Strengthening America's High Schools

Taxpayers are concerned - or at least curious - about the price tag attached to remedying our high schools' problems. In its report ''A Nation at Risk,'' the National Council on Excellence in Education recommended that graduation requirements be more strict; that colleges and universities raise their admission requirements; that the school day or year be lengthened; that better teachers be recruited, trained, rewarded, and retained; and that citizens provide the money to finance these reforms.

The final recommendation has drawn strident criticism from taxpayers who feel pinched already by local property taxes. They think federal government expenditures are more equitable.

But President Reagan, who has reluctantly abandoned his earlier promise to dismantle the federal Department of Education, nevertheless wants to restore widespread local support for education, vs. reliance on large federal expenditures.

All Democratic presidential candidates, by contrast, favor more, not less, federal spending on the public schools.

Sen. John Glenn (D) of Ohio, for instance, has proposed 25,000 merit awards of $1,000 each for exceptional teachers as part of his $4 billion education plan. He also advocates spending $3 billion on remedial courses for disadvantaged students and $250 million to double the number of magnet schools. The rest of the $4 billion would go toward teaching centers and special loans for students who expect to enter the teaching profession.

Former Vice-President Walter F. Mondale wants colleges to toughen their standards, parents and teachers to demand more from young people, and students themselves to study harder and longer. He would add $11 billion to Mr. Reagan's

To attract a new generation into teaching, Mr. Mondale favors a Teacher Corps patterned after the Peace Corps. He would apply $3 billion to restoring special help for disadvantaged students. He recommends that every community bring together parents, teachers, students, business leaders, and others to create its own commission on excellence.

Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D) of South Carolina has proposed a $14 billion plan.

Sen. Alan Cranston (D) of California has endorsed the idea of setting up merit schools where all faculty members would get bonuses.

The 20th Century Fund Task Force, after studying the role of the federal government in education, concluded it should complement local control and act as a ''firm but gentle goad'' to strike a balance between quality and equality in the schools.

Almost everyone agrees it's hard to put a price tag on education. Nor is it possible to determine, by the amount of money spent, what the resulting quality of education will be.

Alaska, for instance, outspends all other states per pupil on education, while Arkansas is close to the bottom in per-pupil expenditures. But both Ketchikan, Alaska, where the per-student cost is $5,060, and Gravette, Ark., where it is $1,285, have certified teachers, guidance counseling, sports, a yearbook, a library, audiovisual equipment, computer instruction, academic and vocational courses, dances and clubs, and also some art and music courses.

The assistant superintendent in Ketchikan, Ed McNulty, whose three children grew up in that town, says one year he decided he owed them schooling in the lower '48. ''But they made nearly straight A's in Florida, Wisconsin, and California. That was a big eye-opener to me,'' he says.''They didn't make the A's here.''

Mandel Washington, principal of Gravette High School, brags, ''On SRA (reading) scores, we're the highest in northwest Arkansas.''

But local differences in expenditures, and the whole question of money, is only one aspect of the resources issue, albeit a big one. Other key resources include:

State initiatives. Within the past five years, all 50 states have taken initiatives to strengthen schools.

Some states have focused on better administration and teaching, curriculum guidelines, or more supervision and review of schools. Others set up technical assistance services, minimum competency testing, and better relationships with parents and taxpayers. Still others set about identifying their most effective schools, with the intention of sharing the ''how to'' with other schools.

For example, in 1981, the Ohio State Board of Education prepared its own plan for school improvement (''Mission for the 80s: A Blueprint for Excellence''). Its first recommendations, for competency-based education and stiffer graduation requirements, go into effect this year. To graduate, students must complete at least three year-long units of English, two of math, two of social studies, one of science, and one-half each of health and physical education.

Ohio will require minimum competency testing as a student progresses through school. For students who fail in English composition, mathematics, or reading, schools must intervene with remedial courses, tutoring, guidance, class placement, or other corrective strategies.

