Educators search for a new balance in school reform

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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?

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.

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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.

Educators such as Mario Fantini, dean of the University of Massachusetts School of Education, say schools now need the desire for experimentation found in the 1960s, combined with the desire for standards found in recent years. ``We need a new synthesis,'' says Mr. Fantini, author of ``Regaining Excellence in Education'' (Merrill), a new book on school reform. ``So far, we haven't been able to put it together.''

American schools will not work out such an approach overnight; nor will they accomplish it in lockstep. Educators say it will take a lot of experimentation in individual schools over a period of time.

Former Secretary of Education Terrel Bell, now Distinguished Professor of Education Policy at the University of Utah and the conference organizer, gave some ideas in an address and later to the Monitor, about trends in education, many of which are leading away from the prescriptive reforms of recent years:

1. A parental demand for choice in where a child can go to school. Bell does not feel a voucher plan giving parents government money to spend at private schools if they so desire -- a plan put forth by current Secretary of Education William Bennett -- will pass Congress. Instead, he sees more ``open enrollment'' within public schools, allowing students to attend schools outside their own neighborhood.

Already in New York and other major cities, so-called ``magnet'' schools -- schools specializing in a certain subject area such as math or English -- are providing this choice. Many public schools are also starting ``options programs,'' which offer specially focused coursework in academics or vocations.

2. A continuing increase in the use of technology within schools. Computers are more than a fad, he feels. Such sophisticated software is being developed -- programs that take children through subject matter in highly imaginative and thorough ways -- that Bell feels computers will ``free up teachers to concentrate on teaching thinking skills.'' Rote learning will begin to take place more through the computer, he says.

3. Reforms that allow for more internal discussion within the school and more local autonomy. The reform movement has offered an important model for standards, Bell feels, ``but the key to a good school lies within the school.'' Both principal and teachers will have enhanced roles as the school develops its own style.

4. Further accountability. Bell says, ``I think we are going to see more testing -- a move to state-mandated tests.'' Schoolwork has to be evaluated, says Bell, adding that in recent years, ``We have learned quite a bit about the art of testing.''

5. Renewed attention to teaching. States will see that it is to their advantage to raise teacher salaries, Bell says. ``Teaching needs its share of outstanding scholars.'' To this end, ideas and strategies designed to ``restructure'' the teaching profession -- epitomized by the findings of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy to be released May 16 in San Diego -- are making headway. Schooling that fosters both a highly structured and a highly inquisitive learning approach requires excellent teachers, say educators.

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