Honolulu Advertiser Second Opinion column by Cliff Slater
September 2, 1996
(1) A Nation at Risk. National Commission on Excellence in Education. Washington, DC. 1983.
(2) Chubb, John E. & Terry M. Moe. Politics, Markets, and America's Schools. Brookings Institution. 1990.
Schools need more autonomy
In its 1983 report, "A Nation at Risk," the National Commission on Excellence in Education concluded that, "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war ...We have ... been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament." They added that, "... the average graduate of our schools and colleges today is not as well-educated as the average graduate of 25 or 35 years ago ..." (1)
We should have anticipated massive change in Hawaii in the wake of such a scathing report. Yet, little happened. Why?
The Hawaii Business Roundtable, whose members are the most powerful business people in Hawaii, spent a great deal of money on The Berman Report—an excellent study on improving our education system. It has had very little impact. Why?
A small example is multiple-choice testing. The U.S. is one of the few countries to use it. It is virtually unknown in Europe where the essay answer is the norm. The essay answer allows the teacher to know how the student is handling a problem and provides better insight into how to correct the student. In addition, greater writing practice means greater thinking practice.
Teachers, quite sensibly, prefer the less arduous task of correcting multiple-choice answers rather than essay answers. But, as a practical matter, parents have no say in this method of testing.
The real discussion takes place at the political level between the politicians and officials of the teachers' union. It is not a fair discussion. It is one between the financier of elections and the financee. So multiple choice stays. Were parents and teachers running schools, there might be a more equitable discussion about multiple choice testing.
This is just a small example of why the Brookings Institution recently concluded that the school reform movement will not solve the problems in our schools.(2) The problems, they say, are the result of the structure of governmental control of our schools. They say the solution is autonomy—teachers free of the dead hand of bureaucratic regulation. The study concludes that, "... existing institutions cannot solve the problem, because they are the problem."
Yet we have set the Department of Education the task of implementing SCBM and other local autonomy programs. However, to ask our education bureaucrats to work hard at providing our schools total autonomy is to ask them to work themselves out of a job. This is not going to happen.
This state government program ensures that we will only have full local autonomy in our schools by around 2096—just when our per capita GNP will be that of Zaire.
We must do better than this. We cannot continue using micro-surgery when the urgency of the changes needed requires the swift use of an axe.
We have to get parents and teachers in control of each individual school with their own budgets and minimal governmental oversight. Only then that we will see the changes that are necessary.
Managing the transition so that each school has the fiscal and management controls to provide the appropriate reporting procedures is a task for the Hawaii Business Roundtable.
Certainly it is not a job for the state government. The state government has yet to install activity-based accounting to cost out any of the other activities they manage.
Hawaii's largest businesses have the know-how and the resources to provide this service to the state.
Those of us running small and independent businesses will help. We all want better educated citizens to provide a larger pool of prospective employees for our businesses—if for no other reason.