US Education Agenda Looms Large
To meet the national goals, public schools need major revamping to come from the state level
BOSTON — WHEN it comes to education in the United States, the year 2000 haunts 1991. If the nation is going to achieve the six education goals outlined by President Bush and the 50 governors last February, much needs to change inside US schools over the next nine years.
``There is a kind of stasis at work in American education where people like to talk boldly and do very little,'' says Diane Ravitch, education professor at Columbia University.
Although there has been plenty of debate over whether or not the ambitious agenda can realistically be achieved by 2000, support for the effort is fairly strong.
``Now we're moving heavily into implementation as opposed to talking,'' says Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States in Denver. ``It's one thing to set goals; it's another thing to go out and do something.''
What's needed, reformers say, is not tinkering with education's engine, but giving it an overhaul. ``You can't reach these goals without restructuring the education system,'' says Marc S. Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy.
Some states and private reform projects have taken the initiative on exciting - even radical - changes. But much of the effort is thinly spread over the 83,000 schools on the national map.
``There's all sorts of bits and pieces of things going on,'' says Theodore R. Sizer, professor of education at Brown University in Providence, R.I. ``While I'm encouraged by these independent efforts driven by wonderful people, one doesn't see them cohering into a larger movement.''
Public apathy a problem
Policymakers and many educators are aware of the crisis in education, but the level of public alarm is still low.
``It's important not just to recognize that schooling in America needs to be better, but that this particular school needs to be better,'' says Chester E. Finn Jr., executive director of the Education Excellence Network.
Many people are waiting for the government to make things happen. But, most reformers agree, that's not where change in education is going to take place.
``The story in American education is the local community and the state,'' says Arthur Levine, chairman of the Institute for Educational Management at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
``The levers of control for change are not really in the hands of the federal government,'' explains Dr. Ravitch of Columbia University. ``The states are the primary instigators of change.''
President Bush, the self-proclaimed ``education president,'' is finding it difficult to convince the country that he is doing much to help US schools. As of September 1990, only 8 percent of those surveyed in a CBS News poll said Bush had made any real progress in improving education.
Last month's forced resignation of Lauro F. Cavazos, the lackluster former secretary of education, and the appointment of former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander to the post suggest that the administration wants to be more assertive about education.
Mr. Alexander, who led education reform as a governor and college president, may be able to bolster the president's image.
But with the crisis in the Middle East, a recession looming, and battered federal and state budgets, it could be difficult for Mr. Bush to live up to his promise.
While the '80s witnessed a major real-dollar increase in education funding, there isn't much chance of that continuing. ``Education will be lucky to get as much as it got in 1990 in the next few years,'' Dr. Newman says. ``In a lot of places, they're going to get less.''
Whether or not that will slow reform efforts is up for debate. ``Educators will argue that if you want reform, you have to pay for it,'' Newman says. ``But the evidence is all the opposite: The best time to reform is when there's a downturn in funding.''
``It used to be that improvement was synonymous with more money,'' Mr. Tucker says. ``But that's changed. We may be entering an era of people asking how we can get reform without significant new money.''
Costs up, budgets down
Higher education costs are also hitting the wall. ``The '80s were a go-go decade for American higher education with expansion far beyond cost-of-living increases,'' says Dr. Levine.
Led by Stanford University, which announced major budget cuts this fall, many colleges are rapidly retrenching. Cost containment is now a necessity.
``The most important function of higher education right now is preparing first-rate teachers for our schools,'' Tucker says. ``They have a long way to go in doing that. It is not just the function of the school of education.... Just as important are the courses in subject matter....''
The emphasis on research over undergraduate teaching at major universities is receiving widespread criticism. Education reformers are calling for more help from higher education in meeting the national goals.
Campuses are also dealing with increased student activism on race and sex issues. Debate over affirmative action, recently recharged by the Bush administration's struggle to define its stand on scholarships for minorities, is unlikely to fade. Racial and cultural diversity are key concerns.
Most people earnestly working toward the half-dozen lofty education goals are well-grounded in the difficulty of the task. ``What's called for in meeting the goals is going to be some very painful and in many ways unpopular changes in traditional practices and assumptions,'' Dr. Finn says.
Despite the many examples of good work being done to restructure schools, SAT scores continue to show little improvement and evidence of real progress in turning out better students is scarce.
``It's a big, tough agenda,'' Newman says. ``What we've got is a start, but no more than that.''