Power to The Classroom!

  • Joseph Fernandez, who has just completed his first semester as New York City's schools chancellor, is often compared with Mikhail Gorbachev. Like the Soviet President, Fernandez is using a combination of personal charm and high- handedness to reform a system nearly paralyzed by its own plethoric bureaucracy. Fernandez's brand of perestroika is called "school-based management," a system that allows those closest to the classroom to oversee budgets and set curriculums largely free of centralized control. "The idea is to give schools more latitude," says the chancellor, "because generally they will make better decisions than we will."

    Having pushed that approach in Miami, where he was Dade County school superintendent for almost three years, Fernandez is trying to apply it to the nation's largest school system. Whether or not it works in New York, school- based management is gathering momentum across the U.S. School districts in 27 states have experimented with it, with varying degrees of success, over the past five years. Since 1987 the schools in Rochester have been run by a team of teachers, parents and administrators. Beginning last fall, locally elected councils -- composed of six parents, two community residents, two teachers and the principal -- have been in charge of each of Chicago's 541 public schools.

    Supporters of school-based management claim that it lifts teacher morale and makes schools more flexible, factors that improve learning. But detractors contend that many teachers find group decision making threatening and onerous. Others argue that self-governance simply takes turf battles once fought at the district or state level and dumps them at the schoolhouse door. "All they have done is decentralize the politics," says Paul Hill, senior social scientist for the Rand Corp.

    Does school-based management lead to more effective teaching or merely create problems for already overburdened educators? Three case histories illustrate the gains -- and some pains -- that can result from more local control:

    SAN DIEGO. Within six months of her arrival at Linda Vista Elementary School in July 1987, principal Adel Nadeau custom-tailored a program to fit her 950 students, 62% of whom were from Southeast Asia and spoke little or no English. With the approval of the school district, she and her 33 teachers decided to split the day in two.

    Mornings are reserved for language skills and social studies, with students grouped by their proficiency in English instead of their age. In the afternoons, youngsters of all abilities are thrown together to study two subjects, which are taught for three weeks straight, then switched. After three weeks of computer writing and library research, for example, a student might spend the next three investigating art and music. The aim: to help children learn by giving them concentrated doses of material.

    Without the pressure of grades, which the school eliminated three years ago, pupils are progressing more quickly, and attendance has improved. This year, for the first time, Linda Vista placed 27 children in gifted-student classes, and next fall will add 24 more. Three multilingual aides regularly visit parents to talk about what they can do to help their children achieve. "The idea behind site-based management is to make the community part of the process," says Nadeau. RJR Nabisco agrees: last April the company awarded Linda Vista a $550,555 Next Century Schools grant to continue its outstanding work.

    LOUISVILLE. For years the only high scorers at Fairdale High School were its basketball stars. Good teachers shunned the school, located on the outskirts of town. Today 31% of Fairdale graduates go to college, 11% more than in 1987, and there are nine applications for every available teaching slot. "If you want to be on the cutting edge of teaching," says social studies instructor Jackie Powell, "this is the place to be."

    Behind the striking change is principal Marilyn Hohmann and a committee of elected teachers. They have worked together to change the school's 1,200 students, 30% of whom live in public housing projects, from passive recipients of knowledge into active problem solvers. "Covering the material is not the goal," says Hohmann. "Learning how to learn is the point."

    The same goes for teachers, many of whom have been grouped together in interdisciplinary programs. Juniors take "U.S. Is Us," a daily two-hour course combining history and literature, led by two social studies teachers, two language-arts teachers and one special-education teacher. These classes include some of the brightest youngsters as well as the slowest, an approach Hohmann calls "teamstreaming." Teaching together takes more time, commitment and compromise, but it is rapidly becoming the norm at Fairdale -- a development that pleases ninth-grade teacher Brenda Butler. "I love the changes," she says. "We finally have an opportunity to voice our opinions and make decisions about student learning."

    DADE COUNTY, FLA. During the past three years, 139 of Dade County's 263 schools have voted to join the school-based-management movement spearheaded by former superintendent Fernandez. William Jennings Bryan Elementary School, which embraced the concept in 1987, is an example of a school in mid- metamorphosis, experimenting with change on the one hand while retaining some aspects of more traditional schools on the other.

    Principal Nora Brandt, elected by the Bryan faculty to lead them in restructuring, began with the basics, repainting the rundown stucco building and starting a "Bryan Pride" campaign to boost children's self-image and team spirit. To pave the way for improvement, she hired several forceful, imaginative teachers. Today literacy is paramount at Bryan, where the student body is one-third white, one-third black and one-third Hispanic. Teachers stress writing and the classics. Each month 400 children are bused to the Dade County Public Library; parents receive a "reading tips" newsletter.

    A small senate consisting of Brandt, an assistant principal, two parents and seven teachers makes proposals to the faculty, which votes on them monthly. Most teachers feel the system allows them to concentrate on what they do best. Says science teacher Jo-Anne Chumbley: "The people in charge here let you run your own show. I can do things that I wasn't able to do in 18 years of teaching."

    The main lesson of these schools' experience is that self-governance works best when the principal helps form and carry out group decisions rather than imposes them from above. It is also essential to set clear goals. "You need to think about school-based management; you cannot rush in," says Dorothy Mazine, a middle-school teacher in Miami Springs, Fla. "The biggest pitfalls are time, communication and resistance to change."

    Teachers and administrators must also take care to use their freedom creatively, evaluating everything from the length of a typical class period to how math should be taught. "Restructuring won't make much impact on learning and teaching if we just tinker with the system," says San Diego superintendent Thomas Payzant.

    The link between self-governance and student performance is clear at some schools, unclear at others. Yet this spotty record is unlikely to mar school- based management's bright future. In May Citibank gave $2.4 million to help nine Washington, D.C., schools get their plans under way. Dade County has taken the notion a step further, asking principals and teachers to submit ideas for creating 49 new schools from the ground up. Seven are now in the planning-and-building stage. More innovations are sure to come. School districts may find that giving teachers and parents the right to make decisions about education is like dancing with a bear: once you start, you cannot decide to stop.