WHEN American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker starts talking about the future of education in the United States, he lays out a vision of schools that will look and function ``more like law offices'' than the traditional conglomeration of classrooms with teachers up front and principals supreme. Students would follow their intellectual bents. Dozens of adults with expertise or energy to share would participate as ``paraprofessionals''; older kids would help younger ones acquire a taste for learning.
It's a vision built on concepts like ``choice,'' ``competition,'' and ``incentive,'' and it would utterly remake American education. Individual teachers, and schools, would become relatively autonomous - while being held strictly accountable for results.
Sound like a recipe for chaos? Many educators might argue that. But as Mr. Shanker pointed out during a meeting with Monitor editors, a whole state, Kentucky, is moving toward just such a setup. The prod in Kentucky was a state Supreme Court decision a year ago that demanded, as a matter of constitutional rights, adjustment in the wide disparities between rich and poor school districts. The court found not only that the system was inequitable, but also educationally bankrupt. The Legislature thus launched a radical restructuring to take place over the next five years.
Kentucky will infuse poorer districts with added cash over that period to help alleviate some inequities. Beyond that, however, the crucial engine of progress will be incentives, such as extra funds and teacher bonuses for schools that succeed.
What does success mean? Not ``achievement'' in the old sense, measured by marks on standardized tests. ``Progress'' will be the new touchstone - how far a school is able to take its students beyond past performance. Since the emphasis will be on genuine learning instead of rote, methods of assessment will move away from multiple-choice exams toward essays or student projects that reveal mastery of a skill like writing or a subject like biology.
The practical difficulties abound. Who's going to grade all these more rigorous, essay-type assessments? How will administrators (or unions, for that matter) function in this new environment? Will inequities between rich and poor districts be ameliorated, or simply reintroduced under new rules?
Elements of this new educational vision are being tried in dozens of places around the country. ``Choice,'' whereby parents and students seek out better schools instead of arbitrarily being assigned to one, is one of the remedies du jour. It's a favorite of President Bush. ``School-based management'' is another notion being given isolated tests.
Shanker likes to note that only 3.4 percent of American high school graduates would be fit for college anywhere else in the world. He and other educational thinkers believe only radical reform will change that. Kentucky may provide a needed laboratory.