Welcoming the education debate

In the long run few more important domestic issues exist in the US than education. Over the past year a number of major studies of American schools have been completed, and the recommendations now are in.

It is up to individual Americans and their political and educational leaders to see that these recommendations are compared and considered - and that reform is undertaken. The stakes are too high to let these studies go to naught, if only because better education for today's children is the key to their finding jobs in the increasingly technological society of tomorrow.

Too often the temptation in the US has been to ignore the findings of study commissions. This should not be permitted to happen in education: The ideas put forth deserve consideration, without waiting so long that the pressure for change dissipates.

And, as Americans consider the issues, they ought to contemplate basic change as well as minor adjustment. For example, is it now time to end lock-step progress by grade and age rather than achievement, one of the recommendations of the newest study by Theodore Sizer?

In addition, many studies have pointed out that the key to learning is the teacher: The best students need to be encouraged to become teachers. Several studies have recommended that, among other things, teachers be paid in part according to the quality of their teaching, an idea worth considering.

The overall education issue already is receiving modest attention on the presidential campaign trail. President Reagan is proposing a return to basics and an end to violence within the schools, while Democratic candidates generally seek more funding for education in the view that better schooling will result. Should schooling turn out to be a subject of major debate as the campaign progresses, so much the better.

In any case it is widely acknowledged that many US schools are not adequately preparing students for today's society, never mind tomorrow's. Public confidence in the education system is low: 22 percent of the Americans polled in last fall's Gallup survey gave the nation's schools a D or a failing grade. Americans' opinions of their local schools generally have declined for the past 10 years. In 1974, 48 percent marked them with an A or B, but last fall only 31 percent did.

Last month the US Department of Education reported that the high school dropout rate rose substantially over the past dozen years, from 23 percent to 27 percent. Sadly, the importance of attaining a high school diploma increased sharply during that time.

Education reform is one of those important issues that are too easy to put off. It does not wear the visible trappings of crisis, and America's attention to problems tends to be crisis oriented.

Yet over the long haul the nation faces few more urgent challenges, and a need for improvement is so apparent that attention is required now.

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