Educators welcome progress in US school reform but say tough challenges remain

Due to favorable publicity and strong state political leadership, the movement to reform American public schools has so far enjoyed swift progress in many states. State legislatures have found more money for education. Teacher salaries have risen. Academic standards have been tightened. The school reform movement, however, is now entering a more complex phase -- one in which several knotty problems will have to be addressed before real reform can continue.

Foremost among these are a needed overhaul of the teaching profession; finding a way to help growing numbers of ``at risk'' youths -- potential school and social drop-outs -- see the importance of education; getting local school boards to overcome inertia or put aside partisan politics; and keeping state education money flowing at a time when falling oil and farm prices are depressing many state economies.

These were the central points raised by state and local education leaders from around the country who met here Friday and Saturday to mark the third anniversary of the landmark ``Nation at Risk'' presidential report.

The ``Nation at Risk'' study, which came out on April 26, 1983, described a ``rising tide of mediocrity'' in the performance of American schools and students and warned of the danger of lax schooling in the face of stiff competition in the world marketplace. It became a rallying point for school reform.

The meeting last weekend was the first official occasion to take stock of the progress of school reform since ``A Nation at Risk'' caused its nationwide stir.

Though actual reforms have varied widely from state to state, former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell said a golden thread that runs through every major reform state is ``leadership.'' He pointed out that New Jersey, California, Florida, South Carolina, Texas, and Illinois -- leading reform states -- all have powerful governors or state school administrators who have staked their political careers in part on the issue of education. ``Reform can't happen without these leaders,'' Mr. Bell said.

On the whole, the burgeoning reform movement was described as being successful far beyond anyone's expectations.

Three years ago it was inconceivable that by 1986 nearly every state would have enacted some type of school reform legislation, said Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States.

It was also inconceivable, he said, that the average American -- through sustained news media attention -- would know about education issues such as poor teaching conditions and low teacher salaries, or the pervasive lack of academic challenge in the nation's schools.

Statistics presented at the meeting showed that since 1983:

Thirty-eight states have increased their graduation requirements, mainly in math and science.

Teacher salaries increased in all but one state; in 11 states the increases outpaced the rate of inflation. The average teacher salary today is $25,000, up 7.3 percent.

Ten more states have added certification tests for teachers entering into the profession, upping the total to 30 states.

Only four states have made no reform efforts.

Yet behind the promising statistics, a number of state officials indicated not all was sunny in education reform. A surprise came from Crosby Lewis, a legislator from South Carolina, widely regarded as a model reform state. ``I see a storm brewing in the blue sky of school reform,'' Mr. Lewis warned. He said the South Carolina legislature is ``balking'' at its original pledge to push through teacher and student accountability measures.

Education reform is also in trouble in Louisiana, which is suffering severe economic effects from the rapid drop in the price of oil, the state's chief industry. Louisiana state Sen. Allen Bares told this reporter that earlier in the week that the Louisiana legislature cut its $550 million education budget by $100 million. A career ladder for teachers was scrapped in the process.

Harry Handlin, the superintendent of the Los Angeles County school system, says his district is not prepared for the more than 15,000 annual increase in students, many of them non-English speaking.

Given the educational problems such an influx of students creates, Mr. Handlin says, it is folly to expect to attract the kind of bright teachers needed to effect substantial reform.

Another educator cautioned against expecting too much from the schools too fast. Many of the reforms -- such as career ladders that allow teachers to advance professionaly within their ranks -- have only been in place a year.

``We need to be patient,'' he says. Solving the problems of low-quality teachers or ``cafeteria-style curricula,'' this educator says, is no more easy than solving such other national problems as the budget deficit and competition from foreign manufacturers.

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