WASHINGTON — AT a dinner in Indianapolis a month ago the Hudson Institute launched a partnership with Indiana businesses to establish a model education reform plan in the Hoosier State. As the featured speaker the institute chose a man widely respected for his success in achieving major education reform in Tennessee when he was governor. President Bush Dec. 17 selected the sometime after-dinner speaker, Lamar Alexander, for a longer-lasting job: secretary of the Department of Education. The president has found the right engineer in Mr. Alexander to get his sidetracked education presidency moving again, say a wide range of experts.
Alexander is ``a very savvy educational reformer with a lot of relevant, real-world experience at the state level, which is where the educational action is,'' says Chester Finn, director of the Educational Excellence Network. Under President Reagan, Dr. Finn was assistant secretary of education for educational research and improvement.
During his eight years as Tennessee governor, Alexander instituted major educational reforms, with programs that raised teachers' pay based on performance and education, provided more science and math teachers, and expanded the basic curriculum.
Although Alexander is expected to gain Senate confirmation without difficulty, the new job will present him with some formidable challenges.
In education ``the national change that needs to be made is large,'' but the federal government's ``role is small,'' says Finn. Alexander must be involved successfully in both spheres, he adds.
Most funding and control of education is at the local level, with states providing the second-largest source of revenue. Although the secretary of education cannot set the education agenda for states and municipalities, he can mightily influence it.
Numbers give a hint of the size of the reform challenge. ``There are 3,500 colleges and universities, some 15,000 school systems, and hundreds of independent schools,'' says Edwin Delattre, a professor of education at Boston University and a former president of St. John's College at Annapolis, Md. ``Many of these institutions are very good, but many are not.''
Though education experts may have different priorities for improving American schools, all agree with Dr. Delattre that ``the reforms have to be substantive,'' and that a secretary of education can play a key role.
One of the position's most important tasks ``is to provide national leadership and inspiration, using the office to highlight priorities'' in the debate over how to reform education, says Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. From 1977 until almost 1980 Mr. Boyer was the US commissioner of education, forerunner of today's position of secretary of education.
Alexander can put his abilities as an excellent speaker to good use, says Theodore Sizer, dean of Brown University's school of education and author of ``Horace's Compromise,'' a call for radical education reform published six years ago.
It is essential to persuade Americans ``that we have a major problem,'' Dr. Sizer says. Despite nearly a decade of talk about major reform, and some attempts at it, most Americans don't accept the need for dramatic change, Sizer says. ``The case simply has to be made in a nondefensive way that does not seek out scapegoats.... We've had enough fingerpointing and sarcasm to know that just doesn't work.... There has to be a call for the very best of everybody.''
Basic reform needed
Fundamental reform in the classroom is absolutely necessary, and the secretary can end ``the disinterest'' in the federal government at such central change, Sizer says. ``The heart of the problem'' in education today ``is the way people spend their time in schools,'' he says. A lesser change, while arguably important of itself, is nibbling at the edges of the central issue, he adds.
Sizer calls on the federal government, led by Alexander, to provide research and development into the way young people learn, and into teaching, so that the process of teaching can subsequently be reorganized to be more effective.
One of the most overlooked duties of an education secretary, Boyer says, is to make existing federal education programs work better. The Department of Education has an annual budget of $20 billion and runs about 150 different education programs approved by Congress, Boyer says. Gaining maximum effectiveness from those programs benefits children and is part of the secretary's job.
Other actions the new secretary should take, says Leslie Lenkowsky, president of the Hudson Institute, include:
Eliminate those federal regulations that are ``unnecessarily restrictive.''
See that federal scholarship funds are going to schools ``that actually educate kids.''
``Work on the research and development end,'' to identify trends and make comparisons.
Dr. Lenkowsky says that as a part of reform, school systems should adopt clear standards of achievement for students, and give both children and parents greater choice in the educational process - including vouchers to attend the school of their choice. As occupant of the chief educational bully pulpit, Alexander could play a strong part in persuading school systems to consider these proposals.