US education: reform still at top of agenda

EDUCATION - and school reform - has been called the ``dud'' issue of the 1988 presidential campaign. Vice-President George Bush promised to be ``the education president,'' but most education policymakers still don't know what that will mean. What they do find surprising, however, is the remarkable resilience of education reform: It remains a top priority among business leaders, legislators - and especially parents.

Experts who thought the demand for better schools would burn out after its quick rise to the top of the national agenda in the early '80s have been proved wrong, says Denis Doyle of the Hudson Institute: ``Education reform is being sustained. We're in a rare watershed period in which, both for reasons of virtue and a more competitive work force, everyone needs an old-fashioned liberal arts education - needs to know how to talk, write, read, and think.''

In the coming year most action on school reform will occur at state, district, and school levels.

Chief among potential reforms are (1)the concept of restructuring schools to allow a more decentralized flow of power, with the teachers and principal tailoring their school to meet specific needs; and (2)the problem of illiteracy among the young, including lack of basic knowledge in such fields as history, science, math, and geography, as well as mainstream culture.

Also on the reform agenda are more efficient and equitable school funding, greater choice of schools for parents, higher standards, new technology, and richer learning content.

Though still a fist-sized cloud on the educational horizon, parent involvement is fast emerging as an important theme.

From the New Haven, Conn., elementary schools, where parents help to design and then work in classrooms, to Horace Mann Elementary in St. Paul, Minn., where every Friday teachers write home to parents about each child's progress (and expect a signed letter in return on Monday), parents are being asked - and are demanding - to be part of their children's schooling.

``The parents' movement is growing,'' says Joseph Nathan, an education consultant with the Spring Hill Conference Center. ``The evidence is clear that when parents and teachers work closely together, students do better and like school more.'' More schools hold workshops to show parents how to supplement their children's education - tips like keeping a globe or atlas by the TV to show where Iran, New Zealand, Afghanistan, and Kansas are.

Allowing parents a choice of schools within or outside their district continues to be a fast-growing reform strategy. Schools of choice are often organized around disciplines such as science or the arts, or traditional or ``progressive'' forms of education. Gov. James Thompson of Illinois recommends that the ailing Chicago school district become a choice system.

Merit schools in Florida and South Carolina - schools that are rewarded for the collective achievement of principal, teachers, and students - are receiving more attention. As do choice schools, they depend on teacher cooperation and involvement, and thus improve overall school morale. According to the Center for Policy Research in Education at Rutgers University, more than 100 districts in 18 states allow schools to set their own curricula, staffing, and budgetary policy (rather than imposing these from the top.)

A former assistant US secretary of education, Chester Finn, won't discuss reforms like ``restructuring'' and ``literacy.'' These are ``trendy buzzwords,'' he says, that allow educators to fiddle with the process of schooling while ignoring the harder question of content.

``After five years of reform, nobody has yet described the product schools are supposed to produce - what kids should know to enter adulthood, and how to make schools accountable for teaching it,'' he says. ``The organized forces of American education flee from the responsibility for outcomes.''

Dr. Finn advocates national education standards. Dr. Doyle concurs that a consensus is building for a core curriculum: ``Not the back-to-basics crazies, but a sophisticated core teaching that stresses analysis and underlying themes.'' High standards dictate high levels of content.

California's textbook reform begins to approximate such standards. Math and science books require more problem-solving; reading books with traditional stories replace formulaic writing; history texts must stress the narrative of the past and require students to grapple with often-ignored religious, economic, and political causative factors behind events such as the American Revolution and Civil War. Tests will match textbook content.

Vocational education may be in for a change. Minnesota is experimenting with putting shop skills such as woodworking and mechanics into the regular curriculum. Even honors students would have to get their hands dirty in a new ``applied curriculum.''

Arkansas is adopting a plan that will allow high school juniors and seniors to enroll in college for part or all of their courses.

On the finance front, there's little probability of continuing the 30 to 40 percent increases in state and local education spending that have taken place since 1983. Average state spending has leveled off at a 7.4 percent increase for fiscal year '89. To redress the balance between have and have-not schools (the inequities run as high as $3,600 per pupil), districts from Texas to New Jersey are suing states for more funds under a form of an ``equal protection'' clause.

Some states are devising innovative cost-cutting plans. Iowa, for example, allows some districts to share such costs as a single superintendent's salary or to share classes to avoid duplicating special courses such as German or physics.

High-tech continues to make inroads in the classroom. ``Expect to see more interactive video instruction,'' says Allan Odden of the University of California at Los Angeles. Experts say that successful video teaching - such as the United States Naval Academy's foreign language program, which uses a laser disc of the children's puppet theater from French TV - will spread.

Doyle feels public schools will slowly follow the lead of experimental private schools. Longer school years to avoid ``summer learning loss'' - Beacon Day School in Portland, Ore., is open year-round - might be one such outcome, especially for needy children.

Finn recommends giving principals shorter contracts. ``Give them three years to succeed. Give them a fat reward if they do. Let them go if they don't.''

First in a two-part look at education policy. Monday: The federal role.

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