Schools may be facing reform overload

The education reforms of the past three years have reordered the agendas of public schools throughout the United States. But what's sometimes forgotten, says Scott Thomson, is that those agendas were already packed. Dr. Thomson, for the past six years executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), and a teacher, principal, and superintendent before that, has seen American education go through more than one wave of reform.

Interviewed during the NASSP's recent convention in Orlando, Thomson said that the changes of recent years aimed at strengthening instruction and curriculum in individual schools have largely been positive. ``Most principals welcome the attention,'' he adds with a smile.

The difficulty schools now face, he says, is that another layer of reform legislation has come in, ``but nothing is subtracted, just additional tasks and few new resources.'' Much of the present workload facing schools arrived with the federal education legislation that dominated the 1970s. During those years, Thomson points out, reform meant ``socially oriented'' changes designed to help certain disadvantaged students -- that is, those children who were disabled or non-English-speaking.

Those initiatives ``reflected our heterogeneous society and were certainly fair game,'' he says. With the '80s has come the well-publicized push for higher academic standards. Reemphasis on the ``basics'' and the ``three R's'' was added to the burden.

Thomson's analysis of the load being shouldered by US public schools is ``absolutely appropriate,'' says Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. A central question, says Dr. Boyer, is ``whether schools are in fact becoming not just educational institutions, but almost social-service centers -- the place where we deal with all the problems of our youth.

``My own view is that in the long term, with the way family and work patterns are changing, the schools . . . are going to increasingly feel the impact of those shifts.'' Boyer says it's ``inevitable,'' for instance, that public education will move into the arena of preschool child care. It will happen, he says, because schools are still ``trusted institutions.''

Before the most recent reforms, American schools faced a ``three-way stretch,'' according to Thomson. First, there were regular classroom duties. Second, the whole range of student activities from sports to proms. Third, programs for ``special-needs kids,'' as mandated in the '70s.

With the recent wave of state legislation requiring more credits for graduation, longer school days, and other measures, schools now find themselves confronted with a ``four-way stretch'' -- an added set of demands on time and resources. And it's likely, says the NASSP director, that that will soon expand to a ``five-way stretch.''

The fifth set of demands, he suspects, will come as legislation to confront the needs of ``at risk'' students -- those apt to become teen-age mothers, drug addicts, or suicides, as well as the millions who go from school to an empty home each afternoon because both parents work. The problems posed by these children are getting more and more attention, Thomson notes, and rightly so.

His concern is that the nation may automatically turn to the schools for solutions. In effect, he believes schools may be asked to take up the slack created by a weakening of other key institutions in society, notably the family and the church. If this ``five-way stretch'' comes to pass, Thomson says, already-overloaded public schools may falter. ``The fabric is about ready to break.''

``Twenty to 30 percent of the schools are already caught in a convergence of problems and pathologies,'' says Boyer, adding that this is particularly true of schools in urban centers. He worries, along with Thomson, that the influx of responsibilities won't be accompanied by increased resources. ``Resources'' means ``not just money, but partly curricular and structural as well,'' Boyer explains. Organizing schools around ``smaller units,'' and reassessing how materials are taught, are two of the things he'd concentrate on.

Thomson sees a potential clash between the current emphasis on student achievement and test scores, on the one hand, and the growing concern for ``at risk'' children, on the other. ``The more we have to concentrate on non-classroom tasks, the harder it's going to be to teach the basics,'' he says.

Complicating things, he adds, is society's inconsistency concerning problems like teen pregnancy and drug use.

``Which is likely to have more impact,'' he asks, ``a 20-minute, low-budget antidrug film at school Monday morning, or movies on the weekends that glorify drugs and sex?''

The NASSP, by the way, has proposed federal legislation adding a new ``D'' rating symbol for movies, to warn parents of content that tends to present a positive image of drug use.

``In my opinion, it's absolutely necessary to help at-risk students, but there should be a referral network of resources within the community,'' says Thomson. He's leery of direct help through the schools, because such programs -- for example, anything that has to do with birth control -- are likely to be sharply controversial.

``Schools can easily lose the support of parents, and they can't afford that,'' he says.

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