Many American high school students again are making good progress. But their schools have enormous needs. These conclusions stem from two new and not-yet-released education reports, both of which now have been previewed. The report on students was conducted by the American Council on Education; the one on high schools by Theodore R. Sizer, former headmaster of Phillips Andover Academy and former dean of Harvard's Graduate School of Education.
For its report the council surveyed college officials on their students' scholastic achievements. No longer are they declining, the council found. And in math and the sciences they again may be on the way up.
It is a change from the views expressed by many college faculty and administrators during the 1960s and 1970s, when they cited declines in test scores, in English skills, and in the sciences.
The perception of improved student achievement is in line with observations of many parents, who find high achievers among today's collegians to be significantly more knowledgeable and better prepared than were students of the parents' generation.
The apparent improvement in student performance indicates that private and public high schools may be doing a better job of preparing some of their students. Yet this must not obscure the central message of the survey by the respected Dr. Sizer, that fundamental change is extremely important in American high schools if they are to meet the needs of their students generally.
Despite the findings of the American Council on Education, far too many high school students are not being challenged by their schools, Dr. Sizer holds. His report follows several others in recent months which also cite major needs of American schools.
Among Dr. Sizer's recommendations: End the practice of grouping students by age rather than ability or skill level; regroup subject knowledge, which now is compartmentalized into English, math, and so forth; inspire children to learn, rather than merely extend their school day so knowledge can be stuffed into them.
In education as in other things, it is as important to keep things in perspective. And the best perspective is that whereas individual students, teachers, and administrators are doing splendidly, as a whole the American education system requires major attention.
Americans must have the constancy to keep these needs in focus while, through investigation and public debate, solutions are being arrived at.