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Problem With Public School Pecking Order

IN most school systems, dollars seem to flow more readily to the secondary levels than they do to the primary levels. Or so it seems to elementary school principals. In most public school districts across this country, there is a perceived pecking order of school administrators. A telltale sign of one's relative worth as an administrator is one's salary, and in almost all school systems the highest paid principals are those at the high schools, followed by those at the middle or junior high schools. The lowest paid principals will be at the elementary schools.

It is also a fact, particularly in suburban and rural districts, that the high school defines the school system. Townspeople relate to the exploits of the football team. High school seniors who win academic or athletic scholarships are accorded much more publicity than are winners of the elementary school spelling bee. The high school principal is often viewed as a spokesperson for the school district. Rarely is the elementary principal seen in this light. Perhaps this is one reason why elementary principals believe that they have a more difficult time convincing superiors of the need for money to support programs and practices.

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In seeking to improve our educational system so we will no longer be ``a nation at risk,'' we must first make one fundamental decision: Where in the system do we attack our problems so that we can maximize our chances for success? We cannot have it both ways. We cannot advocate pre-kindergarten or all-day kindergarten programs in speeches to meet the needs of ``at risk'' children early on, but then place our money on more advanced-placement courses or additional foreign languages at the high school.

It would be nice if we could do both; some districts are able to do this, but very few. In most situations we have one of three choices: concentrate on the early years of schooling, favor the later years, or divide resources and attempt to concentrate on both at the same time. The latter is usually the course taken, probably because it is the most politically expedient. Unfortunately, such a course most often results in a treading-water atmosphere where there is neither real improvement nor measurable backsliding.

Rivalry between administrators at different levels is firmly rooted in the philosophies of principals. If one is committed to the concept that it is in the earliest years of formal schooling that the greatest resources should be directed, that we should try to prevent problems before they begin, then one places one's money at the start of the educational process. If one is committed to the later years of formal schooling, however, believing this is where lifelong skills and career possibilities are truly nourished and fields of scholarly inquiry are nurtured, then one places one's money at the end of the educational process.

Education is more like a marathon than a sprint, a lifelong process extending well beyond the years of formal schooling. But if push comes to shove, every educator will cast his support toward one age level or the other. Does one reduce class size first in kindergarten or in calculus? If there is only enough money in the budget for one new set of textbooks, does it go for fourth grade social studies or high school civics? Choices like these come up all the time, particularly at annual budget workshop meetings.

Solutions to difficult problems are made more difficult by conflicting administrative philosophies. The dropout problem is one such example. Critics of our present educational system quite often cite the high school dropout rate as one major indicator of our failure to educate large numbers of our student population. But, while educators at all levels agree that we need to lower the dropout rate, there is considerable disagreement about how and where to do it.

Fundamental to this disagreement, it seems to me, is a basic philosophical difference that may be best summed up by the slogan in the oil-filter commercial - ``You can pay me now, or pay me later.''

In seeking to deal with a high dropout rate, limited resources may dictate an emergency program at the high school level where the problem is immediate and real. At first blush, if a problem exists at the secondary level, the obvious solution is to fix it at the secondary level. Such a belief is understandable, but may not be correct. Often that dropout was predictable years earlier. That student should have received closer guidance, frequently when still in the elementary grades. He or she should have had the benefit of programs specifically designed to lessen conditions detrimental to remaining in school through graduation. So perhaps the best time to attack the high school dropout problem is at the elementary school, well before that child becomes a dropout statistic.

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At the elementary level, however, programs will have no immediate effect on the high school dropout rate. Having no immediate payoff, such programs are usually under-financed, understaffed, or not even considered. Yet if early intervention is successful as children progress through the elementary grades, there may not be a dropout problem to concern ourselves with by the time they reach high school. Efforts at teaching basic reading, writing, and math skills and promoting positive self concepts in high school (and in many colleges) bear witness to the short-sightedness of school systems that do not build programs on a strong elementary school foundation - beginning in kindergarten.

Too often, it seems, school districts overlook the importance of allocating sufficient funds in the early grades to really make that significant difference for all children, particularly those viewed as being ``at risk.'' The high school scholars, athletes, and musicians may draw the attention in the media, but we must not forget that each was once an elementary school child.

Any building supported by a weak foundation will eventually crack, crumble, and fall. So, too, must educational systems that are built on weak foundations. Wise central-office administrators and farsighted boards of education recognize this simple fact.

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