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by admin on February 16, 2009

Isn’t it time to talk about school reform from the ground up? This isn’t a call to anarchy. The phrase means the opposite of reforms imposed from the top down–school-wide and system-wide measures proposed by administrators, school boards, state government and the feds. These have generally been failures. Ground up reform has the best chance to maximize the impact of (small) dollar costs, despite what it lacks: a sexy coherence. It lacks, intrinsically, a handle–a rallying cry which educational theorists can readily adopt. Still, it can have the startling success that inspires imitation and breeds more success.

The Murdock-Thompson Center for Teachers, here in Providence, argues this case. We support teachers in a variety of ways, and believe that their creativity is the fulcrum by which schools can be uplifted. The motive power that flows through this fulcrum comes from the forces we have di sscussed many times: enthusiasm, working conditions, sense of worth. A teacher who has these on his or her side can put tremendous energy into experiment and change. We believe that the individual teacher can reform the individual classroom, in terms of pedagogical experiment, new motivational strategies, and even some curriculum change. These from the ground up changes can flourish in any school that encourages them. They affect many in the classroom of the innovative individual, and they can be emulated by other teachers.

One hesitates to speak out of turn here in Ted Sizer country. But even the Brown University guru, creator of the vast Coalition of Essential Schools, has spoken pessimistically about top down reform. While many of his goals are sweeping, and appear elusive, there are ground up elements in his program,as there are in the movement toward site-based management and charter schools. The straits and reversals of system-wide reform are perhaps best reviewed on the Op -Ed page of the Journal. David Capaldi’s recent letter, the opinion piece it attacks, and John Izzi’s response to Capaldi all center debate on the correlation between dollars spent and results achieved–in SAT scores, for example. We have read letters by Mssrs. Gormley and Nocera about the union and administrative cultures in public schools. Again and again we have read of the failure of sweeping reform schemes, such as the collapse of the privitization of the Hartford public schools by Education Alternatives, Inc. The stagnation of the 50 governors’ initiative in 1989, and of Goals 2000, is apparent. Two more ideas–merit pay and national history standards–show the problems of system-wide reform to be inherent and at least threefold: political, cultural and administrative (if we are too weary to add bureaucratic). Merit pay founders on the culture of unions, on their political power, and on administrative complexities. The idea of national achievement standards in US history ran into a roadblock with the textbook. History is bitterly political and is owned by those who write it; the proposed text was deemed unacceptable by those on the political right. Obviously, its attempt at political correctness drew it into the cultural battlefield as well.

Let no one discourage the ideals of the top down reformers. For one thing, some elements of individual initiative are often part of their programs. Increased ownership of the charter schools by parents and teachers is an example. Still, we stress that the motivation and support of teachers who risk change does not necessarily–and only–flow from the top. Indeed, intuition suggests that the ground level of parents, kids and teachers cradles both the most sensitive ear for success and the best seed-bed for particular innovations. Let’s note how all these arguments belabor the obvious: the more approaches combine to effect classroom innovation, the better.

This is where our Center comes in. We offer $2,000 stipends as Summer Fellowships for Innovative Teachers. A national competition allows us to select the most revolutionary pedagogical and motivational ideas proposed by individual teachers. We aim to remove all material obstacles to implementing these ideas. It might appear that this is throwing more money at a problem that has proven resistant to the money cure. One might ask, Don’t good teachers innovate anyway, for free? Were it only that simple! Where do you get better bang for the educational buck than this? How can you better push reform through innovation, stimulate teachers and pat them on the back, release people from mundane summer jobs, and create time for research and writing or the creation of new materials? How do you better spread an awareness that someone i s listening to the creative teacher, and will stand behind her as she opens a new door? A short list of similar funds that have recently dried up: NEH and NEA grants, including Teacher/Scholar, McAuliffe awards, the Rockefeller Fellowship for Foreign Language Teachers (in its original form), grants for summer work from foreign governments.

Our fellowships are awarded specifically for innovation and reform–unlike most other programs. But they go beyond this initial stimulus. A ripple effect is created by writing and publishing that occurs over the summer. An already successful innovation can be replicated and shared, as materials generated over the summer are advertised or brought to conferences. One new idea feeds another. We want to add voices–through journals, conferences, the internet–to the national community of teachers who value conversation and discovery in the area of school reform–and who often feel that the conversation is held without them.

We put the money exactly where we think * it will do the most good: at the level of daily classroom activities. As the Gormley/Nocera letters show, this is the very place where initiative (and the lack of it, and the risk attached to it) all become problematical in our schools. By sending press releases, by attaching honor to innovation, we think we gain for new ideas a more receptive ear in publications and at conferences. More importantly, reform-minded teaching gains ground as the creative teacher acquires the confidence to make a change that might otherwise have seemd too risky.

It’s senseless to talk about the motivation of teachers–and their motivation of students–without trying to influence the kind of conversation that teachers can have about methodology and change. Have you ever had the intimation that this area of motivation, and the malaise of the teachers’ lounge, is al l a vast risk/reward continuum, and that we must shift the weight of our effort along this continuum? The risk of indifferent or abusive administrators and parents must be lessened, and the reward of an appreciative ear and professional prestige must be increased.

Local applications for this summer’s fellowship are instructive. Knowing that some of them arise amid working conditions that are far from ideal, and that a sweeping change of these conditions remains distant and theoretical, let’s at least influence the balance of pride and respect. The ideas that the Center has heard at ground level–examples come from Hope, Oliver Hazard Perry, Nathanael Greene, Mount Pleasant, Martin Luther King–deserve careful attention. Some of them already project ripples beyond the individual classroom, as multicultural and interdisciplinary ramifications have been proposed. We can all vow to better appreciate creativity at this level. And we can take it from there.

From the Providence Journal May 24th, 1996