HOW should Americans view the effort to reform public schools, now that five years have passed since the historic report ``A Nation at Risk'' described the ``rising tide of mediocrity'' threatening to envelop American education - and the nation's future? That was the question - which turned into a battle - this week when Education Secretary William J. Bennett handed President Reagan a five-year assessment, ``American Education: Making It Work.''
``We are doing better than we were in 1983,'' Mr. Bennett told the President in a highly publicized White House ceremony Tuesday. ``But we are not doing well enough, and we are not doing well enough fast enough. We are still at risk.'' Schools deserve a ``C to C-plus,'' he had said in an earlier press conference.
The report was immediately criticized by education reformers for giving too dark a picture. The real story, they say, is how far schools have come in five years, given the sluggish nature of education bureaucracy, and the logistics of changing the 100,000 diverse public schools in the United States. Some say schools have improved as much as could be expected thus far.
``Can the system respond?'' asks Bill Honig, California's superintendent of education. ``The answer is `yes' - and much more quickly than people give it credit for.''
``Bennett seems obsessed with the distance we still have to go,'' says Scott Thomson, president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. ``That's rotten psychology.''
Bennett counters by pointing to the report itself, which details a number of positive changes:
State spending on education has increased 40 percent in five years. Teacher salaries now average $28,000 - a breathtaking increase from $19,000 in 1984.
Scholastic Aptitude Test scores - which plummeted about 90 points from 1963 to 1979 (partly because of shifts in the mix of students taking the tests) have risen 13 points since 1983.
Students are taking harder courses, halting the trend toward easy ``general track'' courses that became standard fare in the 1970s.
``A Nation at Risk'' recommended four years of English, and three of science, math, and social studies in high school. In a comparative study of 15,000 high school transcripts, the Department of Education found that in 1982 only 13 percent of graduating seniors had taken this basic course of study; in 1987, nearly 30 percent had. Only 76 percent of all students had completed an American history course in 1982, but 86 percent had done so in 1987. The number of students taking college-level ``Advanced Placement'' courses has also increased - doubling from 4.7 percent in '82 to 9.7 in '87.
``The most important achievement in the past five years is the more rigorous high school curriculum,'' says Terrel H. Bell, who as Bennett's predecessor was responsible for creating (against early Reagan administration opposition) the original study.
The new five-year report card, however, also repeats a by-now familiar list of school horrors: national reading scores that show that less than 40 percent of all students can read and interpret a newspaper column; writing scores showing that only 2 percent of students could write a ``clear, detailed, and coherent narrative''; math scores in which even the best US math students finished last in international comparisons. The low achievement pattern is repeated in science, history, geography, and civics, the new report states.
Bennett's suggestions, ``What we need to do,'' are also a familiar set of themes: Give more attention to core curriculum. Ensure ``equal intellectual opportunity'' for minorities, in part by breaking down a defeatist attitude among educators that black and Hispanic children won't achieve or learn high-level subject matter. Demand an ``ethos of achievement'' in schools - an integrated atmosphere of discipline wedded to clear goals. Hire better teachers and principals. Require more accountability.
The chief obstacle to reform, Bennett says, is still the entrenched education establishment, including teacher unions that want more federal money, for example, but oppose rigorous standards, teacher testing, and career ladders.
To many educators, this is an old saw; the problems, they say, are more complicated than Bennett makes them seem. ``The things he is talking about, we know about. It's no surprise,'' says Robert Hochstein, spokesman for the Carnegie Foundation.
``School reform is hard work,'' says California's Mr. Honig. ``I've got 30 things going at once - science curriculum, administration, tax problems. I don't think Bennett knows about this stuff, and he doesn't seem to want to know. He comes out here to a state where a lot's happening. But he never calls, never wants to talk. What are the people who have tried hard supposed to think?''
Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers and Denis Doyle of the Hudson Institute both said Bennett's proposals did not take into account the new methods of ``restructuring'' schools that have proved effective in such cities as Miami; Pittsburgh; and Rochester, N.Y.
``A little bit of reform isn't enough,'' says Mr. Doyle, whose new book, ``Winning the Brain Race,'' written with David Kearns, chief executive officer of the Xerox Corporation, outlines a comprehensive six-point strategy for reform. It advocates ``public choice'' - letting students choose which schools to go to in their district (``making the school work for the client, not the owners,'' Doyle says, thus ending ``a monopoly''). Schools should be restructured - allow for a longer day and year if students want them.
Other ideas include more teacher autonomy - and accountability; higher standards across the board in a ``spiral curriculum'' that would allow children to move upward at their own pace; a tough ``values'' component that would focus on democratic ideas; and more teaching about religion in schools.