Students head back to class - and to better schools

Welcome back. After five years of education reform, the average public school in America is better today than it was in the 1970s.

More academic subjects are taught. Greater time is spent teaching in class. More quality curriculum is being introduced. And, importantly, after years of isolation, teachers are working together to improve teaching techniques, and administrators are helping them do so - improving the ``learning atmosphere'' in schools.

However, a quarter of all US students, mostly disadvantaged, attend schools still lacking in improvement.

This is the general consensus among top educators asked to describe the Zeitgeist of American schooling as the nation's 40 million public school students and 2.3 million teachers leave the beaches and head back to class.

Further, a recent Gallup poll indicates a growing public perception that hard work, effort, and high standards are the main avenues to academic achievement.

``If in the 1970s our system of education was in decline in the 50 states, we're now seeing a restoration to traditional notions of excellence - firm academic standards, and a sound curriculum,'' says professor Allan Odden of the University of Southern California.

``There's been an intensification of the basic reform efforts of 1983, ... [toward] testing, higher-order thinking skills,'' says Michael Kirst of Stanford University. ``But we aren't seeing the newer reform ideas - `restructuring' of schools - catching hold at the policy level.''

Higher levels of school funding - an increase of 25 percent over inflation during the past three years - is one reason for the upbeat tenor. (It's gone little reported that half of that 25 percent increase was because of the raising of local property taxes, despite state funding cuts in education last year.)

So far, the main beneficiary of the money has been teachers: Despite 12,500 striking teachers in Michigan (mainly in Detroit) and 3,800 in Ohio, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Washington last week - teachers' salaries are at an all-time high, averaging $26,000. New York City teachers last week signed a three-year contract that would boost starting salaries to more than $25,000; senior teachers would make $50,000. Rochester, N.Y. has a similar plan. California teachers' beginning salary is $22,000, up from $14,000 in 1982.

Most educators contacted had no illusions about the malaise and skepticism in public schools. One reformer, who taught 25 principals and teachers from around the country at St. Thomas College in Minnesota this summer, reports 22 of them said, ``School reform had virtually no impact on their lives as teachers and administrators.''

But even if specific changes haven't occurred, educators say, there's been a noticeable change in the atmosphere of schools - a realization that an ethos of expectation and effort is tied to excellence. A Gallup poll released last week found that 75 percent of Americans felt tougher standards made for better schools. Psychologist Barbara Lerner who studied the decline of SAT scores in the 1970s - and the racial, ethnic, gender, age variants in the family, parents' income, and other factors - found that effort was the main link among high scorers. ``After all the smoke and fog clears, we're left with a hard work variable,'' she writes.

Chris Pipho of the US Education Commission says the change in perception can be seen by the way students respond to homework assignments: ``There's just a lot less griping about it than 5 or 10 years ago.''

Dennis Doyle of the Hudson Institute says the change in perception matches that in other policy areas, such as welfare reform and its ``work fare'' component that ties responsibility and work to reward. Dr. Doyle notes the recent dissatisfaction with the cost of welfare in Sweden as another example. ``The Swedes thought socialism was going to cure all ills - but they've found the divorce of income from effort leads to low productivity,'' he says.

Not all educators agree higher standards are enough. A Congressional Budget Office study released in August found that cultural and demographic factors such as family size and levels of drug and alcohol abuse may have more to do with the learning process than reform efforts.

The study revealed that contrary to popular belief, SAT scores began to rise in the mid 1970s - well before the school reform of the 1980s.

Presidential candidates will meet in Chapel Hill, N.C. this weekend to discuss education. In an election that promises to link economic competitiveness to better schooling, education is a priority. But specific new policy ideas are lacking. As Dr. Kirst says: ``The candidates won't make a bit of difference in education reform. They are giving us warmed over rhetoric - `supporting teachers' - stuff like that.''

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