Tightening the agenda for US schools

As the first flowers poke their blossoms into the spring air, the thoughts of students and teachers turn to summer vacation. Not so for Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He is already thinking about next September, and the September after that. The education reform movement that has swept the country for the last two years is at a critical turning point, says Mr. Boyer. Without clear long-term planning, he fears the movement toward stronger schools -- a goal so dearly sought by parents, educators, and the business community -- may fragment into various unrelated issues over the next 12 months.

``We must now move ... to sharpen the agenda, clarify the major issues,'' Mr. Boyer told The Christian Science Monitor in an interview in his office here on the Princeton campus. He points to five areas where the debate about school reform must now focus:

What we expect our children to learn. Curriculum reform -- the content of what a student learns -- must shift from simply adding more required courses to determining what it is that essential courses must cover. Academic reforms, says Mr. Boyer, must not digress into more credits being piled on top of already questionable course work.

``We're more confident of the time students spend on a subject than we are of the substance of that subject,'' says Boyer. ``English can mean anything from a course in Shakespeare to remedial writing. A course in US history can mean anything from the Revolutionary War to contemporary studies. We must answer the question, `What's the content behind the course label?' ''

At issue is a fundamental reorientation of what we expect our children to know as they live in what Boyer sees as an increasingly interdependent world of the 21st century.

Learning a second language is crucial, he says. But ``Do we really mean that we want all of our children to be proficient in a second language? And then, do we believe that two years, 50 minutes a day, will do anything other than make them angry?''

``If this nation does genuinely want all children to be proficient in a second language,'' says Boyer, ``then let's face some simple facts. Language study should begin early, when the readiness is greatest. And it should have continuity throughout the years.''

How to evaluate students' progress. It is crucial to know how much students know. For too long the nation has looked to the Scholastic Aptitude Test as the yardstick of school proficiency, says Boyer, a yardstick that he and many other educators see as inadequate.

To date, says Boyer, we have not asked ``What are we going to do about the assessment of the students in our schools?'' When are we going to start evaluating students against the goals that we think are legitimate -- not using ``a false report card that only confuses the public and does not enlighten''?

In his own national report, a widely acclaimed book titled ``High Schools,'' Boyer is quite specific on what meaningful student testing should look like: ``The single most important way to measure student progress is to ask them to write a serious essay on a consequential topic. And that, more than any other single measure, indicates whether they can take knowledge from across the disciplines, put it together in a coherent way, and develop persuasively and creatively an independent idea of their own.''

Teacher renewal. Boyer sees too many of the changes in schools recently as being driven by economic concerns and political control. There has been a ``regulatory intervention, and in the process we're simply destroying the spirit of the people in the classroom,'' he says.

``The biggest problem among the teachers ... was not even salary or merit pay. The biggest problem was the working conditions in which they felt there were more responsibilities and less authority and less recognition, less empowerment, to do the work.''

And this, he says, is ``at a time in our information society when major corporations realize their most valuable asset is their employee, and where they are willing to spend considerable amounts of money to develop and retain this employee.''

Unless we find a way to give those who teach a sense of worth about their effort, we're going to end up with more rules and regulations and a loss of spirit among the teacher corps, Boyer contends. ``We are sending mixed signals to potential teachers.'' As a result, schools face the danger of being in ``worse shape than when it [reform] all began!''

The role of technology in formal education. American schools must move from computer literacy to the larger question of where and how learning and technology can be joined, says Boyer.

``The idea of an isolated classroom with the teacher's rabbinical method, who drops the pearls to those who wait, has long since passed in terms of student attitude, but hasn't passed in terms of format. Students no longer believe they're sitting at the feet of the masters. They've lived in a world in which they can get information from many sources,'' he says.

Early childhood development. Education in the future will have much less to do with fixing high schools and more to do with research and parental involvement that stem from new knowledge of early childhood development, Boyer claims. As we increase our understanding of what children know, he says, we increase our understanding of how children learn.

``If that isn't a question for the most advanced scholar as well as the early teacher, I don't know what is,'' says Boyer. ``It's kind of breaking open the [entire] notion of who people are.'' We ``just don't know the dimensions'' of how much and how early children learn, but it's much greater than we have thought, says Boyer.

Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's education editor.

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