When researchers performed independent checks on the vital signs of education reform last fall, the findings were grim.
Slightly more than 60 percent of teachers surveyed by the Carnegie Foundation said morale at their school was "fair" or "poor," and only 18 percent gave school reform a grade of "A" or "B" -- down from 31 percent in 1987. Only 22 percent of the people polled by Gallop, when asked if schools had improved, gotten worse or stayed the same in the past five years, thought schools had improved -- down from 29 percent in 1988 -- discouraging reactions given the recent efforts to improve our education systems.
At a meeting of the National Education Association in Baltimore, educational leaders discussed parental-choice plans, competency tests for teachers, longer school days, more homework and school partnerships with business and industry -- to mention but a few reform plans.
Virginia has its own list of reform efforts -- some more successful than others. James Cooper, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, and Philip Tate, also at U-VA, say that so far most energy has gone into restructuring teacher education.
In less than four years, the Governor's Commission on Excellence in Education and the Ad Hoc Committee on Teacher Education led the way in restructuring every teacher certification program in the state, gaining necessary political support to require arts and sciences majors for prospective teachers and to limit professional education courses to 18 semester hours.
Other Virginia initiatives include:
A program to observe teachers for minimal competence.
Experiments with pay incentives for teachers.
Forgivable loans for math, science and foreign language teachers and for minority students and for those who would teach in rural areas.
Recertification for teachers based on a point system meant to meet local needs.
And a state department of education moving to provide research and service to localities instead of concentrating on regulation.
With all the chalk dust kicked up in recent years, why are people so skeptical about educational change? Maybe, like Joe McGeehan, superintendent of Charlottesville Public Schools, they are just too busy with their own problems to talk to each other about what works.
When McGeehan took the Charlottesville superintendency 14 months ago, he faced a district-wide dropout rate of 8.3 percent in grades 7 through 12. Today the rate stands at 3.8 percent -- that is about 80 students fewer falling by the wayside.
McGeehan got 85 volunteers to study what the schools were doing to help troubled students. He formed teams of teachers and counselors to recognize achievements of seventh- and eighth-graders, to help freshmen through the stress of entering high school and to support discouraged, frequently absent, high school students to work at their own pace. He personally reviews folders of at-risk students and makes dropping out a big deal.
There are lots of people out there who do not say or even think "reform" or "restructure." Many are tired of hearing the words. But their actions day-in, day-out are keeping the concepts alive. -- Robert F. McNergney is director of the Commonwealth Center for the Education of Teachers, University of Virginia and James Madison University.