Cabinet chief grades US education

US Secretary of Education Terrel Bell has issued the Reagan administration's report card on American education as the 1981-82 academic year begins. While the chief educator awarded some A's, he also handed out some outright F's.

At a conference of the Education Commission of the States (ECS) held here on Aug. 28, Sec. Bell also sounded the administration's policy of expelling the federal government from the classroom. "Education is to state government what defense and foreign policy is to the federal government," he said.

The secretary noted the following strengths in US education:

* Equality of opportunity: "The most significant strength of American education -- peerless among all the nations of the world -- is the access to education provided by our great diversified and decentralized system."

* The sheer size, effort, and depth of the American education system: 63 million people are involved full time in education. 12.135 million students will enroll in colleges or universities. 45.430 million will enroll in elementary and secondary schools of which 5.1 million will be in private schools. $198.3 billion will be spent in 1981-82 in institutions for formal schooling.

But the secretary also found educational weaknesses:

* Hundreds of thousands of students graduate with baccalaureate or higher degrees without competence in any language other than English. "We are a bunch of monolinguistic bumpkins and American education is to blame," asserted Mr. Bell.

* Despite the billions spent on education, youth unemployment is "scandalously high."

* Minimum competency requirements, though necessary, should really be maximum competency requirements:

"When standards are high and discipline requires a vigorous effort to measure up to what is expected," the secretary reasoned, "the outcomes will rise accordingly." He called on local school boards to re-examine their graduation requirements and set the highest possible academic standards.

* Teacher competence must be improved and pay increased: "You cannot have quality education without quality teaching." Salaries that are administered with the "sameness you look up on a table to buy a train ticket to Chicago," will not provide quality teaching.

The most sweeping challenge has to do with teacher competence, according to Mr. Bell. "Existing state policies are not those that will lead to excellence in the profession," he said. "The states must change their policies that relate to the education, certification, promotion, reward, and retention of teachers." Only 16 states require or will require applicants for teacher certification to be tested for competency.

There was one area the state educational leaders gathered here failed to hear Bell discuss. They wanted to know how the states will find money to fulfill federal mandates on policies affecting the handicapped, desegregation, and affirmative action in the face of federal cutbacks.

"The states are on the spot primarily because of money shortages," says Missouri state Sen. Norman Merrell, ECS policy committee chairman. "Inflation, economic downturns, tax limitations, spending limitations all have affected education allocations."

Shiro Amioka from the University of Hawaii says this funding problem "depends on the state. Each state is different. In Hawaii, about 10 percent of our funds are federal. We can adjust to some cutbacks . . . ."

The policy committee Mr. Merrell chaired for ECS asks: "The shifting of federal programs to state control will require considerable state agency reorganizations, legislative sophistication, and state money. Can the states do a good job with their added responsibilities, especially during an economic squeeze . . . when two-thirds of the states face a shortage of funds for education?"

On the positive side, Florida Gov. Robert Graham, ECS chairman, told the delegates the states can handle the federal-to-state transition under the new policies. "There is every reason to believe our education system can survive if state leaders act aggressively and imaginatively, but state education leaders must develop the capacity for dealing with complex problems under pressure."

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