Building Better Schools

Those who spend their lives dealing with the everyday problems in the nation's schools are often wary of those who theorize solutions from the Ivory Tower.

"Normally I wouldn't touch Ed Schools with a 10-ft. pole, they seem to be working in a vacuum, without a lot of relevance to what I'm doing in my school," says Patricia S. Shaefer, an elementary school principal from Minneapolis Minn.

"This past week at Harvard has been an exception. I've discovered that theorists and practitioners can work together and help each other," adds Stacker.

"I feel like I've had a fine lit me. When I go back I'm going to shout from the mountain tops, 'there's hope we can improve our schools,'" says Joseph Segram, an elementary school principal from Mancouver, Washington.

Shaefer and Segram are two of the 118 elementary and secondary school principals and other administrators who have gathered at Harvard's Graduate School of Education over the past week-and a-half for lectures, discussions, and workshops focusing on ways to improve America's schools.

The intensive summer program, which ends this Thursday, is an extension of Harvard's Principals' Center, established four years ago a, part of renewed commitment to elementary and secondary education on the part of the Ed School. During the year, the center offers weekly programs to approximately 600 New England area principals.

"The school has definitely made a commitment to helping the faculty connect with [outside] schools. And while the school should never lose its research component, the trick is to continue to create programs that make the crucial connection between theory and practice," says Diane S. Tabor, assistant principal at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, who is also one of the program directors.

Over the course of this summer's 11-day "Institute on the Principal and School Improvement," the participants have spent mornings and evenings in discussions with some of the biggest names in educational theoris. including former Ed School Dean Theodore Sizer and Professor of Education Sara Lawrence Lightfoot. They have also spent afternoon with coach other. In group, sessions discussing the nuts and bolts of school leadership

The Institute now in its third year has a dual purpose. It offers principals an exposure to the latest in educational research, and provides them with a rare opportunity to share ideas with colleagues from 30 states and eight countries, according to Kenneth S. Haskins, co-director of the Ed School's Principals' Center

"We're past the point of worrying about what color the report cards should be; we're worrying about the future and what major changes have to be made," says participant Ira J. Scheter, the head of a school for military dependents in Izmir, Turkey.

"In the next 10 years we will be facing a teacher shortage, and following that, a shortage of school administrators. Offering them more money won't solve the problem, these people have to be recognized as playing an important social role," says Sarah L. Levine, director of the Institute.

Through the Institute, she says the school is carrying out its stated commitment of late to play a greater role in solving some of the larger problems in American education.

"The Institute is mutually beneficial. Practioners are so concerned with the everyday life of the institution, with keeping it going, that they don't always have time to bring new ideas to the surface. At the same time, practitioners have a whose lot of craft knowledge that rarely reaches the university setting," says Tabor.

New Ideas

As one of the major components of the Institute, the exposure to the latest research on schooling has inspired them to move in new directions, and revitalize their efforts to improve their schools, principals says.

"In our daily work [at our schools] we barely have time to eat lunch, let alone have time to read the latest Harvard Educational Review. The Educational provides a much needed recharge," and offers access to research materials, says Segram.

Not Just SATs Any more

Segram says that before the Institute began he looked at effective schooling mostly in terms of standardized test scores, but he says his stay at Harvard had introduced him to the idea of "school culture."

He says he now believes that a school's effectiveness is linked to its overall environment, especially to the level of collegiality in the building and the extent of positive interaction between the staff, students and teachers.

Viola Jackson, an elementary school principal from Washington D.C., says this cultural approach to evaluating schools, introduced to the group by Sara Lawrence Lightfoot and several other scholars, has given her confidence in her own style of leadership.

"Staff participation in decision making has always been important to me, and now I see how important it is for building a good school culture," she says.

Often, participants agree, the theories forwarded by education experts at the Institute help confirm views on schooling they have long held, but had not felt totally comfortable with Organizers say this process is an essential part of the Institute's purpose.

"Once you've been out of a college setting for a number of years, you tend to respond to situations on a hunch. Here are findings that say that many of the hunches are correct ones," says one principals.

Burno M. Ponterio, a middle school principal from Rye Brook N.Y., says he will bring some ideas for tangible changes back to his suburban school, but also a commitment to enlisting support from his teaching staff before he implements any plans.

"The initiation for change has to come from teachers. We are there to make sure that problems are identified and to facilitate change," he says.

While not all of the theories are applicable to his particular situation, and some definitely seem more off-the-wall than others, "there seems to be something in the research for just about everyone," says O.D. Basinski, a middle school principal from Rehoboth Beach Deleware.

Sharing Ideas, Perspectives

As much as they've learned from the visiting scholars, participants in the Institute say they've learned from each other as well. But while they're learning that they face similar obstacles--outdated curriculums, incompetent teachers, and discipline problems--they are also learning that schools in geographically and economically diverse areas face very different kinds of problems as well.

Maime Johnson, a principal from East Harlem, N.Y., says her exposure to principals from weakhier schools has deepened her resolve to light for equality in education.

"My school has an average of 34 students per classroom, and we spend $3000 to $4000 per child. But I've met colleagues from affluent public schools where there are 18 students per teacher and $8000 is spent per child." She says.

"If we are all Americans doesn't it make sense for every child to have the right to the same public education?" she asks.

At the same time. Ira Scheier the principal of the military dependent's school in Turkey, says his experience abroad his given him a positive perspective on American education.

"In Turkey, where the overcrowding is so bad that there are commonly two students per desk, we're looked on with envy for what we call the bare essentials." Scheier says.

Patricia Shaefer, who is the principal of a private elementary school of 280 students, says the experience has awakened her to the discrepancies between the education she can offer her students and what a public school facing financial constraints is often forced to offer.

"It's important for me as an independent school person to realize that I live in a larger contest. Everyone else's problem is my problem," she says.

To facilitate the exchange of ideas, the Institute organizers have encouraged the participants to keep journals and write freely of what they learn from each other.

"The emphasis on writing is helpful for putting ideas in perspective and developing a way to focus on the issues and cut out what is extraneous," says O.D. Basinski.

Over the past few years 70 institutions have popped up around the U.S. to provide needed meeting places for school leaders finishing his week at Harvard, one principal said, "principals tend to be the end of the line: it's nice to knows there are others in the same boat."