We had gotten together because he wanted to make certain I understood his reasons for voting against the proposed academic high school. But during the course of our conversation, atlarge school board member Eugene Kinlow said something I found far more interesting.
"We need to do some things that make performance matter -- for both teachers and students," he said. "One way to do that is to move to fixed-term contracts for principals, giving them the recources and the flexability they need, but holding them accountable for the academic performance of the children in their shcools."
Part of the "recources and flexibility" he has in mind, he said, involves giving principals the authority to recruit the teachers they want and to get rid of those whose performance falls short.
It is a radical notion, as Kinlow knows, but as he said, "we'll be getting back to negotations a year from now, and I think there's a good chance that some of these things can happen."
If this particular thing could happen, it could have far more impact on the quality of education in the D.C. public schools than the defeated academic high school ever could.
It isn't just that there are some incompetent and burned-out teachers in the public schools, though clearly there are some. Kinlow's notion might lead some of them to shape up.
But more important, Kinlow recognizes that teachers -- even good ones -- are not interchangeable pegs, capable of fitting in easily wherever they are sent.
Some workers can perform more or less consistently wherever they are assigned. If you are building a brick wall, you can do quite all right with whatever brick masons the union hiring hall sends you.
But if you are building a fine choral group, you'd like to audition your musicians for yourself -- even if you were assured they were all excellent singers. You know better than any central placement bureau ever could whether you want additional soloists or strong support singers. You might prefer a generally competent bass to an outstanding lyric soprano, depending on what musicians you already have and what sort of music you wish to perform.
The present teachers contract, which expires in September 1981, is based on the hiring-hall assumption that an elementary school teacher is an elementary school teacher. Because of that contract, and equalzation requirements mandated by the courts, principals are unable to attract or keep the teachers they want, and frequently are required to make use of teachers they don't want.
Not always, of course. Some of the more successful principals have learned to manipulate the system so they can get around these insane rules. Kinlow's idea would make it possible for all principals to do it routinely. And it would hold them accountable for the results, on pain of dismissal.
The likely result would not be any wholesale firing of principals to assemble and train the teachers that would produce academic achievement.
It would not produce across-the-board equality, of course. There are differences in academic potential among students. There are students who come to school with more problems than others.
But the idea isn't to make all schools equal on the standardized tests, but only to make all schools come closer to their educational potential.
Incidentally, Kinlow says his major objection to Superintendent Vincent Reed's academic high school proposal is that the proposal was "basically dishonest."
"But Reed also says it is designed to attract back into the public schools those middle-class families that have left. Suppose it had the effect it was touted to have. There are some 6,000 public-school-eligible students in private high schools. Hine Junior High [the site of the proposed academic high school] has a capacity of 600. Maybe you could jam 800 in there.
"But if you assume that most of those private school youngsters who want to return would score well on the admissions test, you've got a conflict situation from Day One. You're either going to make a lot of people unhappy or you're going to overwhelm the 'model' school."