As yellow buses roll again, are US schools doing too much or too little?
American rites of autumn are under way, heralded by school bells across the land.Skip to next paragraph
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To observers in developing countries, where the wish for education is strong and the resources slim, the American back-to-school ritual appears enviable.
In other, highly developed countries, particularly those where educational policy is set at the national level, observers find many puzzlements in the American system: so many levels and kinds of schools; conspicuous disparities in the quality of education; so much uncertainty about whether ''basics'' means reading, writing, and computing, or socialization, or promoting patriotism, or manipulating technology.
''There is no country in the world in which education occupies a more important place than it does in the United States,'' says Dr. Harry G. Judge of Oxford University, England, in his new study, ''American Graduate Schools of Education, a View from Abroad.''
''It is, arguably, the largest national industry,'' he says. ''Education, organized as a schooling activity, is expected to resolve, or at least to ameliorate, a bewildering range of social and economic problems.''
The goals of American education have always been somewhat extravagant, and they have never been uniform. Confusion between the terms education and schooling reflects the twin-pronged thrust of American society toward preserving historic values and the ensuring the pragmatic functioning of a bustling economy.
To Americans, ''back to school'' means the season in which they renew their commitment to schools as providers of education. Conspicuously missing in most parts of the country this year are the teacher strikes and racial disturbances that disrupted school openings in previous years.
In some parts of the country, primarily the Northeast and Midwest, empty classrooms and surplus teachers confirm projections of declining enrollments made earlier by the National Board of Educational Statistics.
But the overall statistics have little relevance in such states as Texas and California, where continued population growth forces administrators to juggle budgets and spaces to accommodate new and returning students. These states must also this year accommodate children of illegal aliens, beneficiaries of a recent Supreme Court decision affirming their right to tax-supported public schooling.
Whether schools can or should assume responsibilities traditionally centered in the home - such as values clarification and sex education - and those traditionally centered in the church - such as religious devotion, including prayer - concerns not only individuals, but special interest groups, legislators , and interpreters of the US Constitution.
Parental and community standards and religious convictions influence decisions on what the curriculum should include, how free it should be from imposing traditional sex roles, what books should be assigned reading, what books may be in the school library, what films may be shown, what television programs assigned as homework. In many communities, elaborate procedures have been established to safeguard childhood innocency, and the expression of community values through such procedures appears to be gaining supporters (as well as some very vocal opponents).
High on the agenda of many school systems this year is how to provide the right education for gifted students, the handicapped, non-English speakers, and the sometimes-neglected average student. Some parents feel that average students have been most adversely affected by federal initiatives in behalf of the underprivileged.
''But,'' David Kirp, author of ''Just Schools,'' told the Monitor recently, ''quality and equality are both possible.''
Taxpayers increasingly want to know the dollar costs of educational quality and equality. School costs escalate not only because of general inflation (which requires greater expenditures for salaries, busing, books, and supplies), but because of the impact of technology.
In anticipation of the needs of American society when present students enter the work force, schools must devise new programs, purchase expensive high-tech equipment, and compete in salaries with business and industry for the services of the science and math specialists who can use the equipment and train others.
Roy Forbes, director of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and Lynn Grover Gisi, a research assistant and writer, say the ''basics'' mastered by high school graduates of the future will have to include higher-level skills like evaluation, analysis, critical thinking, application, creativity, decisionmaking, and communication skills.