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The Bane of Better Schooling: State Red Tape

New York, like most states, wants meaningful change in its public school systems. Committees are busily writing new curricula, and the state education department is promoting new "frameworks" to refocus instruction. New and tougher statewide assessments at both elementary and secondary levels are in the pipeline, and standards for getting a high school diploma are being raised.

Unfortunately, this change is too often coming "top-down" from state education bureaucrats who are isolated from the real world of schooling. Much of the New York State "framework" documents will be dismissed by practitioners as dead on arrival because there are no guidelines for realistically implementing proposed changes in an already too-limited school day.

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How can teachers and administrators take these new initiatives seriously while there are still vestiges of a laughable, nonresponsive bureaucracy? Two recent memoranda from the state education department are perfect examples of how difficult a task it will be for our new state commissioner to change the image of the department as a bureaucracy hopelessly out of touch with reality.

The first memorandum refers to the annual May administration of statewide tests. Children in my intermediate school are tested in reading and math in grade 3, science in grade 4, and writing in grade 5. Following is the first of eight ominous sounding paragraphs from the instructions for storing test booklets:

"The cardboard cartons containing the sealed packages of secure Pupil Evaluation Program test materials must be stored in a burglarproof safe or in a vault that has both (1) reinforced concrete or cement block walls with no windows, and (2) a metal door with built-in combination or key lock."

Trust me, the remaining seven paragraphs reveal the same paranoia, including the directive that, "If a safe or vault is not available in the school, the principal must make arrangements to store the cardboard cartons containing the secure materials in the vault or safe of another school."

Perhaps state education officials have themselves been working in reinforced concrete windowless rooms too long. We are talking about third, fourth, and fifth grade tests! Do bureaucrats have visions of third-grade students attempting a 2 a.m. break-in of my locked office closet or file cabinets? Or perhaps the precautions are to prevent teachers, or principals, from passing out tests in advance to boost scores.

Having no safe or vault in my school, I must agree, in writing, to make arrangements to store test booklets elsewhere, where there is a safe or vault meeting the state's criteria. As a principal, I am entrusted by the state to responsibly safeguard everything from students' lives to confidential records - but not, evidently, our state's third, fourth, and fifth grade tests.

A second memorandum recently issued reminds all principals that a section of a state education law regarding "Instruction in the humane treatment of animals" was recently amended. Here's an excerpt from the first paragraph:

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"In every classroom under State control or supported by public money, instruction shall be given in the humane treatment and protection of animals. As educators, we must also address the importance of the role animals play in the economy of nature and the necessity to control proliferation of animals. The weekly instruction may be divided into two or more periods. If the instruction does not take place, a district will not be entitled to participate in public school money." (Italics mine.)

Perhaps it's just me, but at a time when teachers are dealing with an already overflowing curriculum cup - expected to teach reading, writing, math, science, and other subjects at a level of new "world-class standards" - isn't such a memorandum from the state education department sending the wrong message? Spend more time teaching children how to read, write, and compute at a higher level, but only after finding time for weekly instruction on such topics as humane treatment of animals, the role animals play in the economy of nature, and the necessity to control the proliferation of animals. Weekly, with no exceptions, or lose state aid!

These memoranda regarding test storage requirements and instruction in the humane treatment of animals tell me that our state education bureaucracy remains its own worst enemy when seeking to bring about change in schools. Encouraging teachers and administrators to change current practices and embrace calls for tougher standards and new frameworks is difficult under the best of circumstances. It is almost impossible when practitioners question the relevance of what they are being asked to do by people who seem to live in a world removed from everyday reality.

State education department bureaucrats must listen more carefully to administrators who feel their integrity is being questioned, and to teachers who feel they are continually mandated to teach more content in a limited instructional day that does not expand along with the curriculum. Until they do, it is doubtful that this latest reform wave will be very successful.

* Allan S. Vann is principal of the James H. Boyd Intermediate School in Huntington, N.Y.

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