Educators search for a new balance in school reform
Salt Lake City
What lies ahead for school reform in America? After three years of unprecedented efforts to improve American public schools -- efforts provoked largely by the presidential commission's 1983 study, ``A Nation at Risk'' -- are educators satisfied with what has been done to improve the teaching profession and set higher academic standards for student coursework?Skip to next paragraph
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Recent investigation suggests that many reform leaders are not satisfied. Though reform efforts are admirable, they say, most are not far-reaching enough to provide the kind of education necessary to prepare children for the 21st century.
The dissatisfaction, and ideas about new directions, were both evident at a major meeting of reform leaders in Salt Lake City last weekend on the third anniversary of the commission's report.
A major undercurrent in the brief, two-day meeting was the feeling that what is needed now is a new kind of balance in schools -- tougher content and higher standards on the one hand; more emphasis on intangibles such as creativity and analysis on the other.
So far, say educators ranging from Terrel H. Bell, former Secretary of Education, to Bernard Fishenfeld, a principal at Mark Twain Junior High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., the reforms have been too prescriptive. It is not enough, they say, to simply require more hours of math and science, more educational ``units.'' Ignoring ``nonessential'' courses such as art or computer science, or packing time periods so full of ``the basics'' that little time is given for independent thinking or teaching, is not ideal, they say. Accountability and true learning are not necessarily synonymous.
``Some of the reforms have had a `straitjacketing effect' on kids,'' says Mr. Fishenfeld. ``Special programs, and things like art and band -- things reform often cuts out -- are where a lot of learning takes place.''
Efforts to teach writing and thinking need more emphasis, said educators at the Salt Lake meeting. Ted Sanders, chief state school officer in Illinois, says that the recent Illinois reforms will concentrate more on student learning, and less on prescriptive forumulas like the number of hours a course is taught.
The desire for a greater balance in the curricula has a historical context, say educators. In the 1960s, schools and curricula were liberalized. Much criticism has been made in recent years of failed educational experiments of those years -- the open classroom, and the diversification of the curricula which eventually allowed for courses in subjects as arcane as ``bachelor living.''
What is often forgotten, say educators, is that many of the liberalizing trends of the 1960s were a response to dull classrooms where learning was compartmentalized, and too little attention was given to questions of meaning and values, or to the way in which course material was ``relevant'' to the modern world.
Unfortunately, public schools in the 1970s were characterized more by the excesses of the 1960s -- no homework, no coherent set of studies -- than by the virtues. And Scholastic Achievement Test scores dropped accordingly.
Hence, in the early 1980s, school reformers sought to restore basic, core learning -- math, science, English, history. Forget about science fiction, they said, learn Shakespeare first.