Panel calls for longer school days, a return to basics

This week the National Commission on Excellence in Education will give the White House a long-awaited report card on the nation's schools. It is expected to record more failing than passing grades. But like any ''bad'' report card brought home to a concerned parent, the value lies in pointing out what should be done, not just what hasn't been done.

Tougher academic standards in schools are expected to head the list of recommendations. Also, the commission is considering a suggestion that teaching during the regular classroom day be restricted to five subjects - reading, English, math, natural sciences, and social sciences.

In addition to suggested curriculum changes, the commission will propose longer school days, and possibly even a longer school year, as options for states and local school systems. These alterations, it is pointed out, could help districts accommodate extracurricular activities.

It is highly unlikely the commission will recommend any major new education funding by the federal government. But some of the recommendations - such as a proposal to create a pay differential (merit pay) for teachers in math and science - may entail more funding.

The report is expected to bolster efforts already under way to improve science and math education. Those efforts, a response to industrial and technological competition from Japan and other nations, have been compared to the push to improve education after the Russian Sputnik launch in the late 1950 s.

US schools have not kept pace with other countries in a number of areas, according to the commission. Students in many countries attend school for seven or eight hours a day, and for up to 240 days each year. In the United States, however, some students spend as little as 17 hours a week in class. The national average is 22 hours a week, 180 days a year.

''The commission does bring us face-to-face with a new kind of international competition - that of school systems around the globe,'' says Scott D. Thomson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP).

The commission report will be particularly critical of the wide latitude given high-school students to choose courses. In 13 states, high-school students are allowed to select up to 50 percent of their courses, and many choose such ''frills'' as home economics, shop, or driver education.

Commission member Glen Seaborg, the first chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, a Nobel Prize winner, and now a professor of chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley, told a group of reporters that the present curriculum in the nation's high schools has been ''homogenized, diluted, and diffused to the point that it has become a cafeteria in which the appetizers and desserts can easily be mistaken for the main courses.''

He tied the decline in the number of students taking ''tough courses,'' particularly science and math, to the nation's economic woes. ''We are indulging in economic unilateral disarmament,'' said Dr. Seaborg.

Overall, the proportion of high-school time spent in such academic subjects as English, social studies, math, and foreign languages has fallen from about 70 percent to 62 percent since 1969. Credits for what are sometimes termed personal-development courses - including driver training, chorus and band, and consumer education - rose from 8 percent to 13 percent of the total.

On federal funding, no major shift is expected. ''Education has always been the responsibility of the local districts and the states, and we don't intend to change that,'' said commission vice-chairman Yvonne Larsen, former school-board president of the San Diego Unified School District.

In fiscal 1983, the Department of Education will contribute in excess of $6 billion for elementary and secondary education. That makes up about 8 percent of the money devoted to that purpose nationally. For the past two years, President Reagan has proposed overall cuts of about one-third in this spending, which Congress rejected each time.

The commission will recommend that no further cuts be sought, especially in the areas of education for handicapped and disadvantaged youth. The administration's 1984 budget proposes only small cuts.

The commission is unlikely to endorse Reagan's call for tuition tax credits for families who send their children to private schools. The nation would be ''less served'' by tax credits, vouchers, or any other program that might take money away from the public schools, said Mrs. Larsen.

Some of the findings and recommendations prompted objections from representatives of the two main teachers' unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA). They were especially unhappy that new guidelines on computer literacy didn't include a call for more federal funding to support a program of technological education.

NEA incoming president Mary Futrell said, ''If the federal government doesn't fund the recommendations, (the report) won't have any impact. It will die.''

Toni Cortese, vice president of the AFT, disagrees with the suggestion that money needed for new or expanded public-school programs could come solely from state and local taxes. ''I don't see how we can continue to tax local districts and expect schools to be creative,'' she said.

Both unions, however, agreed with the commission that a tougher approach to academic requirements is needed.

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