If it were as easy to teach students as to interview them, the campaign for educational excellence in the United States would be over. It is not over, and it would be unfair to expect dramatic improvements from laws and programs less than a year old. But it is not too early to start projecting consequences.
Will the events of the past 18 months produce significant and lasting reform? My prediction is ''no.''
We saw not just a flood of commission reports in 1983, but a surge of legislation last year and this which has yet to reach its crest. Almost every state is considering some form of ''comprehensive'' education reform bill. Six states have already passed such bills, and it is in these six - Arkansas, California, Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas - that we can see what awaits the rest of us.
The most valuable change in all six states is a change in the terms of debate. The concept of ''excellence'' has begun to dislodge ''equity'' as the mystical core of public education. Those who consider report cards to be a form of repression find it harder now to be taken seriously. Talking about excellence is, of course, not the same as achieving it, but it is an essential first step.
Another essential is candor about how bad things are. All through the 1970s, the only decade in history when SAT scores declined every single year, top educators kept insisting that our schools were the world's finest. Now the professionals have finally started to tell the truth about the schools' condition. But they are still less than candid about what they are, and are not, doing about it.
The more specific the issue, the more disappointing the performance of these six states. For example, all six enacted changes they describe as ''increasing high school graduation requirements.'' In practice this means increasing the number of courses a student must accumulate, but not significantly changing the content of these courses. ''Social studies,'' for example, with its emphasis on trendy ephemera, still occupies the place that used to be held by history. It is , of course, a good thing to make students spend time in social studies class instead of study hall. But as long as that class neglects classical, medieval, and Renaissance civilization for the sake of rap sessions about the arms race, it is not good enough. One of the states, California, has started talking about possible steps to improve the abysmal quality of its textbooks in history. Whether this talk will lead to worthwhile action remains to be seen.
All six states created new programs for training principals or teachers. But only one even began to address the most crippling flaw in the training system: It forces future teachers to take college courses that are neither necessary for professional competence nor attractive to undergraduates with serious academic interests. College majors in education have SAT scores lower than other groups except clerical and vocational students; but it is from this group that public schools do most of their recruiting. The best private schools, on the other hand , routinely hire bright liberal-arts majors without one day's specialized training in education theory. Until public schools do likewise, the best and brightest young adults will continue to regard elementary-secondary teaching as a career for second-raters. And they will be right.
Five of the six states included provisions for something called ''school finance equalization,'' a relic of the 1970s that is best described as the educational equivalent of land reform. Like third-world rulers who pay more attention to redistributing farmland than to increasing its yield, the courts and legislatures spent much of that decade drafting cumbersome plans to prevent rich towns from spending more on schooling than poor ones. Although well-intentioned, these plans had almost no effect on student achievement. Their current revival is a tribute to their authors' persistence, but in no way a victory for ''excellence.''
What about merit pay - the most widely heralded of the 1983 commissions' proposals? Only one of the six states enacted merit pay for teachers, and that one in a severely diluted form. The five others pretended to adopt merit pay but really did not.
Even more disappointing, none of these six reform plans abolish anything. To appreciate this point, consider that the last two decades have seen fad piled on fad in the education world, with each fad crystallized as a separate program: driver education, ethnic education, environmental education, consumer education, women's education, etc. The Council for Basic Education once tabulated some 25 of these pseudo ''educations,'' every one of which, of course, consumes time and money that could be spent on real education. It is no wonder that today's reformers are pushing for a longer school year: It is the only way they can find enough time for the essentials. But systems without the fortitude to eliminate their own failures must inevitably collapse of their own weight. Maybe these six states will eventually come to grips with this reality, but they have yet to start.
By seeking change only through adding programs, never subtracting them, these six states are bound to face another problem: money. All six are trying the same solution, which amounts to an implicit contract with their citizens. The state agrees to reform education, and the citizens agree to higher spending and higher taxes. Five of the six have enacted substantial tax increases in connection with their education measures. In effect, the ''educational excellence'' movement so proudly hailed by President Reagan has become the principal means of blocking and reversing the tax revolt symbolized by the very same President.
All six states have also enacted substantial spending increases in education, which will mostly be earmarked for existing programs, not reforms. In the aggregate these state governments will now be spending about $3 billion a year more on elementary and secondary education, over and above increases in local spending. If the 44 other states were to enact similar measures, the total cost to the private sector would be more than $12 billion - the equivalent of tripling the elementary-secondary programs of the US Department of Education.
Thus the governors and legislatures of these six states have already surrendered their best bargaining chip, more money. In return, their states' educational establishments are pledging rhetorical allegiance to ''excellence,'' enacting a few of the reforms that are needed and ignoring most of the rest. The implicit contract between governors and governed has already been broken.
The past 18 months have seen a fascinating test of the education establishment's ability to clean its own house. It is as if we had given carte blanche to the military-industrial complex to reform Pentagon contracting, or the Teamsters union to deregulate transportation. So far, most of the changes are superficial. If we really want fundamental reform, we will have to make it a lot more painful for the establishment to refuse.