Bennett, Perot crash through education-reform brambles

H. ROSS PEROT, the Indiana Jones of computer entrepreneurs, reportedly says the most difficult thing he ever did was try to reform Texas schools. That's from a man who once mounted his own rescue effort for two employees held hostage in Tehran (and helped free more than 7,000 jailed Iranians in the process); who tried to send supplies to American prisoners in North Vietnam; and who built a computer systems empire that he sold to General Motors for $2.5 billion.

To understand why educational reform might seem more difficult than such earlier derring-do, take a look at two headline-grabbing controversies of recent weeks. Both are directly descended from Mr. Perot's successful campaign of two years ago that led to a $4.8 billion Texas tax package for better schooling.

First came the brouhaha over preventing Texas school athletes from playing if their grades slumped below standards. Second came groans from some teachers about having to take a statewide competency test.

Before anyone in another American state is tempted to feel smug about Texas football mania (which did produce a Texas A&M coach paid far more than most college presidents), it might be well to note that educational reform has had a difficult path elsewhere in the US. It might also be noted that the effort by Perot and thousands of Texans to improve future generations of graduates is moving forward effectively despite the oil slump in that state.

Need evidence that educational improvement is difficult? Look no further than the battle over a simple little handbook issued earlier this year by US Secretary of Education William Bennett. The booklet is titled ``What Works: Research About Teaching and Learning.''

Many of Mr. Bennett's pronouncements have stirred controversy since he gained his Cabinet post. So perhaps it should not be surprising that this booklet of basic ideas for improving education, merely published under his imprimatur, should be attacked by some skeptical educators.

But open it and read. What does one find but 41 clear and simple guides to better learning -- at home and in school. Most are so fundamental that they make easy targets for anyone wanting to allege oversimplification.

Critics who succumb to that impulse miss the point. ``What Works'' does, in fact, work. It will help all those families and teachers who have lost their way in complex theoretical analyses of that essentially straightforward process by which each generation of mankind passes on the latest revision of what we know to the next generation of revisers. It doesn't get lost in the revisions themselves. It sticks to the process of learning. And it notes what other societies that outperform Americans -- in, say, math -- do better than we.

The little gray booklet with the title in bright red letters is useful because most of its 41 axioms center on ways to inspire confident learning by young students. Like such other recent collections of sound educational advice as Cynthia Parsons' ``Seeds,'' this compendium gets to the heart of the process of learning abstract concepts through concrete actions. Like many other specialists in modern life, educational researchers are often tempted to gain precision by using jargon, and to convey subtlety by resorting to labyrinthine complexity. The value of ``What Works'' and ``Seeds'' is that they distill experience and knowledge without distorting. Most parents and most teachers need such distillation.

In learning as, for instance, in architecture, excess breeds reaction. (Excess Victorian gingerbread brought on puritanical modern architecture, whose excess starkness brought back decoration and fancifulness.) In education, what came to be known as rote learning (the fourth R) created a counterrevolution emphasizing less memorization, more attempts to convey the concepts of math or history without a plethora of disjointed dates and rhyming couplets rattling around in one's attic. But the counterrevolution's excess spewed out all too many grammarless, factless students who didn't really learn science or the humanities with any rigor.

It is not an accident that ethnic groups on every continent who have had to remember more (and whose families emphasize the value of learning) turn out large numbers of superior performers. That is true of overseas Chinese, Parsees in India, Indians in East Africa, Jews and Palestinians living on several continents. Like the Japanese, who have to learn a complex language and then learn other differently structured languages to do business abroad, these ethnic groups, all improve their memories and their analytic faculty for logic and structure by having to learn more. Japanese education is noted, in addition, for rigor in both the math/sciences curriculum and the arts.

``What Works'' is not that ambitious. But its critics, however learned, would do well to let it work for whomever it can. For most parents and many teachers it provides a good start for helping children feel confidence in, and achievement from, learning.

When Ross Perot went to work on Texas there may have seemed to be little need for students to buckle down like Parsees or Japanese. But the current oil slump should serve as a reminder that societies that produce an educated, hardworking public are often more secure than those that rely on rich physical resources. For America as a whole, the oil plunge may not serve as a metaphor. But the trade challenge from Japan and its Asian neighbors should.

Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.

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