Report card for US schools

THE latest assessment of American education is encouraging: Secretary of Education William Bennett says the quality is improving after years of slippage. He cites higher national test scores and a lower dropout rate. His benchmarks are controversial. But whether one accepts them or not, the overall educational trend does appear to be improving, for which Americans should be grateful.

In the nearly three years since the first of a new series of studies spotlighted major deficiencies in education in the United States, significant issues -- from quality of teachers to subjects taught -- have been addressed by communities across the country.

Major steps have been taken: Teacher salaries are up, academic standards have been stiffened, and local purse strings have been loosened.

Arguably the most important steps were the first: the spotlighting of educational needs and the debating of ways to meet them.

But this is no time to be complacent. Much remains to be accomplished.

For one thing, although splendid individual teachers exist in virtually every school, many impoverished inner city young people are at serious risk of leaving the public schools without having gained enough education to hold steady employment in an increasingly technological society. Many of today's teens must deal with a sense of hopelessness and inadequacy, as they cannot foresee for themselves a future in the American workplace and mainstream society. The methods of providing education to many of these young people require change to ensure that these young men and women are equipped to be contributing members of adult society.

Tomorrow's teachers need to be attracted from among today's top students, as society is beginning to recognize. The bulk of today's college students considering teaching as a profession come, instead, from among the lowest ranks.

The number of minority students now in college should be helped to increase once again; after years of having been on the rise it now is on the wane.

Tomorrow's students -- and today's -- should be given additional help from private or public quarters in meeting soaring college costs, now above $16,000 annually in the Ivy League.

Despite these challenges, the progress made in three years is noteworthy. The momentum now under way should not be lost.

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