WASHINGTON — TODAY marks that giddy, impressionmaking first day of school for the nation's high school class of 2003. But casting a shadow over the annual excitement is the United States' continuing lack of confidence in its education system and all that that implies for the class's success.
The educational reform movement of the 1980s, culminating with the unprecedented national educational goals set by President Bush and state governors last year, succeeded mainly in identifying the failures of US schooling.
But so far, by traditional measures, there is little improvement to show for reform as the first school year of the '90s begins, say education authorities, business and political leaders, and public opinion polls.
Public concern clearly sparked more government spending for education. Elementary and secondary schools funding swelled by 34 percent (not counting inflation) during the past decade. Among other things, that has bought a majority of this year's kindergarten class a brush with some form of early childhood education, which is a first, according to the Department of Education.
But what differences all the educational ferment and spending has made is uncertain.
``Reform has all been in the category of tinkering at the margins,'' says Chester Finn Jr., director of the Educational Excellence Network.
``The child entering school today is likely to get a very unsatisfactory education. In modest ways, it will be different [than for his older classmates] ... some schools now have compulsory homework, there are different textbooks, different teachers, different schedules. But every indicator of outcomes - employers, SAT scores, international comparisons - show it hasn't changed a thing.''
While there is much debate about what students should learn in school, how to measure what they learn, and accountability for the process, there is agreement on certain likely reforms, says Susan Fuhrman, director of the Rutgers Center for Policy Research and Education.
These reforms are likely to include: reduced teacher-pupil ratios, programs to draw the parent into the educational process, more site-based management of schools (local control), increased before- and after-school enrichment programs, and statewide school finance equalization plans.
But education news on the eve of this year's school-opening has not been upbeat.
Last week, the release of 1990 Scholastic Aptitude Test results showed the average verbal scores of college-bound high school students had dropped to their lowest level in a decade. The week before, a Gallup poll showed that about 70 percent of Americans gave public schools nationally an average, or worse, rating.
MEANWHILE, there is a constant clamor from the business sector about the quality of US students entering the job market. Because they consistently score lower on math and science tests than their counterparts in other industrialized nations, the national quest for ``why Johnny can't read'' has taken on the broader dimension of ``why Johnny can't compete'' in the global market.
US history shows nearly constant cycles of educational reform, from changes sparked by the pre-World War I economic competition with Germany to the space race launched along with the Soviets' Sputnik. But interviews with educators and business leaders suggest a consensus that social and technological circumstances have changed so profoundly that education reform will have to be more sweeping than ever.
This year's kindergarten class is distinguished by a larger number of children in poverty, more from single-parent families and families with working mothers, and the first wave of children of crack-addicted parents to enter school, explains Cheryl Hayes, executive director of the National Commission on Children, a group appointed by Congress to recommend a national policy for children's issues.
``More children are vulnerable to school failure because of the circumstances of their lives or the inability of the schools to deal with these problems,'' she says, suggesting that schools must now adapt to handling social problems once handled within families.
Employers too are concerned that schools have not kept pace with basic education, let alone the more technical courses students need for a job market completely changed by the computer microchip.
Blue-collar factory work is not the assembly-line tedium it was even five years ago, says Shirley Lorberbaum, vice president of Aladdin Mills, a Dalton, Ga., carpetmaker. A high school education should be enough to qualify for factory work, but it's not measuring up, she says.
Aladdin finds its work force so lacking in reading and math skills that it runs its own high school equivalency courses.