Although demographics suggests that an aging population might resist any increase of taxes for school purposes, the 1983 Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools found that 39 percent of those asked were still willing to vote an increase in school taxes. Among those familiar with the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, the figure went as high as 48 percent in favor of tax increases.

Time. Like money, this is a basic resource in improving education.

''Some (schools) seem almost unaware that time is virtually the most precious learning resource they have at their disposal,'' says John L. Goodlad, author of ''A Place Called School'' (to be published next year by McGraw-Hill). ''School-to-school differences in using time create inequalities in opportunity to learn.''

Author Paul B. Salmon blames disruptive student behavior, absenteeism, tardiness, announcements and recordkeeping, bad weather (snow days), and interruptions of the class period for time loss. His booklet, ''Time on Task,'' (American Association of School Administrators, Reston, Va.), spells out how principals, teachers, and students can better manage school time.

Colleges and universities. Another resource exists in the cooperative efforts of local colleges and universities. Those in the Boston area have recently reaffirmed their intention to continue pairing with public schools. This year school superintendent Robert Spillane has asked the participating colleges and universities for help in upgrading the curriculum.

The Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute works because Yale University contributes more depth in subject matter, while the New Haven teachers share the practical aspects of working with students.

Recently the presidents of Harvard, Stanford, Columbia and the Universities of Chicago, Michigan, and Wisconsin pledged to take part in joint ventures designed ''to ensure excellence'' in US public schools. They expect to help develop training courses for administrators and principals, recognize outstanding teachers, and improve teacher training courses.

Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., has established a $100,000 fund to reward four outstanding high school teachers each year with Olmsted Prizes of $1 ,000 each. The purpose of the prizes is to encourage excellence in high school teaching.

Professional organizations, private schools. On their own initiative or spurred by educational commissions, professional organizations like the National Council of Teachers of English, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and others have in recent years undertaken the revision and upgrading of high school courses in their fields, sometimes developing better texts and detailed instructors' guides to improve teaching.

Private preparatory schools have also found ways to help public high schools.For example, Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts has just completed its third season of instruction designed to strengthen math skills of inner-city students and teachers.

Corporations. Adopt-A-School and similar corporate programs donate the services of banking, business, and engineering experts to schools. This year industry leaders in Boston agreed to hire public high school graduates on the condition that they come equipped with needed working skills.

General volunteerism. School Volunteers of America matches volunteers' and retirees' talents with school needs.

Museums increasingly design and carry out hands-on learning programs for schools.

More than 95,000 Americans serve their communities as school board members. All contribute long hours. Some are subject to intense pressure as they try to sort out and reconcile the conflicting views of their constituents. Most receive no pay.

Parents in suburban Minneapolis-St. Paul voluntarily teach minicourses, develop enrichment programs, tutor students, hear book reports, work in school libraries, and attend teacher-oriented in-service workshops, all without financial remuneration.

Philanthropic foundations. The Ford Foundation, in particular, has responded to needs of city high schools. In 1982 the foundation granted a total of $1 million to 50 high schools in 30 cities.

From such evidences of goodwill and support, it is possible to conclude that public high schools have a great many resources to draw on as they undertake needed areas of improvement, even if increased funding isn't forthcoming.

Recommendations from afar won't fit every high school. The real work of upgrading must start at the community level:

* Concerned citizens should learn enough about their local high school to figure out what needs to be done.

* They should hold the school board accountable for appointing a superintendent and principal who will promote a better climate for learning within the school.

* They should appreciate and adequately pay the best teachers, while calling for the retraining of those who are not performing their assignments well.

* Parents should insist upon consistent application of energy to schoolwork and students should cooperate in the educational endeavor, which is for their benefit.

Maybe it won't happen all at once, but it can begin.

One priority remains paramount: marshaling recources to strengthen America's high schools, so that today's, and tomorrow's, teen-agers can avoid past pitfalls and help create a better future.

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