The education debate; What students should learn

Amid all the political give-and-take over US educational policy, it is imperative that the most important person of all not be overlooked: the student. While politicians argue how to improve teaching in the schools, educators necessarily concern themselves with what the student needs to learn.

The rationale for keeping the focus on the student is heightened by the complex structure of today's educational setting. Education was simpler in the past. From the time of the 19th century, when free public school education became compulsory for most children, to the first four or five decades of this century, the educational experience of most elementary, and many secondary, school students revolved around a single classroom. This ''home room'' contained the inevitable portrait of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, a flag, a map of the United States or the world, a blackboard, chalk and eraser, a few books - and one teacher. Sometimes the students had additional teachers - a music teacher, say, a gym teacher, or perhaps a language instructor. But the process was essentially a teacher-pupil (or more accurately, teacher-pupils) relationship.

All that has changed in today's diverse educational system. Now there are many teaching specialists, and schools are developing specialized, fragmented curriculums. There are also administrative and support staffs which in the case of some big city school systems have grown into huge self-perpetuating bureaucracies. Two things account for this change: the knowledge explosion, which has brought a tidal wave of factual information into the classroom, and the consolidation of schools into some 16,000 school districts throughout the United States.

In considering curriculum requirements in light of the new complexity, the public would be wise to avoid ''quick fix'' schemes prompted by political considerations or by sudden infatuations with nicely packaged educational theories - what Harvard President Derek Bok calls ''nostrums.'' As educators and the public now acutely realize, what is needed is a regrounding of students in the ''basics,'' such as reading, writing, and computing.

What ends should a curriculum serve? Should it serve society as a whole by, for example, developing well-rounded students who are disciplined and share a common outlook regarding democratic institutions? Should it be strongly student-oriented, allowing each child the maximum latitude in shaping and developing his or her unique capacities? Should it be, as is now too often the case, bureaucracy-oriented, i.e., reflect entrenched attitudes about education?

As we see it, that curriculum is best for society which enables the individual to achieve his or her finest potential. That means a curriculum that provides the largest degree of choice, allowing students to explore areas of study that encourage individual development.

While providing for diversity, such a curriculum would no doubt have a strong orientation toward college preparation - i.e., substantive courses (the so-called basics), to keep the doors open for lifelong learning. Yet such an approach need not preclude vocational courses for those youngsters not contemplating college. Nor need it preclude appropriate ''life-style'' courses that enable a child to become a useful member of society. But, at the least, each student should have a solid grasp of the shared traditions of American society as well as the educational basics.

This is the reverse of what has unfortunately become an acceptable approach in many schools - the so-called ''minimum skills'' approach, which is geared to remedying the cultural and academic deficiencies of many students. The minimum skills approach overlooks the most obvious factor about young people: namely, students can and, if well taught, will want to learn; not only that, they will aspire to the highest work of which they are capable.

Among the worthy recommendations of the National Commission on Excellence in Education is that high-school graduates have a minimum of four years of English, three years of math, three years of science, three years of social studies, and one-half year of computer sciences.

Are such goals beyond attainment in an educational system that is locally governed? Not really. Such an approach would require that the public prod educational bureaucracies to undertake the reassignment and/or retraining of some teachers. But, if many firms in private industry have learned to retrain and redirect employees as circumstances alter and better methods come to light, why cannot school systems learn to do the same? Such retraining and redirection - carried out over a period of time - need not be beyond the scope of the US educational system. Even now, for example, teacher-training programs offer ''curriculum'' courses that have the kind of liberal-arts and science orientation required by today's schools.

The great stir over educational methods and objectives now taking place in US society - and especially in the halls of the nation's best teachers' colleges - is salutary and should be welcomed. Out of it can come an even stronger, more purposeful educational system.

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