'Genuine reform' underway nationwide to upgrade education

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

They're trying something new at Teresa Kahanek's high school in San Antonio. Teresa herself doesn't need the help - her grades are all As. But she and her fellow students now spend 25 minutes a day in ''advisory period'' with an academic counselor.

''It's to check on basic skills - reading and stuff like that,'' says Miss Kahanek, standing on the White House lawn after receiving an Academic Fitness award from President Reagan.

One year ago this month, the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, ''A Nation At Risk,'' shone a spotlight of publicity on the decline of public schools in the United States.

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Today, states and localities across the nation are beginning to make the changes necessary to refurbish America's educational system.

''There's genuine reform going on, more than we've ever had,'' claimed Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell last week at a briefing for reporters.

According to a follow-up report just released by the national education commission:

* Of 51 US educational jurisdictions (the 50 states plus the District of Columbia), 48 have tightened or will tighten high school graduation requirements. ''Virtually every state is doubling or tripling the amount of math and science you have to have,'' said Mr. Bell.

* Forty-five jurisdictions have begun to reform school curriculum; 21 are at least looking at ways to improve their textbooks and instruction materials.

* ''Master teacher'' programs that pay more to effective educators are being studied in 24 states, and are already underway in six. Fourteen states have approved across-the-board increases for teachers' salaries.

* Students in eight educational jurisdictions now face longer school days. (In Louisiana, for instance, it's been lengthened half an hour.) Seven states have stretched their school year.

And behind these large trends lie the small changes, such as San Antonio's ''advisory period,'' which add to quality education.

Maine is planning television ads to encourage parents to help their children with homework. In Alabama, where football is more a way of life than a game, the state high school athletic association has even recommended limiting the number of sports contests, so team members won't lose too much school time. Wisconsin is considering spending $2 million for libraries of education-oriented computer software.

Many of these reforms were underway before last year's lightning bolts of publicity. But the work of the national commission and other panels, such as one sponsored by the research foundation Twentieth Century Fund, has helped push them along, claimed Bell.

''I've been deeply concerned that we not lose our momentum,'' he said when summing up the events of the past year.

Education groups, some of them bitter political foes of President Reagan, agree that a lot has happened in the past year.

''We certainly are finding a lot of states getting their act together,'' says Scott Widmeyer, a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers, which recently completed its own study of US education initiatives.

But Mr. Widmeyer claims the Reagan administration has had little to do with this progress. ''The real work in education today is going on at the state and local levels,'' he says.

Federal money for education is, in fact, declining, according to a National Education Association study. Washington contributed 6.4 percent of the funds spent on elementary and secondary education this school year, as opposed to 8.7 percent in 1980, says the NEA.

The progress in educaton reform made so far will be ''illusory, without a stronger federal commitment to our schools,'' says NEA President Mary Futrell.

The Reagan administration insists that education is to a state government as national defense is to Washington: its top priority.

The federal government, says Secretary Bell, should limit its pre-college education spending to helping disadvantaged groups, such as the handicapped, with a little general money thrown in.

Democrats, and in particular presidential front-runner Walter F. Mondale, support a much broader federal role. Mr. Mondale's proposed US education program , when fully implemented, would cost $11 billion a year and would pump federal funds into preschools and graduate schools alike.

Mondale, says a campaign official, would spend an additional $3 billion a year on existing programs that benefit the handicapped and other disadvantaged groups. He would also devote $4.5 billion annually to a ''Fund For Excellence'' - in essence, a block grant school districts could use as they wished.

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