THE stock-taking of American schools continues as if the very character of the nation depended on it. When school doors swing open next week, a nation seeking to redefine its own changing place in a changing world will be doing much soul-searching about what children should learn, consciously linking that learning to the world.
Lest anyone think otherwise, almost five years after the watershed report, ``A Nation at Risk,'' concern for education reform has only increased. One need look no further than the bipartisan attention education commands - from each of the 1988 presidential candidates and a host of state governors - to see how education tops the nation's domestic agenda.
Republican Gov. Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey, one of the leading school reformers, puts education No. 1 on any elected official's policy list: ``Governors should ask [presidential] candidates to express the national education agenda in plain terms,'' he exhorted his fellow governors this summer at a meeting of the National Governors' Association.
``What would they do about the education of urban and rural poor in this nation?'' Governor Kean asked. ``What would they do at the federal level to link education aid to performance? What would they do to connect education to welfare reform and employment policy? To renew the skills of our work force? To encourage Americans to invest in their own higher education? What would these candidates do to strengthen the research enterprise?''
And as if the high profile given education by elected officials were not enough, four other long-term developments guarantee that school concerns will get national attention this academic year:
The children of the baby-boomers are going to school. Their parents, many of whom delayed starting a family, are looking in on classroom practices as their parents before them rarely did.
Making a living in the new information- and service-based economy is a present reality for millions of these baby-boomers. Since their own school days, they have experienced economic change as a constant. Often better educated than the teachers in the schools their children attend, they increasingly demand what many of them consider the most important legacy they can bequeath their child: the ability to learn how to learn.
Look for these ``boomer'' parents to embrace public ``choice'' - allowing parents to choose the public school and the academic program within the school district their children attend - as one of the most significant developments to fuel school reform. (See story on Page B3.)
A little more than 1 in 3 public school students is now a minority student. Not since the turn of the century have the nation's schools been challenged with educating for citizenship so large and heterogeneous a population. And never has it been clearer that education is the most important route for minorities to travel if they are to navigate successfully in the social, political, and economic mainstream.
Indeed, in America's 30 largest cities and in some entire states, notably California and Texas, the very term ``minority'' needs redefinition, since, in each, the so-called minority makes up a majority of the school-age population.
Further adding to the challenge of educating minority students is the fact that these students come disproportionately from the poor. They represent an ``at risk'' population in danger of dropping out, getting pregnant, or leaving school to become dependent on welfare or other social services.
This past summer, 11 major education groups declared that to avert long-term ``serious negative consequences,'' more federal, state, and local aid for at-risk youth is needed, especially for preschool education.
In California, the nation's most populous state, 1 out of 4 students comes from a home where English is not the primary language.
Teachers now see themselves as full participants in shaping school reforms. The first few years of education reform saw many top-down changes proposed, and often imposed, by a public grown skeptical about what children were learning.
This year, teachers will play a much more active role in shaping what gets taught as the status of the teaching profession is upgraded. (See story on Page B3.) More than 2.6 million elementary and secondary school teachers will be engaged in classroom instruction this fall.
An issue that has yet to be played out is how principals and administrators, along with school boards, will relinquish or share the reins of instructional leadership in setting curriculum and being accountable for what is learned.
Two other issues will spur increased teacher involvement as well: First, efforts to establish state or national (or both) subject-area certification boards for teachers are moving beyond initial discussion and planning stages. For the first time in the history of the republic, such boards are ruling on professional criteria. Second, political activity by the two major teacher unions - the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association - on behalf of one or more of the presidential candidates in the many state primaries promises to keep the political spotlight on teacher concerns.
Greater federal spending for education at all levels will have a full airing, for and against, in the prolonged presidential campaign.
Money matters inevitably shape school policy, and this year will be no exception. With anticipation of the post-Reagan era, nearly universal calls for increased federal funding will bump into federal budget deficits. The federal share in elementary and secondary education is currently 6 percent.
In addition, attention will focus as much on how best to use the already considerable resources spent on schooling as on ways to find new sources of money. The cost of public schools at the elementary and secondary level now runs at a national average of $4,538 per pupil.
Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's education editor.