Miracle Workers

Miracle workers-that is what citizens expect today's educators to be. In fact, educators expect it of themselves.

No one has the magic formula to turn educators into miracle workers. However, there are some ways of dealing with society's demand that educators do more with less. First, consider the following education statistics:

-There are more than 15,000 school districts in the United States. The number continues to decline due to the consolidation of school districts.

-There are 110,000 schools-85,000 public and 25,000 private. The number of schools is increasing due to a 13 percent increase in enrollment between 1984 and 1994.

-There are approximately 50,709,000 students in schools. More than 45 million-or about 9 out of every 10 students nationwide-attend public schools. Altogether, there are nearly 51 million students in school buildings each day-that is about one out of every five people in America. Minority enrollments account for about one-third of the nation's student population.

-The combined SAT score in 1995 was 910, the highest since 1974, when the total was 924.

-School budgets and financial resources ranked sixth out of seven issues of most concern to parents. Quality of teachers, at 64 percent, was No. 1, followed by the number of students in each class (26 percent), school safety (20 percent), quality of textbooks (18 percent), and availability of computers (16 percent). School finances were a concern to 10 percent of the parents.

While many educators are likely to view these figures positively, others may only see problems.

Echoing yesterday "The American parent must fully awaken to the truth that in the American public school, he has not something to glorify or be proud of, but a system that is today a shame to America, a system that is antiquated, absolutely out of touch with the times, and therefore, ...wholly ineffective." These words represent a harsh indictment of American education-but not a new one. They appeared in The Ladies' Home Journal, August 1912.

At the time that article was written, 93 out of every 100 children never advanced beyond the elementary grades. And, of those who made it to high school, fewer than 5 out of 100 went on to college. That was in an era when the average school year was 80.5 days-about four 20-day months per year. In light of these statistics, things have improved during the intervening 86 years.

By 1997, the school dropout rate was down to 11 percent-admittedly still too high, but a far cry from the more than 90 percent figure of 1912. And, the school year has more than doubled since 1912. By most measures, the quality and accessibility of education has improved dramatically throughout this century for persons of all races and economic standings. Yet, the haunting words of eight decades ago are echoed today.

Overwhelming factors Many factors affect schools today. Societal pressures, such as the rising cost of health care and the threat of corporate downsizing, make the public more concerned about personal survival than about the welfare of public education. Additionally, as the median age of the population increases, citizens become less in touch with and less committed to schools.

Another element in today's equation is the intensified competition for tax dollars. With only afinite amount of money available, many municipalities are faced with the choice of either cutting services or raising taxes. The former is usually considered by politicians to be the lesser of two evils, but it is impossible to continually expand and improve schools without supporting them financially.

Another challenge to the endurance of public education is the wave of antigovernment sentiment sweeping the country. Much of this sentiment reflects the nation's impatience with what it views as government's creation of self-serving bureaucracies.

It is alarming that some within society collectively brand everything that is affiliated with government, including schools, as the enemy. This attitude makes jobs in public education more onerous than ever before. For public schools to endure, educators must address the public's disenchantment with schools that are viewed as unable to meet students' needs.

Alarming numbers of parents have acted on their disenchantment by taking children out of public schools. Of those who cannot afford or do not elect to send their children to private schools, an increasing number have become proponents of charter schools, advocates of public vouchers, or allies of the privatization of education.

Responding to public pressure and the new freedoms allotted by deregulation, some school systems have launched experimental programs, with varying results. More experimentation is underway in at least 19 states that currently authorize groups of parents, teachers or community members to open independent, publicly funded schools that operate free of many state and school-district regulations.

Attacking issues While many proponents of experimental programs sincerely believe they have the cure for what ails public education, administrators who have worked in the field for years realize there are no quick fixes.

The severity of the challenges facing educators today requires prompt action. There is no magic formula for dealing with insufficient funding, eroding public support or lagging achievement levels. However, consider the following recommendations:

-Communicate often and clearly with the customers-the taxpayers of the district. Without their support, and without the support of those whom they elect, public schools will remain on shaky ground.

-Be upbeat and positive in all communications with other educators and the public.

-Work as a team, and take an active role in the decision-making process for schools.

-Have a voice in the state legislative and executive branches of government. Volunteer to conduct studies or gather data for legislators, form regional groups to share legislative concerns, and provide your profession's chief lobbyist with the data he or she needs to represent the district more fully.

-Make self-improvement and lifelong learning a priority. Take advantage of the workshops, publications, affiliate meetings and other educational opportunities for professional growth offered by school systems, associations, colleges, universities and private corporations.

Because every individual is unique, there is no cookie-cutter template that will transform somebody into a highly motivated and productive educator. But, with so many lives depending on how well, how accurately and how aggressively educators fulfill their duties, it is imperative that everyone make a commitment to become a miracle worker.

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