The End of the Easy A?

TWO plus two equals at least four cheers for the New York City school system, which has rigorously increased its requirements in math and the sciences. Beginning with ninth graders next fall, students must take three units of math and three units of science in order to graduate. Until now, a snap course in accounting would suffice for math, and the simplest smattering of biology for the sciences.

Raised standards, raised expectations - so goes the new slogan describing what the reformers are calling a revolution, an overused term that for once may be justified. Too often when applied to education, ``revolution'' has meant pouring money into computers and audiovisual equipment, devising soft social-science courses relevant to teenage interests, or adapting teaching techniques to capture the short-term attention of the MTV generation - while grading the results with the gentlest indulgence.

In comparison with these revolutions, New York City is making a radical departure indeed. Old-fashioned hard work devoted to old-fashioned basic subjects - what will they think of next?

There is, in fact, more to report. A National Education Commission on Time and Learning has just revealed that American students spend less than half the time in school than that which is demanded of students in Japan, Germany, and France.

Given this enormous handicap, how can American graduates be competitive, to use a favored word?

This second problem is already being addressed. In another mini-revolution, schools in some states are extending the school day. A select number of schools in Massachusetts are adding an extra 90 minutes a day to classroom time, with the help of a federal grant called Project Promise. Most of the students, facing a tough job market when they graduate, are all for the extended program.

Do these two particular revolutions suggest something fundamental taking place in public education? After all these years of insisting that learning must be fun, educators, parents, and even the students seem to be sharing a renewed sense that learning also involves discipline and perseverance. Lengthening the school day won't automatically guarantee academic improvement, but it does mark an important shift in attitudes.

This, as the saying goes, could be one of the great learning experiences of the 1990s.

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