The next crucial step in the urgent task of reforming US schools

Baseball is no longer America's national pastime - education is. A wave of reports and studies of American schools this year has riveted the nation's attention on school issues.

The short-term result is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for significant reform, key educators say. But these same observers also warn that heightened public interest in improving schools won't last forever. It will most likely disappear after the beginning of the 1984-85 school year.

An attitude of ''let's stop complaining about our education problems and do something about them'' exists now, says Scott Thomson, executive director of the 35,000-member National Association of Secondary School Principals. The readiness for change is apparent on the part of groups outside of education, particularly business leadership and a nucleus of state governors from the Sunbelt.

But reform won't happen automatically just because people are talking about it, Dr. Thomson cautions. ''We must keep in mind that the timetable of political leadership is two and four years, while the timetable of educational change is a longer cycle.''

Attuned closely to the political cycle, US Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell has scheduled a National Forum on Excellence in Education for next week (Dec. 6-8) in Indianapolis. Secretary Bell hopes this ''national summit conference'' will provide the next major step in educational improvement. The goal for the forum is not to re-analyze this year's reports on the state of education in the United States - but to put them in a context that will help policymakers at the state and local level.

The forum is ''timed to have the information (on reform proposals and policy ready) in time for 1984 state legislative action,'' says Wayne Roberts, deputy undersecretary in the Department of Education.

Those expected to attend the Indianapolis forum include governors, members of Congress, state legislators, state and local school board members, educators from public and private schools, business and civic leaders, as well as parents and observers from all 50 states.

''All the reports are optimistic in saying we can do something on getting schools fixed,'' notes Milton Goldberg, executive director of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, whose report, ''A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform,'' received a great deal of attention when it was issued last April.

''The public perceives the spectrum is towards mediocrity,'' Mr. Goldberg says. ''People want to know what is needed. Then they will decide how to pay for it.'' Providing the information to help make that decision is a prime objective of the Indianapolis forum.

Nevertheless, the task of hammering out a consensus won't be easy, if a recent national conference on educational issues held here in Washington and co-sponsored by the Harvard Education Review, the Institute for Educational Leadership and the Bureau of National Affairs is any indicator.

Held just before Thanksgiving, this conference tackled a number of critical questions that were left unanswered by the various education reports and commissions. These included the federal role in education, especially funding; directions in civil rights policy and ways of achieving equity; the appropriate policy initiatives to prepare for a high- technology future; and how to guarantee that teachers in the nation's classrooms are competent. Though there was much discussion, no solutions were forthcoming.

Another area left unresolved at the conference was the question of just what the mission of US schools should be, in view of the unequal distribution of resources for learning.

If money is tight, reformists ask, how can schools continue provide the icing on the cake - courses on drivers education, sewing, cooking, problem-solving in the home, and the dangers of drug abuse?

No one at the Washington symposium disagreed with the proposition that schools can no longer be all things to all people. But there was a caveat: Affluent school districts can see that more of the programs they do want are implemented.

Commenting on the potential for federal involvement in the development of quality schools, Lawrence A. Uzzell, president of Learn Inc., points out there is consensus on what makes a school effective: strong local leadership, with a principal in control of his building; discipline; high academic standards, supported by a challenging curriculum; and a climate of shared values by the faculty, students, parents, and administration. But Mr. Uzzell, whose research foundation specializes in education policy, believes translating this into any broad national role for the federal government just can't be done. This kind of institution has to be maintained at the local level, he says.

In the wake of all the talk about reform, the worst of all possible situations would be for nothing to happen, says Jerome T. Murphy, associate dean and professor of education at Harvard Graduate School of Education. ''In two years, the debate about education will be out of vogue,'' he says.

''We had the Sputnik era, with its focus on the gifted through science and math; the equality era, with its focus on the have-nots and access to good schools; and we now have the Honda era, with a focus on everyone driven by the need to improve the US economic competitive position in the world.''

One area the conference agreed upon was that schools must have the help of the family, because without family standards they cannot do the job alone.

Next week's national forum convenes at a critical time.

The mandate for improving the education of America's youth won't last. Secretary Bell realizes that in Indianapolis he needs to give free rein to the desire for reform on the part of many states while at the same time molding this desire into a chain of policies that will make for good schools nationwide.

This task will be one of the greatest challenges he has faced since taking over the Department of Education for the Reagan administration.

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