders for the chemistry of a school, with student leaders (who need reasons for being attracted to an inner-city public school), with enthusiasm among the teachers and staff (with rewards for going that extra mile) that can spread to students and parents.
Why am I still enthusiastic about public education? I have seen programs work; I have seen children grow up and out of urban schools who have become highly successful. That may be hard to see from a federal level in Washington, but not in the trenches, where it has happened when kids can begin to feel good about themselves. That hope should never be dashed.